Friday, 16 September 2016

'Another Episode of Cathedral History'

One of the undeniable attractions of M.R. James' ghost stories is there nostalgia value. This can be embraced, played down, subverted, and generally played about with. I think playful is the best term for Peter Holman's contribution to The Third G&S Book of Shadows. It's set in the Swinging Sixties, and is replete with the joys and contradictions of that era.

Palmer, a hippie-ish musicologist, arrives in Barchester to research material on a neglected composer, Sheringham, who seems to have been driven out of the cathedral city following a Victorian scandal. It transpires that Sheringham was a somewhat proto-Decadent figure who, despite being cathedral organist, produced some distinctly irreligious works. Palmer, aided by the current organist Steve Winwood (no relation), discovers that Barchester's pagan traditions are as vibrant in the Beatles Era as were in the days of Archdeacon Haynes.

This is a very enjoyable story, though the horror is muted in favour of a light-hearted exploration of what English traditions are and how they are interpreted. The quasi-Decadence of the Sixties with its cultural experimentation plus drugs, booze 'n' birds paralleled the boundary-pushing of many Victorian eccentrics and rebels. The finale sees another scandal erupt as Palmer and Winwood lead a kind of Comus Rout through the streets of the venerable, fictional city.

Again, this represents a major change of mood and approach on the previous story, and shows how well editor Ro Pardoe has selected her material. It also demonstrates how significantly M.R. James continues to inspire authors in the 21st century, just as he did in the 20th.

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