Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M R James
I am also partial to a good ghost story and in my opinion the master par excellence is Montague Rhodes James, the Cambridge University mediaeval scholar and antiquarian. Given his professional and academic interest in dusty archives and the other impedimenta of a practitioner of the art of antiquarianism, it is no surprise that he reflected this interest in his stories. This collection, first published in 1904 although several of the eight stories had appeared individually in magazines, was the first of the books for which he is best known today.
What I enjoy best about James is that he makes the reader do a lot of the work. His narrative concentrates on setting the scene, in creating the atmosphere and bringing matters to a head, leaving the reader’s febrile imagination fill in the blanks, burnish the details. They are subtle tales of nudges and hints and, as such, are immensely satisfying. In truth, there are commonalities in the plot, an atmospheric setting, seemingly ordinary in its way but with a hint of something not quite right, a naïve protagonist and the discovery of something, usually a book or an artefact, which is the medium through which the supernatural force is roused. James doesn’t do nice ghosts. They are grotesque, malevolent beings, although if you read the text carefully there is precious little in the way of description. James provides just enough for you to paint your own picture.
All of the stories, in their own way, are excellent but each reader will have their particular favourite. For me, it was the final story, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. An antiquarian, too clever for his own good, unlocks the clues to the location of some treasure contained in a stained-glass window. However, he soon realises that he has bitten off more than he can chew and that he would have been better off leaving sleeping dogs lie.
There were a couple I had read before, I was surprised how few in this book I had. Number 13 gives you a clue as to why hotels are shy of allocating that number to one of their rooms. The other, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to You, My Lad, hasn’t aged quite so well. The blustering old military type with his definite opinions on all matters Papist was a bit too much to bear but the mysterious and powerful forces let loose by simply blowing a whistle found in an old ruin was powerfully told.
The book starts off with a tremendous tale, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A collector is surprised that a sacristan of a church in France is willing to let him have Alberic’s valuable manuscript for a pittance. When he gets it back to his room, he soon realises that there is more to the pages than meets the eye. The Mezzotint was another atmospheric tale, the eponymous illustration giving a sense of the unstoppable force it was to unleash.
Lost Hearts was a little too obvious for me but the Ash Tree made up for it with its lashings of creepiness. Count Magnus was a lighter, more humorous romp and illustrated the perils of disturbing the dead.
If you like a good ghost story, and now is the time with the long nights and the howling winds, you cannot go wrong with this collection.