Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary ~ M. R. James

Montague Rhodes James (1862 ~ 1936) is the father of the English ghost story. His short stories are, quite simply, the finest traditional supernatural tales ever penned by mortal man. Utterly lacking in gore and in-your-face horror, James' fiction relies on delicate manipulation of the reader's imagination to create a subtle, uneasy sort of suspense. James has inspired and unsettled countless writers and readers since his tales first came into print, and his popularity and influence remain undiminished.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published by Edward Arnold in 1904, bound in brown buckram, with superb illustrations by James McBryde (see image below). The first of James' collections of ghost stories, it is also widely considered to be the best. Of the eight stories included in this volume, James wrote in the preface:
'The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained'.
Well, I think it's safe to say that James most certainly did achieve his goal. His stories, predominantly involving scholarly bachelor sorts who go ferreting about amongst old manuscripts or poking around in places that are best left unpoked, are delightfully frightening, humorous, and very convincing. Being a distinguished scholar himself, James knew academia and academics, and he created the most believable of scholarly characters when he put pen to paper.

'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' is set in the French town of St Bertrand de Comminges, in the spring of 1883. Dennistoun, a Cambridge man, has travelled from Toulouse to see St Bertrand's church, and is shown about the place by the sacristan, a jumpy little fellow who perpetually glances behind himself, as though he is being followed. The old chap offers to take him home and show him something interesting... Canon Alberic de Mauléon's scrap-book. The book, a large folio bound in the seventeenth century, contains about a hundred and fifty pages, and on each one is fastened a leaf from an illuminated manuscript. And the old man is willing, in fact determined, to sell the book for less than it is worth. Of course, Dennistoun's heart is all a flutter, and he snaps the book up quick sharpish. But the canon's scrap-book comes with more attached to it than a bargain price.

'Lost Hearts' is set in 1811 at Aswarby Hall, the home of Mr Abney, a tall, thin and austere bookish recluse, who, according to the Professor of Greek at Cambridge, knows more about later pagan religious beliefs than anyone else. Much to the surprise of his neighbours, Abney has taken in his orphaned cousin, Master Stephen. But Stephen is not the first parentless child to be rescued by the old man, and Abney's actions are not motivated by a generous spirit.

In 'The Mezzotint', Mr Williams, who is responsible for enlarging the English topographical drawings and engravings collection of his university's museum, is sent a mezzotint on approval by a London dealer. The picture, a framed view of a manor house, seems unremarkable when it arrives; in fact, Mr Williams turns it over 'with a good deal of contempt'. But, as he soon discovers, the mezzotint is not a mere static image of any typical English country house. Artworks often seem to have a life of their own, but this particular mezzotint does literally have one.

'The Ash-tree' is set at Castringham Hall in Suffolk, where a grand old ash-tree once stood within half a dozen yards of the building, its branches almost touching the wall. In 1690, the district was the setting for a number of witch trials, and a local woman by the name of Mrs Mothersole was convicted and sentenced to die largely upon the evidence of Sir Matthew Fell, the then proprietor of Castringham Hall. When Mrs Mothersole was about to hang, she is reported to have said, by way of a curse upon the family responsible for her conviction and execution: 'There will be guests at the Hall'. And guests there were...

In 'Number 13', Mr Anderson is engaged in research into the Church history of Denmark. Whilst going through papers in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg, he comes across papers relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, and specifically to one of his tenants, Mag. Nicolas Francken, alleged to have been a disgrace to the city who 'practised secret and wicked arts, and had sold his soul to the enemy'. Reading Episcopal correspondence reveals that Francken was 'suddenly removed', though it doesn't say how or where to. Intending to spend two or three weeks in Viborg, Anderson has taken room number 12 at the Golden Lion. There is no room number 13 at the inn... at least, there isn't most of the time.

It Leapt Towards Him Upon the Instant, from 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'.

'Count Magnus' is set in 1863 and tells the story of Mr Wraxall, a man past middle age, of private means, and near being a Fellow of his college at Oxford, who goes on an expedition to Sweden with the intention of writing a guidebook. He gains permission to examine an important collection of documents at Råbäck, a manor house in Vestergothland, which was built in the seventeenth century by Count Magnus De la Gardie, a rather brutal nobleman who, according to a local innkeeper, 'had been on the Black Pilgrimage, and had brought something or someone back with him'. Wraxall's interest is aroused by the innkeeper's words, but his overly inquisitive nature leads him into trouble... and into a terrifying chase from Sweden back to rural England.

'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' is probably the most well known of James' tales; the BBC made an adaptation of it, starring John Hurt, in 2010. Perkins, Professor of Ontography at St James's College, takes a trip to Burnstow and stays at the Globe Inn. On his way back from playing golf, he explores a strip of the beach which was the site of a Templars' preceptory, and he discovers a bronze whistle inscribed with the words 'Quis est iste qui uenit' ('Who is this who is coming?'). Perkins decides that the best way to answer that question is to whistle for him, and that is exactly what he does... with very frightening consequences.

In 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas', Mr Somerton, an antiquary, goes on the hunt for the treasure of Abbot Thomas von Eschenhausen of Steinfeld, having followed clues hidden in the painted glass windows of a private chapel. Upon finding the location of the treasure, down the well in the abbot's courtyard, Somerton opens up a cavity in the wall and starts pulling out what feels like a damp bag.

'It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck... I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it, and of several - I don't know how many - legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.'

I find it difficult to pick a favourite from this particular volume, though I've always had a soft spot for 'The Mezzotint'. 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' and 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' are also favourites. Oh, what the heck, I love all of them. The simple fact of the matter is that James didn't know how to write a bad story, or even a mediocre one for that matter, so they're all wonderful.

There are various options open to the would-be purchaser of James' works. There are various free Kindle books, and there's the Wordsworth Editions Collected Ghost Stories, available as a paperback or Kindle book, both for under a couple of pounds. If audiobooks are more your cup of tea, there are some excellent readings of M. R. James' tales by Derek Jacobi, David Suchet and David Collings over at Audible. If you're after a first edition, you can expect to pay a thousand pounds or more for a really nice copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - if you can find a really nice copy, that is.

One volume will provide you with James' entire supernatural oeuvre: A Pleasing Terror, published in 2001 by Ash-Tree Press. This is, however, highly collectable, rather hard to get hold of (having had a limited run of 1,000 copies), and can be expensive to buy; my very fine copy set me back just over four hundred pounds (that's just under seven hundred US dollars) a few months back. But sob not, for there is good news... the Kindle edition is available for a mere £6... all seven-hundred-odd pages of it. The Kindle edition will also aid those of us who believe the hardback book is a thing of considerable beauty that should rest reverently on a shelf (protected by a forcefield, untouched by human hands, un-landed-on by flies, and unswathed in household dust), rather than opened and read. Not only does A Pleasing Terror contain every completed supernatural tale (each fully annotated), it also contains, amongst other things, his novel The Five Jars, seven story drafts left amongst his papers, his article 'Stories I Have Tried to Write', the texts of twelve medieval ghost stories that were discovered and published by James, his articles about the ghost story, his writings on J. Sheridan Le Fanu, a selection of his letters, his play Auditor and Impresario (a spoof of Doctor Faustus not previously reprinted for almost seventy-five years), and S. G. Lubbock's A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James. It is, in short, the holy grail of Jamesian spookiness. No haunted library should be without it.

1 comment:

  1. I have only read "The Mezzotint" from this collection. Your review compels me to secure a copy of it. My only regret is that I hadn't done so many years ago!