The Devil on the Road by Robert Westall was published in 1977 and recommended by my husband. Apparently, according to my husband, was a title on a reading list at school and he read it back in the early 1980s. I had never heard of this book before, but as he had very fond memories of it, and as parts of it were set in the seventeenth century, I was happy to read it. This is a time travel book that goes back from East Anglia in the 1970s to the 1640s. Having read so many sometimes-mind-numbingly verbose academic texts over the years, it was a delight to take a break from that to read this.
The story, written in first person, follows nineteen-year-old UCL-student John Webster (yeah, I immediately thought of the playwright) who loves his motorbike – affectionately referred to throughout the book as the Cub – and decides to go to the beach at Clacton. On his way, he stops to see a reenactment of a battle from the English Civil Wars – the character’s opinions on reenacting (a pastime in which I’ve enjoyed participating) made me laugh:
I’d heard about the Sealed Knot. Guys who spend their spare time poncing round in Cavalier gear, losing the Civil War all over again. Suppose they need a Roundhead Association like Liverpool need Everton.
John finds himself in a strange town where people start to behave and talk to him in a bizarre fashion. He finds weird carvings on wood, townsfolk keep giving him gifts, and the couple who have hired him are a bit dodgy. He finds weird carvings on wood, townsfolk keep giving him gifts, and the couple who have hired him are a bit dodgy.
The story is filled with little (and big) nods to the seventeenth century, and it was clear that Westall had done his research. I never stopped to think, “No, that’s blatantly wrong”, and I thought his depiction of Hopkins quite chilling. I enjoyed how Westall included a cat named “News” (a nod to this frontispiece, of course):
John, through a series of strange events, meets a mysterious young woman named Johanna, and comes face to face with Matthew Hopkins, the self-appointed “Witchfinder-General”. Witch trials and interrogations ensue and it’s up to John to be able to save the day.
This book was so much fun. I was cracking up a lot in the beginning because it’s my kind of humour [be warned, it’s not politically correct and you *may* be offended if you’re that way inclined (i.e comments about bosoms, etc) but I found it in the vein of the Carry On films]. Things got suspenseful halfway through, and even a little disturbing at times. Yeah, it’s a bit dated now, to be sure, but that didn’t stop it from being a cracking good read! I think I’ll let my husband recommend more books to me in future 😉