Gargoyle: what lies beneath?

A repost brought to mind by our visit to Winchester Cathedral.

This afternoon, I sat in a thousand-year old church, trying to feel my toes.

We were there with children who were seeing it all for the first time: the thousand-year old squat pillars, the richly draped altars, the windows endowed with lavish stained glass scenes, the trappings of a thousand years, some used, some abandoned.

We were hosted by the parish priest, who motioned us to look to a place we had not yet considered.


And there, at the top of those stout round pillars, were worn stone faces.

Those eyes, watching from a great vantage: one could not help but feel they were unsettling.

We left. I was at the back of the straggling line, heading out of the arched stone vaulted doorway, and long before I had made my escape with two little charges, someone turned the lights out. And all at once I became acutely aware of ten sets of stone eyes, observing my exit with more than disinterest.

It was good to reach daylight again.

One of the great masters of liturgical horror is that consummate teller of tales, MR James.

He had his feet planted squarely in the first part of the twentieth century, and his head in mediaeval clouds.

He tells tales of manuscripts which attain a life of their own: of long dead debauched clergymen arranging immortality through supernatural means; of academics whose curiosity proves far, far too much for them.

The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral is one of his short stories. It is told under the guise of  a series of old papers and pieces of research, done by a librarian. We learn immediately of the death of  the Archdeacon of Sowerbridge, and subsequently gain access to the venerable man’s diaries and letters.

Archdeacon Haynes is a high flyer, it seems, an unqualified success, until he comes upon a wooden carving in the stalls of the cathedral.

The description of the figure, which represents Death, is chilling as only James can be.

It reads: “This might at first sight be mistaken for a monk or “friar of orders gray”, for the head is cowled and a knotted cord depends from somewhere about the waist.

“A slight inspection, however, will lead to a very different conclusion. The knotted cord is quickly seen to be a halter, held by a hand all but concealed within the draperies; while the sunken features and, horrid to relate, the rent flesh upon the cheek-bones, proclaim the King of Terrors.”

One night as the Archdeacon sits listening to the choir his hand rests upon the statue, and he has the distinct feeling it has become real.

He is no longer touching wood, but something altogether more animate.

It is hokum, of course, but hokum of the most excellent and absorbing kind.

Gargoyle is the title of a book I read a short while ago. Written by a man called Andrew Davidson, it used the double edges of the word rather well.

One edge is visual; the grotesque ugliness. The central character has been maimed in a car crash.

But we are never sure whether it is his physical appearance, or an inner deformity which gives him his persona: he was a fast living porn star, vacuous, damaged and unable to correct a life which seemed destined for squandering.

Our gargoyle lives in the present day, but soon a story comes weaving around him, rooted far back in Europe in brutal mediaeval times. One day, lying in a hospital bed submerged in self-disgust, he is visited by a woman patient from the psychiatric ward. It appears she knows him very well indeed.

And has done for hundreds of years.

When I began to read this book I hated it. It was rude and obscene.The central character is brutish.

But peer beneath the ugly exterior. Read on: everyone carries some scars, but some we cannot see. The brutal and terrifying need not remain so, Davidson posits. Life can get as bad as it gets and, with the compassion and love of others, the author shows, we can still triumph.

It is still hokum, just like MR James. But it is compassionate,beautifully written parable with a firm conclusion about redemption, and the power of humans to redeem and be redeemed.

For a thousand years and more, our stonemasons and wordsmiths have been chiseling out representations of what horror is: of the worst life can be.

Even as recently as 2008, when The Gargoyle was published, we used this little mediaeval device as a symbol of horror.

But Davidson finds a new function for our ugly little friend, looking beneath the stone exterior towards triumph over some of the greatest adversities life can throw at us.

What towering heights the gargoyle peers down from next, only time will tell.


38 thoughts on “Gargoyle: what lies beneath?

  1. I have a new book I just added to my reading list and may have to crack open this weekend. I believe the greatest triumph is looking over the adversities that life can throw at us. It will weather us and test our strength – it is up to us not to show our cracks.

