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.