More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – M.R James
This collection of seven short stories by the master of the ghost story himself, Montague Rhodes James, was his second such anthology and was published in 1911. As the title suggests they have been compiled by an antiquarian, James was a noted mediaeval scholar himself, and in the main are prompted by someone meddling in things that were laid to rest a long time ago and best left like that. James’ mastery is in creating an atmosphere and hinting rather than creating monsters and ghosts in glorious technicolour. They are things that emerge from crevices and flit around at night.
Three of James’ undoubted classics are contained here. The Tractate Middoth, a dusty tome hidden away on the shelves, suddenly becomes popular. The library assistant, Mr Garret, is asked by a Mr Eldred to locate the book. To his surprise, he finds someone is already reading it, someone who gives Garret a shock, so much so that he absents himself from work and takes a holiday. On a train, a chance encounter leads Mr Garret to discover that there is to the book that a dusty old tome and that within its pages are hidden the keys to a fortune. The story is well plotted and James ramps up the tension with each twist and turn.
I also enjoyed Casting The Runes which shows the perils of reviewing a book. Runes written on a piece of paper were used to send curses, a practice that an author of books on witchcraft and alchemy uses to good effect on those who either give his work a bad review or refuse to review it.
The third classic is Martin’s Close which was recently adapted for television by Mark Gatiss. A tune with the refrain “Madam, will you walk, will you talk with me?/ Yes, sir, I will walk, I will talk with you” is the leitmotif which runs through this tale of the murder of Ann Clark by a local squire, George Martin. Clark is a simple soul and taken advantage of. The narrator of the tale finds that he is haunted by the last day of the trial of Martin before Judge Jefferies, the hanging judge. During the evidence it is revealed that “Ann Clark was seen after 15th of May (murder’s day) and that, at such time as she was seen, it was impossible she could have been a living person”. Spooky.
The other tales in the collection, A School Story in which two men swap ghost stories from their schooldays, The Rose Garden which tells of the perils of making major alterations to an existing garden, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral which will make you think twice about touching carved gargoyles, and Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, a tale of the desecration of a maze and black, scurrying objects, are fine examples of the ghost story but lack that extra dimension of the others.
One minor irritation for the modern reader is James’ use of Latin without a gloss. Familiarity with the language was more common in James’ time than it is now and for me, as someone whose Latin is rusty but serviceable, it was not a problem but for others, I can imagine, it would be off-putting.
A minor quibble, for sure, about a book that stands up well against the test of time.