M. R. James (1862–1936) was a scholar on the medieval period. He was the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a collection of eight supernatural tales by him.
The edition I read contains only the original eight stories. Some editions of the book combine James’ 1911 book More Ghost Stories with it under the same title.
The book opens with Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A man is persuaded to buy a strange manuscript volume with an odd looking illustration. Soon he finds out why the sellers were so keen on getting rid of the book.
In Lost Hearts, a young boy is disturbed by visions of two children in terrible distress, looking for their missing hearts.
The Mezzotint is the story of a painting that reveals a dark secret about a country house’s past.
The Ash-tree is a morbid tale of witchcraft and vengeance from beyond the grave.
In Number 13 a man staying at a hotel decides to investigate the mysterious, and apparently non-existent, room number 13.
Count Magnus recounts the unfortunate story of a traveller who in his mischievousness sets free a terrifying monster from the past.
In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ an academic finds a strange whistle on the beach and ends up questioning his long held scepticism.
The final story of the collection is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. A priest goes in search of the hidden treasure of Abbot Thomas but what he finds is more than he can handle.
I cannot really pinpoint my favourites but I liked Number 13 and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. Some stories like Lost Hearts, The Ash-tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas were rather sickening.
Most of the stories are very, very similar. A lonely scholar goes to visit a rural area; he finds ‘something’, foolishly tampers with it and unleashes some kind of dreadful being in the process. In some stories his friends come to his rescue, in others he has to face his doom. In other words, the stories are predictable. You’ve read one, you’ve read them all.
Having said that it doesn’t mean I was not spooked by the stories at all. Some like The Mezzotint, Count Magnus and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ were fairly creepy.
M. R. James’ brand of horror is very subtle. The supernatural events and beings, barring a few exceptions, are fully revealed. However, the effect of the events on the characters’ minds is vividly portrayed in each of the stories.
On the whole, I can say Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a good Halloween read. It may not be ‘blood curdling’ scary but it provides a few good chills along the way.