Rating: 3.5 Stars
M.R. James was an English scholar, but he is famous for his ghost stories. He used to read them aloud to his friends at Christmas Eve. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is his first collection of ghost stories.
Soon it will be Christmas and I was in the mood for something traditional and decidedly not sweet. Which is why I picked up James. And the stories did not disappoint. Overall, this was a very good short story collection.
Sure, the stories follow the same structure: an educated Englishman goes somewhere and encounters the supernatural. Almost all of them involve manuscripts or the investigation of historic buildings.
But let’s be honest, the formula still works and the stories were exactly what I was looking for. They transported me back to a time when people used to sit around a roaring fire, listening to wild tales about ghosts.
Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book
An English tourist visits a tiny town in France, where he wants to study the cathedral. It is there the sacristan urges him to buy an old manuscript from him. It contains bits and pieces of older works, put together by Canon Alberic. But at the end of the book is a horrifying depiction of something. Something that starts haunting the Englishman.
Look at the picture and what you see will follow you. Live your days feeling it behind you… It is a really creepy premise. The ending was too neat though.
Stephen, a young orphan boy, finds a new home with his uncle. His uncle is an alchemist obsessed with old cults. It would all be alright if not for the odd visions Stephen experiences, of a boy and a girl with their hearts missing.
This story was good but it was pretty clear where it was going. The protagonist wasn’t a scholar but a young boy, so that added another layer to it. And the ending was really creepy. There’s nothing like spooky children with long fingernails to get the heartrate up.
A scholar orders a painting. At first, it seems a perfectly ordinary painting of a house in moonlight. However, he soon discovers that the painting changes… and shows a dreadful scene.
I really liked this story. There’s nothing creepier than a painting that changes and shows a weird creature getting closer and closer to the house. I kept expecting the thing to escape the painting.
There’s a manor house next to which an old ash tree grows. The squires of the manor tend to die a strange death, seemingly from poison. It seems there’s something sinister living in the tree…
Meh. The story was alright. I feel it could have been better. It had many nice elements. But the monster was disappointing.
An Englishman visits a Danish town where he moves into room 12. There is something odd about this room though. It seems to be smaller in the night. And there’s number 13 next door. A room the innkeeper swears doesn’t exist…
I liked the idea but the story left me unsatisfied. The supernatural element was creepy enough but in the end they dig up a box that contains a letter no one can read. And that’s it. We never get to know why the ghost was there.
The Count was not known as a kind man. It is said he went on a Black Pilgrimage and brought something back. But he is long dead and buried at his family’s mausoleum when an English traveller arrives at the village. The Englishman, of course, is very curious but he’s not ready for what he encounters.
I really liked this one. It had the mystery of the Black Pilgrimage and there’s nothing quite as creepy as a locked sarcophagus where the locks slowly open by themselves. And shadowy figures that follow you, no matter how fast and far you flee.
‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
Maybe the most famous of the bunch and one that’s often part of ghost story collections. A boring professor goes on holiday, where he takes up a room in an inn that contains two beds. While investigating an old temple, he finds a whistle. After whistling, strange things happen. There’s someone in the other bed…
It wasn’t my favourite story of the bunch, but it was a nice one. The professor was really annoying, but I liked the idea of whistling up something sinister. And of course, the thought of something in your room while you sleep is really creepy.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
Abbot Thomas was an odd man who buried a treasure somewhere on the premise of the abbey and left only riddles to those who sought it. An English scholar solves the riddle but what he finds with the treasure is more than he can stomach. For, you see, something was left to guard it and guard it it will…
I liked it but again I was disappointed at the ending. Too neat, too easy.
A fine collection of ghost stories that is well worth the read.