Review: The Standing Water (Steel String Books) by David Castleton

“Quality fiction with a gothic edge”

Maybe nowhere in England is all that remote, but some places can still feel isolated. Perhaps you’re only 15 miles from the nearest dual carriageway, but when glowering clouds mass overhead, when the mist rolls in, when you’re alone with just the fields, the woods, the ancient churchyards for company, modernity can vanish, and you’re left with the forces of myth, tradition, superstition and older – darker – ways of doing things.

The Standing Water – the debut novel of north-east writer David Castleton – takes place in such a world, despite being set in 1980s northern England.

In Emberfield – a small town lost in “flat fields, rain-filled swamps, with lurking banks of cloud ready to throw down even more water” – we meet the book’s main character, Ryan.

Ryan – an eight-year-old schoolboy – suspects his headmaster Mr Weirton may have caused the deaths of two kids.

There’s the mystery of Marcus Jones – a notorious ex-pupil who seems to have vanished and about whose fate Ryan and his friends can get few answers from the adults around them. Ryan’s imagination is also set going by Lucy – a ‘skeleton’ Weirton uses to give ‘biology lectures’ – who the headmaster says was once a pupil at the school and “a very bad girl”.

Weirton keeps discipline via what could be termed ‘old school’ methods. As Ryan and his friends suffer the headmaster’s elaborate humiliations, volcanic rages and powerful ‘wallopings’, Ryan’s suspicions grow about what might have happened to Lucy and Marcus.

One minute you’re left thinking that Ryan’s fears might be justified, the next wondering if they’re just the outpourings of an overactive imagination. And Ryan’s imagination is certainly active. He animates Emberfield and the marshy plains around it with the most astonishing assortment of ghosts and legends.

Does a boy’s spirit haunt a pond? Can the shrivelled hand of a witch be glimpsed in the gap between two buildings? Do the ghosts of soldiers killed in a long-ago battle haunt the fields and can the beats of a phantom drummer boy be heard from a secret tunnel?

Castleton gets us right inside Ryan’s head and we soon find ourselves sharing his bizarre worldview. Only soon it doesn’t seem so bizarre and we notice ourselves nodding along whether Ryan is talking about the sweets he’s eating, the cartoons on TV or the rows of angels he’s just seen singing in the sky:

“There was a singing which filled the house and must have echoed for miles across the fields beyond. It was beautiful, unintelligible, high, a soaring crystalline babble … notes seemed to swirl and swoop, leaving comet trails of sound.”

Standing Water cover
The Standing Water is a compelling debut novel.

Ryan does not only have to contend with his volatile headmaster. His retreats into his fantastical inner world are also a means of coping with the harsh atmosphere of his town and the tit-for-tat violence among the children:

“… he’d slam his punches, lash his kicks into Richard Johnson, Dennis Stubbs, Darren Hill, a good few other lads, usually after they’d taunted him about a walloping he’d got from Weirton. The brother’s rampages would result in more beatings from the teacher, and so the pattern went on.”

Though Ryan narrates most of the book, some chapters are seen from Weirton’s perspective. Here we understand something of the teacher’s motivations: how – scarred by Britain’s turmoil in the 1970s and early 80s – he sees a country in decline and feels strong discipline is the only way it can be rescued.

We see how Weirton has been damaged by a brutal, overcritical father; how family tensions tear at him; and how he despises his job and feels depressed in Emberfield, with “its endless boggy fields” and “the fog that weighs upon them just as it does on the spirit.”

 As pressure builds on Weirton, as his grip on reality weakens, as his wallopings become more frequent and ferocious, Ryan desperately searches for ways to protect himself from the teacher.

Probably best described as quality fiction with a gothic edge, The Standing Water – though thoroughly modern – recalls the dark authoritarianism found in Dickens, the rural bleakness of Thomas Hardy, and the murderous tensions and manic cruelties of the Brontes.

The book’s more bizarre elements put one in mind of magical realist writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabelle Allende, and it also has echoes of the psychological suspense of Edgar Allen Poe.

I found The Standing Water utterly intriguing. It sucks you into a dark world in which the boundaries between imagination and reality flicker and blur. The sense of place Castleton conjures up is eerie and all-enveloping. His use of language is superb and I occasionally felt I was reading poetry rather than prose. Despite its high literary standards, however, I found The Standing Water easy to read and – if it’s not too much of a cliché – quite a page-flipper.

Any minus points? While many will love the poetic language, it may put off some who prefer plainer prose. The book is rather long for a debut novel in this day-and-age, though – to be honest – I enjoyed it so much the pages whizzed by.

The graphic descriptions of the violence meted out by adults to children and by the kids to one another may be a little much for more sensitive readers. But in a book focused on cycles of brutality and revenge, I don’t think Castleton had much choice but to bring home the reality of what violence is and what its consequences can be. With the stories of abuse and mistreatment in schools and other institutions that have been coming to light in the last few years, it may be wiser to face up to rather than shy away from such things. 

I enjoyed The Standing Water and would urge anyone who likes dark, well-written, complex fiction to give it a try. I wouldn’t hesitate to award the book five stars!

The Standing Water is available in both e-book and paperback formats. You can purchase your copy from Amazon here

David Castleton writes about ‘the dark, the strange and the literary’ at his blog The Serpent’s Pen, which can be accessed here.

(Featured image courtesy of Jeff Ruane, from Flickr Creative Commons.)   

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