THE NEW INN HALL DECEPTION TALES OF MYSTERY & FEAR by John Gaskin, Tartarus Press h/b £35.00 

Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson

The New Inn Hall Deception is a volume containing a novella of the same name and four short stories. This is the third offering of John Gaskin’s work that Tartarus Press was presented in their now very familiar standard of a proper book as they should always be.

Deception is a good word to use as Gaskin has drawn his plots from the multiple layers of self-delusion that permeate our characters as we dissimulate our weaknesses to display what we deem to be a more socially acceptable aspect. Not only is there a distinct darkness to his stories that is reminiscent of the master M R James, as unspecified creatures flutter in gloomy half-abandoned churches, but also there is the paganism of beautiful youths lurking in abandoned railway stations and the residual horror of reactionary shades seeking to control from beyond the grave. All good colourful stuff!

New Inn Hall as an Oxford College that almost existed is an excellent contrivance through which Gaskin weaves his tale. I am not entirely convinced that Gaskin intended to show academic environments as notoriously full of weak personalities hiding behind a presumption of intellectual prowess based solely on the good opinion of their peers, but he manages to lay all human life bare before us. The college Principal, Dr Simm, an economist disappears not long after some highly valuable, antique coinage belonging to the college goes absent without leave. Satire cannot get better than that! The Chaplain, one Reverend Whateley is an awkward fellow wholly unsuitable for his ecclesiastical role who suddenly resigns to make off to Africa. 

Around these quite human inadequacies is woven a tale layered in personal failing, private regrets and deceits. This is first recounted through the eyes of a Dr Sorrell who for some reason he can’t quite grasp allowed himself to become Keeper for a peculiar museum out in the bleak, open landscape of the Lincolnshire Fens. There is an unspoken sense that the implied haunting which ebbs and flows through this tale has been triggered by the abuse of a small seventeenth-century plate found in the not so ancient church connected with the museum. As Sorrell succumbs to what might be seen as a nervous breakdown, it is left to the Vice-Principal, Dr Anderson who seems to be the only sane person in the establishment, to finally unravel what has been happening. It is an agreeable tale, rich in conundrums.

Some readers will find Gaskin’s writing style old-fashioned, but this does add to the atmosphere of his stories. He uses the word `caenobitical’ at one point. I could not find this in a dictionary until I discovered a reference to a monastic tradition that stressed a communal living. The modern spelling is `cenobitical’. Also there is reference to an `Ordinance’ Survey map, when it is really an Ordnance Survey map. These matters should have been resolved at the editing stage and are disappointing to find in a book of this quality.

Given the venue and the writing style I was perpetually surprised not to come across Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey engaged in their `Gaudy Night’ investigations and I have no idea how Gaskin resisted introducing us to Inspector Morse. Oxford colleges are an over-exposed genre, suggesting our prevailing culture is improperly focussed away from the harsh realities of life so agreeably articulated by that awful Mr Gradgrind Charles Dickens created, but if you read Gaskin’s personal summary on the back fly-leaf you will understand. I trust he found TCD a more fulfilling environment, I know I would.