It could be said that the power of a horror story depends on the possibility, however minute, of it being true. This is partly why so many masters of the genre, from Bram Stoker to Robert Louis Stevenson, have given their narratives the semblance of believability by including epistolary passages, ‘found’ documents and the commentaries of ‘editors’ in their books. In The Runes Have Been Cast, Robert Irwin takes the opposite approach, writing in a prologue:
“Should any of my readers incline to a serious study of the subject of this book, it is only right to urge them most strongly to refrain from being drawn into the practice of the Secret Art... My own observations have led me to an absolute conviction that to do so would be a complete waste of time.
These remarks set the tone for what is a puckish but slightly weightless mock-ghost-story-cum-campus-satire, set in the universities of Oxford and St Andrews in the 1960s. The novel centres on two literature students: Lancelyn, a quiet soul from an ‘idle rich’ background, for whom ‘Oxford was only tolerable as an inferior substitute for Eton’; and Bernard, who makes up for his less privileged upbringing by reinventing himself as a Brideshead-style fop and trying to force his way into the Bullingdon Club.
Bernard soon falls for Molly, a mysterious student from Somerville College (‘the Grand Seraglio of north Oxford,’ Bernard remarks) and eventually earns a place at All Souls, while Lancelyn embarks on a professorship at St Andrews. Here Irwin, an academic himself, provides a lively send-up of the university’s English department, which is split between Leavisites and Lewisites, who squabble constantly and try to recruit Lancelyn to their respective causes. Strange happenings begin to occur, and Irwin’s debt to past masters of the ghost story becomes clear, particularly M.R. James and his 1911 tale ‘Casting the Runes’.
The academic satire and the supernatural plot strand don’t quite gel: the latter especially is erratically sketched and seems like little more than an extended exercise in intertextuality. Indeed, the novel as a whole never quite transcends the insularity of its own satirical mode, which is more a cul-de-sac than a platform for any meaningful discussion of grander themes.
The Runes Have Been Cast is a brisk and enjoyable read, with some good quips and eccentric plot turns, but it ultimately feels just as narrow in its scope as the rarefied academic world it seeks to send up.