Monday, 12 October 2015

The Watchers, by Neil Spring

Warning: spoilers ahead for both The Watchers and Neil Spring’s previous novel The Ghost Hunters.

Neil Spring, author of the best-selling The Ghost Hunters, a novel about psychical researcher Harry Price, has returned with another doorstop.  The Watchers draws on the 1977 UFO flap in Pembrokeshire which included a close encounter at Broad Haven Primary School, where some of the children said they had seen a spacecraft land and a sliver humanoid emerge.  Mixed in is conspiracy theory; Cold War apprehension and the fear of nuclear annihilation; secret government operations; and covert American military activity on ‘Airstrip One’ with little or no oversight by the British establishment.  It’s the sort of milieu that was mined superbly by Troy Kennedy Martin in Edge of Darkness.

Against this uneasy background, Robert Wilding (Wildling according to the back cover) is an assistant to the Member of Parliament for Pembrokeshire, Paul Bestford.  More importantly Bestford is chairman of the Defence Select Committee and Wilding is using his boss for his own agenda: damaged psychologically because of a traumatic childhood, he wants to uncover what happened to his mother during a peace protest at an American air base in 1963 which left her blind in one eye and with severe memory loss.  In this effort he is being fed information by a retired admiral, Lord Hill Bartlett (the name a nod to Lord Hill Norton, an admiral of the fleet who developed an interest in UFOs).

Wilding’s search for the truth takes him back to Broad Haven, where he grew up with his unsympathetic grandfather after his parents’ untimely deaths there.  Strange goings on suggest it is a hot-spot for alien visitors, and in the process of investigating their meaning Wilding discovers things about himself from his childhood he had suppressed.  Eventually he reveals a sinister conspiracy run by the local Rotarians, one with a supernatural dimension that could mean the end of civilisation as we know it.  The bulk of the book comprises his first-hand testimony as he gets to grips with recalcitrant locals in his search for answers to mysteries past and present and finds out who his friends are.

The story is reminiscent of Nigel Kneale, mixing science fiction and horror tropes, Spring’s silvery aliens actually expressions of a demonic effort to break through from another dimension and take control of our world.  That reverses the premise of Quatermass and the Pit, aliens misidentified as demons becoming demons misidentified as aliens.  It’s an endearingly corny idea, though the special effects will require a more substantial budget than that allocated to the period drama of The Ghost Hunters when Spring sells the film rights.

Surprisingly, despite dissimilar subject matter, The Watchers is actually a companion piece to The Ghost Hunters, with a returning character, Dr Robert Caxton.  His appearances in The Watchers are marginal for most of the narrative, though they include extracts from his book The Mind Possessed: A Personal Investigation into the Broad Haven Triangle, which are interleaved with Wilding’s first-person account.  Both novels too are structured with a frame: in The Ghost Hunters the frame is 1977, looking back to the 1920s; while that in The Watchers is 1979, looking back to 1977.  Another connection: we find out at the end of The Ghost Hunters that Caxton’s father is Harry Price, and although Price’s name is not mentioned explicitly in The Watchers, there are oblique references, until we learn in the denouement – from Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher no less – that Price’s work was funded by the British government before the war. 

Unfortunately there is confusion in the chronology for anyone who reads both books.  The Ghost Hunters begins in October 1977 with Caxton visiting Senate House Library.  But the main events in The Watchers occur in February the same year, and one would expect as traumatic an experience as that undergone by Caxton in Wales to have had more of an impact on the mildly sceptical academic who opens The Ghost Hunters.  But there is an even closer relationship between the two books, with The Watchers directly foreshadowed in The Ghost Hunters.  At the end of the first book, Caxton is shown a letter, dated 6 March 1977.  It was written from Broad Haven where his mother, who had given him up for adoption as a baby, was living.  The writer, Vernon Wall, says that children at a local school had recently ‘witnessed something most bizarre’, and suggests that it needs an expert to dig into it.

This of course links to the action in The Watchers, except that by 6 March events had moved on from children having a weird experience in a playground because complete mayhem, including an extremely high body count, had descended on that corner of West Wales.  How can Caxton be investigating something in February he didn’t hear about until March?  Another, minor, problem in reintroducing Caxton is that there are now two individuals with the same first name.  Spring gets round this by not referring to Caxton in The Watchers as Robert, always calling him either Dr Caxton or just Caxton.  We are only told that his first initial is R.  When he writes to his wife (on 7 and 11 February) he signs the letters ‘Caxton’, a rather odd thing to do when writing to one’s spouse.

The ending of The Watchers looks forward to another significant real-life UFO mystery, that of Rendlesham Forest in December 1980.  The government, Mrs Thatcher explains to Wilding’s and Caxton’s horror, plans to attempt to harness the power which manifested at Broad Haven.  The date for the experiment is December 1980, at RAF Bentwaters and RAF Woodbridge, near Rendlesham Forest.  Wilding protests that these forces cannot be controlled, but he and Caxton are effectively blackmailed into assisting in the project (as we are still here it must have worked).  A possible hook to a further novel, or a television series, is Mrs Thatcher’s comment to Wilding and Caxton that while they are waiting for December 1980 to roll round, ‘we have need of your experience elsewhere.  There have been reports of…sightings, all over Britain.  And abductions.’

The Watchers’ epigraph, uncharacteristically ungrammatical, is by the late Ralph Noyes, described simply as a ‘former MOD official’ (coincidentally he retired from the Ministry of Defence in 1977).  As well as being involved with UFOs in an official capacity, he was also for some years the Hon. Secretary of the Society for Psychical Research and its self-appointed éminence grise.  He would not have been impressed to read a reference to the SPR, coming out of nowhere in an extract from Caxton’s book, which begins: ‘After the scandals caused by the Society for Psychical Research’s poor quality control in certain high-profile investigations, anyone operating in this field [presumably meaning UFOs, not a field with which the SPR has been much concerned] is compelled to act in accordance with the highest professional standards…’  What these scandals and high-profile cases are is not specified, but the implication is that the SPR through its ineptitude has made life difficult for other investigators, though why anybody should be ‘compelled’ to act in accordance with the highest professional standards is hard to see.  There is no reason for this puzzlingly gratuitous attack on the SPR to be there.

Leaving aside problems of chronology The Watchers is well constructed but suffers from flat writing and never manages to attain the tension a thriller requires, even when it looks like an ‘ancient evil’ is about to be unleashed at the climax.  With The Ghost Hunters one senses that Spring is really enjoying seeing Price come alive, and while there are infelicities that could have been rectified by an editor, it is an entertaining read.  The Watchers has fewer basic errors (though the page number of one of Dr Caxton’s book extracts jumps backwards) but the author’s emphasis on working out the intricacies of the plot means that Wilding, Caxton and the rest do not lift off the page.  As a result The Watchers does not quite deliver on its promise.  It probably won’t do much for the Pembrokeshire tourist industry either.