Scott's Reviews > Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James
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Sep 25, 2008

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bookshelves: edwardian, horror, 1900s

"If any of these stories succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained." So wrote the renowned paleographer, manuscript historian, and educator M. R. James on Halloween, 1904, in the preface to his first collection of spooky tales, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

The eight tales that make up this ghastly anthology are replete with Latin, libraries, and scholarly lore, reflecting the author's professional interests. Set not only in England but also on the Continent and Scandinavia as well, the stories form around a distinct historical prop – a scrapbook, a stained glass window, a whistle, a print. These bits and pieces of physical antiquity, often drawn more clearly than the characters or events, give the tales a sense of historical verisimilitude and show where the scholar's interests lie.

Part of the stories' charm comes from James' frank admission that he is not a literary artist. He apologizes for bumbling through the dialog and confesses that he really doesn't know enough about his characters to portray them realistically. In fact, many of his main characters are nearly indistinguishable from one another – or from James himself. But his quaint, almost amateurish style is pleasant to read and it lends his stories an air of credibility. I suspect the tales were at their best when read aloud by candlelight on some cold winter's eve; and they need a good, spooky setting to bring out their fear factor. On their own these ghost stories are not very suspenseful and they certainly didn't raise any hackles on my neck. But James does use horror to good effect; so be ready for sudden, sometimes gory surprises!

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