Stella Gibbons is best known for 1932’s Cold Comfort Farm, a sublimely comic novel that satirised the grim, rural works of writers like Mary Webb and Sheila Kaye-Smith. Cold Comfort Farm is considered a classic, but its popularity has overshadowed Gibbons’ literary career. She went on to write close to thirty novels and until recently most of these were unavailable and out of print.
Over the last year, however, Vintage have begun to publish Gibbons’ missing back catalogue. Westwood, Starlight, and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm have all been reissued, and there is the promise of more work by Gibbons to come. Of the three books republished thus far, Starlight is the latest (it was published in 1967) and in some ways shows the greatest divergence from the author’s most famous work.
A pair of joined cottages in a run-down part of London is bought by a new landlord. Most of the tenants move out, leaving only those who have nowhere else to go. These are the elderly Barnes sisters, Gladys and Annie, and Lancelot Fisher, the old man who lives in the attic and changes his name every month. But the new landlord is not the exploitative figure they have feared. Mr Pearson has bought Rose and Lily Cottages on the whim of his wife, who suffers from an unspecified illness. The flats are renovated and repainted, rents are not raised, and Mrs Pearson is installed in the newly pink-and-gold Lily Cottage.
For much of the book, Starlight is entirely domestic. A great deal of the novel is devoted to interactions between the residents of Rose Cottage and the local vicar and curate, the latter of whom is particularly bewildered by Gladys’ constant chatter. Gibbons’ insistence on showing class difference through accent is sometimes unfortunate, but these sections still provide humour of a sort that is directed as much at the public-school-educated curate as it is at the garroulous old woman.
The Pearsons seem entirely normal. He is the devoted but often crude husband; she is the fragile wife with a passing interest in the occult. Mrs Pearson’s greatest worry seems to be her distant relationship with her daughter, Peggy. Peggy works as a companion (and dog-sitter) to a rich woman, fending off the advances of the middle-aged son of the house on a regular basis. She has a secret sorrow but even that, when revealed, is found to be mundane.
“Mundane” is not a perjorative here. One of Gibbons’ great strengths is an ability to take the utterly ordinary concerns of normal people and find a gentle humour in them without ever trivialising them. And so we feel for the socially inept curate as we do for the awkward teenaged girl who is Mrs Pearson’s protégée. We understand Annie’s fears and Peggy’s doomed love affair is no less tragic for being ordinary.
It is with the introduction of Mrs Pearson that the reader gets the first sign that all is not entirely as it seems. From the first description of her there is something sinister about her illness.
The word death breathed chillingly from some cave in a mind so stuffed with cosy things that there was barely room for it. As she said afterwards to her sister, ‘That was what she put me in mind of – death. Poor soul, I thought.’ Yet – it was not only death.
As anyone who has read the back cover of the book will already know, Gladys and Annie soon begin to think that there is something sinister about Mrs Pearson. Yet everything about the kind of book that Starlight has signalled itself to be suggests that these fears will prove to have a rational (and possibly comical) solution. But there is a gradual unfolding of Mrs Pearson’s various oddities. Her hatred of the church bells ringing; her desire to “touch the pavements with my feet” (again and again the text draws our attention to the oddity of this phrasing). The book begins to refer to “the thing” behind Mrs Pearson’s eyes as a separate entity to the woman herself. Eventually the reader has no choice but to admit it; despite all evidence to the contrary, Starlight is a novel about demonic possession.
It’s even more bewildering that, having made this revelation, Gibbons feels no apparent need to dwell upon it. The book continues to pay as much attention to Peggy’s romantic life (and how is it that her mother’s being a tool of dark forces occupies her mind so little?) and to the oddities of Mr Fisher as it does to the supernatural drama taking place inside Lily Cottage. It’s hard to tell to what extent the sections dealing with the thing inside Mrs Pearson and its exorcism are meant to be scary – the juxtaposition with the pink and gold house and its inhabitants is sometimes effective, sometimes ludicrous.
After that great moment of genre-instability, though, nothing seems quite as safe. And suddenly it seems the text is throwing up all sorts of minor instances of weirdness as if to keep reminding us that we have no way of knowing what Gibbons is likely to do next. What, for example, are we to make of this short paragraph in which the universe of the novel seems to have shifted to that of A Clockwork Orange?
As she drew near to the cottages, midnight was striking from the steeple among the crowded television masts on the old roofs.
She ran the last hundred yards, keeping in the shadow of the ruinous doorways to avoid a group of boys that was attacking, almost silently, a man at the end of the Walk. She waited until they were all concentrated over his fallen body, kicking and smiting in hushed fury, then shot lightly past, on the other side of the street and gained her own front door.
We are never told why gangs of murderous boys are roaming the streets. None of the characters seems surprised when their actions lead to death.
It makes no sense that this book should exist, thus suspended between comedy and melodrama, horror and domesticity and theological fiction. But it does, somehow, and it is utterly weird, and it is bewilderingly good.