Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Alabaster Hand ~ A. N. L. Munby

Alan Noel Latimer 'Tim' Munby (1913~1974) was a pioneering book collector and one of the twentieth century's most eminent librarians. He studied at King’s College in the 1930s before working in the antiquarian book trade with Bernard Quaritch and Sotheby’s, and he was librarian of King's College for twenty-seven years (the library’s Rare Books Reading Room is named after him).

The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories, Munby's only book of super-natural tales, was published by Dennis Dobson Ltd in 1949. The fourteen tales in the collection were all written by Munby between 1943 and 1945, while he was a prisoner of war in Oflag VIIB, on the edge of the town of Eichstätt, in Bavaria. Having travelled to Calais in the spring of 1940 as Captain of the 1st Battalion Queen Victoria’s Rifles, he was captured by the Germans shortly after and held as a prisoner of war until 1945. Three of Munby's ghost stories first appeared in print in Touchstone, the camp magazine.*

The Alabaster Hand was dedicated in Latin to M. R. James, whose influence is evident throughout Munby's collection of stories. Like James, Munby was an accomplished scholar and dedicated antiquarian, and as a result his stories have that essential air of learned authenticity. Some of his tales are definitely more memorable than others, but there isn't a single bad one among them. Personally, I love this book; it is one of my favourites.

In 'Herodes Redivivus', a fifteen-year-old schoolboy - a keen book-hunter - is befriended by Mr Race, the extremely white-faced, overweight proprietor of a bookshop in the vicinity of St. Mary Redcliffe, in Bristol. Despite being physically repellent, Race manages to draw the young lad out of himself and the boy becomes a frequent visitor to the shop. We are talking of more innocent times here, when young children weren't trained from birth to avoid the advances of strangers. It's a creepy tale and it made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The horrors that humans perpetrate are bad enough when they involve only adults, but things are all the more sinister when children are involved.

In 'The Topley Place Sale', Dunton, a rich and somewhat mercenary stockbroker, has inherited Topley Place, an unspoilt Jacobean house, following the death of his uncle Sir Robert Topley. He attempts to sell off the contents, because he doesn't believe in having cash tied up in paintings and furniture when it can be earning five per cent, and includes in the sale some family heirlooms that are entailed. The one time owner, Admiral Topley, one-armed like Nelson and a hundred years dead, is none too pleased.

In 'The Tudor Chimney', one of my personal favourites, the narrator is staying with his old friend Simon Venn, who is in the process of restoring a dilapidated Tudor manor house in Berkshire. During works Venn has come across a walled-up fireplace, with stone arch and carved oak chimney-piece, but upon opening the fireplace up, a nasty smell emanates from it - 'an infinitely stale reek of burnt fat and offal'. A couple of days later, our antiquarian narrator is sitting up late, reading a book and smoking his pipe, when the sickening reek returns.
'As I sat there, holding my breath, I was aware that I was not alone in the room. Something else was present, immediately behind me. How I detected this I do not know, but I was none the less certain of it. With an effort of will power I slowly turned my head, for I was intensely curious. I wish to God now that I had not given way to my curiosity. For what I saw still haunts me. Just on the outer edge of the lamplight a figure was standing - and I hope I never see anything again so monstrous and so repellent. It was a man, but it had the aspect of no living man. Its form was covered with the charred remnants of clothing, the bare legs were horribly thin; they were nothing but burnt skin and blackened bone. But it was the head that made my very blood run cold: it was hairless and scorched, and the face was nothing more than a featureless, seared, leathery mask. It was the face of a man long dead, but the eyes were alive. They glowed behind the mask with a baleful, infernal light that radiated malevolence.'
In 'The Four-Poster', Edward Clarkson, an archaeologist, is frightened to death whilst staying at Grinly Hall, the dilapidated Queen Anne home of Richard Manning. Having been given a room next to his hosts, Clarkson is troubled at night by the sounds caused by the hangings of his four-poster bed. He has a nightmare in which he finds himself in a graveyard at night, witnessing a failed attempt at body-snatching. As he approaches the abandoned corpse...
'...it seemed to stretch itself - the folds of the shroud were suddenly parted, and a pair of yellow dessicated arms came up and gripped him behind the neck, forcing his face down to meet its own.'
'A Christmas Game' is set in Dorset in the late 1870s. The father of the story invites a friend, Mr Fenton, to spend Christmas with the family. During the evening of Christmas Day, the family plays a game, in which father tells a horrid story while objects are passed around in the dark to illustrate it, with unforeseen results.

