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Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James

This is probably the oldest book I’m ever going to review, but I’m gonna do it partly because this is one of my favorite books of scary stories ever and partly because not nearly enough people know and love this book.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” was published back in 1904 and was the first collection of British writer and scholar M.R. James’ classic ghost stories, which included:

  • “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”
  • “Lost Hearts”
  • “The Mezzotint”
  • “The Ash-Tree”
  • “Number 13”
  • “Count Magnus”
  • “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'”
  • “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”

James’ stories, though sometimes spectacularly wordy to modern readers, were generally meant to be read aloud during Christmas celebrations — an old Victorian tradition had party-goers telling each other ghost stories at Christmas.

James’ protagonists all seem to share common traits — unassuming scholars with a high level of interest in antiquarianism — in other words, looking at old stuff. Heck, James pretty much invented the concept of the “antiquarian ghost story” — anyone who’s written anything similar in the decades since owes James a debt of gratitude.

The stereotypical beginning of the story would involve the main character having a fortnight or month-long holiday and traveling to some out-of-the-way, rural location to look at old churches. Either he’d be staying at a local inn or with an acquaintance — often someone who had a fantastically awesome library. After a few days of traipsing over the countryside, the protagonist finds himself exposed to supernatural forces — what kind of forces are rarely made explicit.

The previous paragraph probably sounds like I don’t like James’ stories, but I do, enormously. They’re predictable in some ways, but it’s a very enjoyable, comfortable kind of predictability. It’s enjoyably nostalgic to remember that people used to write these incredibly long and detailed descriptions of scenery, that amateur scholars used to be able to take long holidays just to go out in the country and look for old stuff, that people used to sit down and write letters so long and detailed that you could bind a few of them and sell them as books.

Even better than the joy of the setting, language, and mood, however, are the scares. James packs some damn good ones in here. His specialty is the off-camera fright — he suggests awful things and lets the reader fill in the blanks. Not that he backs away from more overt terrors — once the quiet stuff has done its work, James knows when to unleash the gory murders and the shrieks on the moors.

The book features a number of James’ best-known tales, including “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'” (note the extra quotation marks — James was quoting a line from a Robert Burns poem) — a story that actually manages to make the stereotypical bedsheet ghost legitimately scary. There’s also “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” a narrative, believed to be James’ very first ghost story, about an evil piece of artwork; “Lost Hearts,” a tale of experimentation and bloody murder; “The Mezzotint,” about an engraving that tells its own ghost story; “Number 13,” about a very unlucky and very strange hotel room; “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” in which a treasure hunter cracks a code that he thinks will lead to riches; and “The Ash-Tree,” a story about a witch’s curse and something horrible hidden inside an old tree.

This book was followed in 1911 by its sequel, sometimes called “More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” but really just called “More Ghost Stories.” The two books are sometimes combined into a single volume.

Verdict: Thumbs up. I do recommend this book highly, but I’ll warn you that it can be a bit of an uphill slog. Like a lot of older books, the writing can seem very dated and archaic. Part of this is a difference in writing styles, but I think James was also cultivating this, too — he was a dedicated antiquarian and academic himself, writing about other dedicated antiquarians and academics.

James nearly never translates the Latin passages in his stories, because of course, a university don would be fairly fluent in Latin. He overwrites his descriptions, partly because that was the style of the time, partly because he liked to draw readers in and make them comfortable before he started unleashing the spooks and goblins.

In the end, what makes this book really cool is the fact that, not only did James invent and perfect the literary ghost story, but he’s still considered the absolute master of that style — every horror writer from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King and beyond has read and loved — and probably emulated — James’ stories.

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” is mostly out of copyright, so is available in many places online, but you should pick up a print copy, ’cause it’s still cool to own books.

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