Monday, January 26, 2009

Readings 2K9: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
by M.R. James

The Penguin edition I read contained both Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, first published 1904, and More Ghost Stories, published 1911. It’s surprising to think of these stories being written so late (realising that some, at least, were written at least as far back as the 1890s); there’s an apolitical conservatism, a Victorian stillness to them. The ghosts and horrors are never explicit, never broached directly, but approached elliptically. A review quote on the back cover speaks of the “academic reticence” of the style, which is as neat a way of putting it as any. And it gets at something else key to these stories; there’s a definitely academic tone to them, a concern with texts and provenance. With history, as well, and with thought; James expects his readers to think as they read, to assemble clues for themselves.

It’s quite possible that James forsakes a certain amount of horror in his intellectual style; H.P. Lovecraft’s brief capsule description of the plot of “Count Magnus” (in his essay “Supernatural Terror in Literature”) is probably more frightening than James’ actual tale. But on the other hand, it allows James to lure the reader in, to almost let them forget that they’re reading a ghost story. James conveys the character of everyday life very well, an unobtrusive characteristic of his stories which helps to emphasise the fantastic when it does occur.

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