The narrator of 'The Tregannet Book of Hours', having purchased a fifteenth century Flemmish illuminated manuscript, is horrified to discover that one of the miniatures it contains - the one depicting the Burial Service - is a modern copy. Finding a reference to his illuminated volume in an old bookseller's catalogue, his curiosity increases and he is inspired to find out more. It turns out that the original miniature, destroyed by a Cornish antiquary for the sake of his peace of mind, was 'an eyewitness's picture of a scene of unexampled horror'.

The narrator of 'Number Seventy-Nine' is eager to buy a seventeenth century manuscript dealing with the subject of necromancy that he's seen listed in a bookseller's catalogue under that number. Believing that it might be a transcript of a lost manuscript by Dr John Dee, he is bitterly disappointed to learn that the book is not available; Mr Egerton, the owner of the bookshop just off Red Lion Square, has destroyed it. By way of an explanation, Egerton tells our narrator about Merton, the bookshop cataloguer, who, following the death of his fiancée, became obsessed with occult matters, and with manuscript number seventy-nine in particular, with tragic consequences.

'The Inscription' is a cautionary tale to any country squire who wants to go knocking down garden temples and disturbing ancestral burial places. And 'The Lectern' serves the same purpose for anyone wanting to go pilfering from village chapels. 'The Alabaster Hand' is a gentle tale about a vicar recently presented to the living of Brandon St Giles, who finds himself molested by an alabaster hand after sitting in the wrong stall in church. In 'The White Sack', Tony Marchand is revisited by a childhood nightmare whilst lost during a climbing trip in the mountains of Skye. The main protagonist in 'An Encounter in the Mist' gets lost too, this time in Wales whilst crossing hills on his way back from a visit to some large slate quarries. 'The Negro's Head' tells the story of the murder of an eighteenth-century black servant, who is accused of being responsible for the death of a bookbinder's daughter by means of some sort of heathen sorcery. In 'The Devil's Autograph', a thirteen year old orphan is sent to live on the West coast with his reclusive clergyman uncle, who is prone to fits of depression, has an unnatural horror of death and can't stand anyone to mention the devil... as it turns out, with good reason.

Several of Munby's tales have appeared in anthologies over the years, and paperback editions of The Alabaster Hand appeared in 1963 and 1974. It wasn't republished as a hardback until 1995 (as an Ash-Tree Press limited edition). The first edition is very rare, so it can be expensive. I managed to get a first edition, second printing, in fine condition (complete with the lovely dust jacket) for about £100 (approx. $165), but that was a stroke of extremely good luck. The Ash-Tree Press edition can be difficult to get hold of too and costs £130 (approx. $210) upwards for a fine copy.

If you can't get hold of the first edition, the good news is that The Sundial Press republished The Alabaster Hand last year, in a limited numbered hardback edition with an introduction by António Monteiro, and copies are still available directly from the publisher for £17.50. I imagine there aren't many copies left, so you shall need to get your skates on if you want to add a copy to your own collection of spooky tomes. Alternatively, or in addition to the above (if you want to save wear and tear on your lovely physical volumes), there is a kindle version of the 1995 edition available for $6.99 from the Ash-Tree Press website.

* 'The Four-Poster' appeared in issue no. 12 (December 1944); 'The White Sack' in issue no. 13 (January 1945); and 'The Topley Place Sale' appeared in issue no. 15 (March 1945). 'The Inscription' was first published in Chambers's Journal, and 'The Devil's Autograph' in The Cambridge Review.

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