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Robert Irwin: The Runes Have Been Cast

I have met a few people who claim to have seen a ghost. I frankly do not believe them, though do not dispute they have heard strange noises and/or seen shadows that made them think they had seen a ghost.

As this book points out, many writers, particularly in the Victorian era, featured ghosts in their books. Shakespeare had a slew of ghosts. In the Victorian era, and mentioned here, are writers such as Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Henry James and Sheridan LeFanu. I would throw in Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost.

I do not know whether these writers actually believed in ghosts but Robert Irwin certainly does not, as he tells us in the introduction, quoting from Dennis Wheatley.

The story opens in Merton College, Oxford University (where Irwin himself went). It opens in 1960 where two students, Lancelyn and Bernard, have been asked by their tutor, Edward Raven, to write an essay on the Victorian ghost story. They are not happy as it seems irrelevant to their course, but do so. Raven is moderately critical. He points out that in real life, ghosts are not threatening and generally do not engage with the living. However in Victorian literature, they often invoke fear, a word which does not appear in either of the essays of the two young men. Raven mentions that Merton has its own ghost – the historical Francis Windebank.

The story is not a ghost story though it could, perhaps, be said to be a spoof ghost story. Only two actual ghosts put in an appearance though there are numerous references to ghosts and ghost stories. Numerous writers are referenced but M. R. James, the writer of ghost stories,plays a key role, not least because both Lancelyn and Bernard write about him, albeit in very different ways. The title of this book comes from a James story Casting the Runes (which you can read here.) The plot of the James story will turn out to be relevant to the plot of this novel.

However, the book could be said to be more of a spoof campus novel, as most of it is set in two universities – Oxford and St Andrews – and follows and mocks the academic careers of Lancelyn and Bernard as well as mocking campus novels and academia as a whole, at least as practised in those two universities. (Irwin is an academic himself.)

Raven is an odd character. He is opposed to research and doctorates, a peculiar view for a professional academic. He seems to have a strange back story, which we gradually learn. And he despises Tolkien (also a Merton man) and his bloody elves. He states, quite sensibly that English literature is bad training for life.

Of course, as in any spoof novel, it is a question of cherchez la femme. The woman in question is Molly, a fellow student whom Lancelyn and Bernard meet. Bernard pursues her, while Lancelyn merely masturbates to her image. She has an ambiguous attitude to both men. She rejects Bernard, then accepts him but also seems attracted to Lancelyn. She wants to be a muse. She wants to write a novel about them. Like several of the characters in this book, she changes her mind more than once.

The two men do well in their finals. However, while Lancelyn gets a first, Bernard gets a first summa cum laude. Bernard gets offered a fellowship in Oxford while Lancelyn is off to St Andrews. The two men toss for who will write about James and Bernard wins so Lancelyn chooses Walter de la Mare,a writer not much read then or now, except for a couple of his poems. However, Lancelyn will switch to Thomas Browne, known for being melancholic.

Lancelyn is very rich. His parents seem to flit from country to country, permanently bored with their lives and, to a certain degree, with their son. However, his wealth enables him to buy a nice house when he goes to St Andrews, a suitable place to store his large book collection. Any good campus novel, spoof or otherwise, will not only have a good deal of sex in it, which this work does, but will also mock internal politics, which this book also does. Firstly, Lancelyn really does not get on with his boss, Professor Wormsley. Secondly, most of the English lit faculty are from Cambridge rather than Oxford. Many are Leavisites, for whom there are only a few acceptable novelists, those of the The Great Tradition. The rest were just fictions on which housemaids and ill-educated layabouts wasted unprofitable hours . The opposition are Lewisites. Wormsley himslef discovered God through reading Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles. I really believe that he worships God in the form of a friendly talking lion, says one colleague.

One thing they generally agree on is that US literature is not up to standard. However, when Wormsley wants to introduce not only US literature but creative writing (to attract US students), there is considerable opposition. However, in order to woo Molly, Lancelyn has been told he must write a memoir which he wittily calls Prelude, presumably after Wordsworth’s The Prelude.

We see great chunks of this work which becomes a fictionalised memoir of highly dubious literary quality, bringing in Dennis Wheatley and black magic and even making a nod to Brideshead Revisited. However,because of this he joins Wormsley’s creative writing working group, though tells others it is to spy on Wormsley.

We gradually discover that one of the issues is that some of the characters are looking for structure and order in their lives. For Lancelyn is the Dewey decimal system. For Wormsley it is railway timetables and God, for Raven it is finding the pattern.

However, with Bernard taking a structuralist approach to James, Molly taking her clothes off and Lancelyn learning that the chief function of ghosts is to veil the full horror of the vast and indifferent universe and several of them learning that messages from beyond can be found in alphabet spaghetti and the Times crossword, things get very much out of hand. Indeed, it seems too much learning can be a dangerous thing.

This is novel is great fun. Irwin mocks all and sundry while introducing us to some of the darker recesses of English and even Scottish literature as well as to the 1960s second hand books scene in London. I do not think that I can have read a novel which makes so many references to actual works that I have never heard off. With a fairly complex plot, ghosts popping in and out, strange but colourful academics, much mirth and mockery, two young men too full of themselves, a rampaging sex goddess, lots of interesting books and authors, intertextuality galore, the idea of God as a novelist, immersive literature and Tolkien and his bloody elves, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Publishing history

First published in 2021 by Dedalus Books