(1929-1993) UK writer, primarily of children's fiction, mostly Ghost Stories for Children. RW uses Northumbrian settings, characters and dialect in a number of his stories, starting with The Wind Eye (1976), a Timeslip fantasy where a family comes under the Healing influence of St Cuthbert and The Watch House (1977), about a haunted lifeboat museum. The Devil on the Road (1978) is another timeslip fantasy: a young biker returns to the 17th century to save a Witch from hanging. RW's other Supernatural-Fiction novels are The Scarecrows (1981), Ghost Abbey (1988), Blitzcat (1989), If Cats Could Fly...? (1990), The Promise (1990), Yaxley's Cat (1991) and The Wheatstone Pond (1993).
RW broke the mould a few times, although all his novels draw on images of horror. Futuretrack 5 (1983), a rebellion against conservatism, is set in a divided future society; The Cats of Seroster (1984) is a medieval fantasy where cats endeavour to restore the power of their ancient guardian; Urn Burial (1987) depicts an ongoing war between dogs and cats on a cosmic scale; and in Gulf (1992) a boy experiences the horrors of the Gulf War through a telepathic link with an Iraqi soldier.
RW was also an excellent short-story writer. The stories allowed him more opportunity to focus atmosphere and showed him as a capable imitator of M R James, especially in the long title story to The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral (coll 1991; title story alone 1993 chap US) about a steeplejack whose work on a cathedral unleashes an evil Spirit. RW's short stories have been published in Break of Dark (coll 1982), The Haunting of Chas McGill and Other Stories (coll 1983), The Other (1985 chap), Rachel and the Angel, and Other Stories (coll 1986), Ghosts and Journeys (coll 1988), The Call, and Other Stories (coll 1989), A Walk on the Wild Side (coll 1989), The Christmas Ghost (1992 chap) – included with The Christmas Cat (1991 chap) in Christmas Spirit (omni 1994) – and Fearful Lovers, and Other Stories (coll 1992; vt In Camera and Other Stories 1993 US). RW's only volume of Ghost Stories intended chiefly for adults is Antique Dust (coll 1989), drawing on his experiences as an antique dealer and art collector. The best of his supernatural stories, including some previously unpublished, were collected as Demons and Shadows (coll 1993 US) and Shades of Darkness (coll 1994 US).
Like Leon Garfield, RW gave little consideration to the traditional proprieties of children's fiction. He was a teacher for nearly 30 years and knew the psychology of adolescents. He littered his books with profanities and images of growing sexual awareness, treating children like adults. He pulled no punches in his development of horrific situations, and many stories are genuinely frightening. He knew the terrors of war and used those images as warnings in his fiction. His work includes some of the best children's ghost stories of the 20th century. [MA]
other works (for younger children): Rosalie (1987); The Creature in the Dark (1988); Old Man on a Horse (1989).
as editor: Ghost Stories (anth 1988).
Robert Atkinson Westall