  2. The imaginations of people through time always startles in a place like that. The gargoyles are one of my favorite features of those old buildings, for the sheer whimsy of the carvers who made so many faces in stone.

    I will have to add MR James to my list. Sounds like his stories would be perfect for a stormy day.

  3. I had a similar experience reading the Gargoyle. I forced myself to read it and at first it was a hard read, but the further I read the more I felt a change within me.

    1. Lori, brilliant to hear from someone else who has read it. Its funny how some novels – not necessarily the big flashy prizewinners – can transform some aspect of one’s life. So beautifully written.

  4. The appearance of some gargoyles is almost comical, but most are chilling when you give more than a passing glance. Other than recent blogger-written tales, I’ve not read much of this type fiction in several years, so I’ll look for “Gargoyle” soon. Meantime, I can get a running start here:

    Also, the library emailed yesterday, and I’ll be stopping there today to check out a reserved copy of “The Woman in Black” (thanks to your post awhile back).

    1. Hurrah! Enjoy, Karen! I feel certain you’ll enjoy the read! Thank you, by the way, for your recommendation. Can’t wait until the weekend, when I will get the time to start it 🙂

  5. Oh, a new book! And it sounds like it’s right up my alley, reading wise.

    As to stone eyes following you out of the darkness, I’m afraid a different kind of British writer made that a most terrifying prospect.

  6. I’m trying to imagine being in any building that old. Nothing like that exists in the US, and I haven’t been any farther away than Mexico. Its pyramids are ancient, but they were something a tourist actually entered and they certainly aren’t in active use. This is the New World, after all.

  7. Classical human personal progress: I did not like it, it made me uncomfortable. It was compelling, nonetheless. The more I engaged and didn’t run away, the more I changed. Then it changed. Then everything changed.

    Hmmm…some sympathetic or engaging characters and some decent, if not clever, grammar; and we’ve got ourselves a story… 🙂

    Yet another thought-provoking post, my lady.

    1. The advantage of MR James is that he’s a short read. But he- alongside many of our more gothic British writers – is an acquired taste.

      The sunlight holds enough lessons for us all 🙂

  8. Dear Kate,
    What your posting reminds me of today is something that happened long ago to me. We lived in the country and up the road apiece lived another family whose children went to the same school. The father, who seemed like a giant to me, drove his sons and my brother and me to school each day. I sat next to him and all the way to school and back home he molested me.

    After three months I weepingly told my parents what was happening and I never rode with him again.

    For the next twenty years I remembered him as brutish. His hands big; his fingers like sausages. I never saw him again until the death of one of his sons. I went to the visitation, walked into the foyer, and there he was, sitting and weeping with his wife.

    He wasn’t brutish; he wasn’t massive; he wasn’t a gargoyle of a man. He was broken. He’d been the reason I was so afraid of men and of dating. And there he sat, his shoulders shaking, his hands trembling. Suddenly I saw him as he was. Not a monster, simply a flawed human being. Not unlike myself.


    1. Three months: it must have been an eternity. I admire you deeply that you had the strength in your heart to forgive, or at least to see him for who he really was, Dee. And the strangest thing of all is something it took me 40 years to realise: that the moment we can see the frailty of one who has done something unspeakable; the moment we can let go of a measure of the anguish and pain they caused in some measure: it is the moment we are free. That’s why the gospels urge forgiveness. Not for others, but for us. Not because others will be better off, but because we are finally able to shed some of the ugliness and finally feel some grace. Thank you for your story.

  9. Wonderful post, Kate. I do love short stories, so, I must find the one you mention. Funny about the Gargoyle book. I Googled it to see if it was the one a co-worker thought I’d enjoy. This was a year ago; I never read because it seemed quite hokey. Your post shall have me searching for it tomorrow for another go…merci ~

    (btw…many moons ago, perhaps a year ago, you wrote of a female journalist ( perhaps Italian?) that had done some amazing things during her career. I know I wished to read one of her translated books, but now cannot remember her name. Do you recall any post such as this?)

  10. one cannot imagine why churches were covered with these figures, making you afraid to enter, or maybe, afraid to leave? Have a super day Kate 🙂

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