Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Ghost Stories of an AntiquaryGhost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Mark Fisher, in his erudite examination of horror, The Weird and the Eerie, notes that eeriness is characterized either by “a failure of absence or a failure of presence”. I would posit that M.R. Jame’s arguable opus, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is full of textbook examples of each. It would be spoiling the book to note which stories failure absence or presence, but it must be noted that this book could be taken as a master course in the eerie. It must also be noted that Jame’s (intentional?) elimination of summary explanations in (or about) his stories is part of what gives these tales this nearly-mystical feeling. You won’t find stories here that are neatly tied off, for the most part, with a “big reveal” that provides that opium for the masses of readers: closure. No, you will find that many of these stories are unresolved. They end, simply, as matters of observed facts. You might construct an explanation in your own mind of what happened, who did what and why, and what went horribly wrong. But all of these explanations happen, as they do with all good literature, in your head. You will become a participant in these stories. You, like many of the characters therein, will be haunted by the experience. Let’s draw up our salt-circle (or not) and summon the ghosts:

"Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" had to inspire many of Lovecraft's stories. Antiquarian book? Check. Occult rituals? Check. Suspicious-seeming natives? Check. Creepy noises in the dark? Check. "Journal entries" (marginalia, really)? Check. Investigation of strangeness with academic undertones? Check. Freaky creature? Check. Just add tentacles and hyperbole. I liked this a lot more than most of the Lovecraft I've read, but I'm a little burned-out on the Mythos, to say the least. I grow tired of Lovecraft and his imitators. Give me four eerie stars, without tentacles, please! In all seriousness, if someone with a mind like Sandy Peterson’s had picked this story to create an investigative roleplaying game, we might not have Call of Cthulhu now, we might have Call of Canon Alberic! Of course, if you're looking for ghostly roleplaying of the Jamesien variety, look no further than English Eerie. I recommend it. And now, we return from our commercial break . . .

"Lost Hearts" is another tale that evokes Lovecr. . . Wait - I see what you did there with the title, James! You sly old dead dog, you. I love this little ghostly/occult tale. I would love to see it rewritten to show what would happen had Mr Abney succeeded . . . that could make another terrifying tale, possibly overshadowing the origi. . . Hmm . . . I've got some paper and a pen. Hmm . . . first let me draw these four stars. I'm never going to get this review done, at this rate.

I've read "The Mezzotint" before, and heard a fantastic audio adaption of it on what has become my favorite podcast, of late, and yet, despite all my familiarity, it still does not fail to make on shiver. One of the best "weird" stories written. This one has staying power, with latent images that only partially fade over time. The imagery is burned on the lens of my mind. And my mind created it, prompted by James' words that I read with my eyes, or rather, my mind transformed the words - it is a strange thing to think about. Where do these creations of the mind come from? What makes words form images in my brain? I will meditate upon these five stars and give it more thought.

Ew, ew, ew, eeeewwwww!! "The Ash-Tree" = #nopenopenope. Just. No. And not the most effective story thus far, but still better than most other strange stories of a similar ilk. But this story gives me the jibblies for fifteen minutes straight. In all seriousness, this pushes too far into gross territory for me. I'm not about gross or gory. Creepy is not the same as gross. Four slightly disgusted stars.

"Number 13" is a great little mystery. Not the strongest story so far, but by no means weak. If you wonder where Mephistopheles took Faust, this might give an indicator. And it's closer than you think. In fact, it might be right next door. The trick is to find the door . . . and avoid it at all costs! Four stars cast the shadow of Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

At first, I thought "Count Magnus" was a novella. We need more novellas in the world. Many, many more. I wish the majority of published works were novellas. But I'm a snob that way. Then, after skimming ahead a second and third time, I discovered that "Count Magnus" is NOT a novella: Whomever did layout on this edition (Good Port) done screwed up! After this story, we have "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas". The layout is so screwed up, in fact, that these last two don't even appear in the table of contents. So if layout is your thing, best pick a better port than Good Port.

"Count Magnus" is the most evocative story in this collection. By "evocative," I mean that it is . . . well, not subtle, but not "in your face," either. It's more creepy than horrific, and that's the sort of thing that I love. This could easily be a Twilight Zone episode! And, like my favorite TV show (the ORIGINAL Twilight Zone, or OTZ), this story gets five stars.

My first note on the next story: "*Sigh* you had to go and blow the whistle, didn't you, Parkins? This is the part where things go horribly, horribly wrong, I suppose."

And I supposed right.

Important safety tip: If you find something in a grave, don't play with it. Whatever you do , don't touch it to your lips! Yuck!

"Sinister" is the best word, I think, to describe the feeling of the story "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad". The apparition therein is the scariest of all in this book thus far. I did not sleep well the night I read it, all wrapped up in bed sheets. This story makes innocent bed sheets terrifying. Sleep tight! Five shuddering stars.

"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" is a textbook mystery marbled through with supernatural elements. The narrator's presentation is a well-played shell game of obfuscation and revelation. I would have liked a more consequential ending, but that trick was for later authors. Five stars, despite the flat-ish ending.

There is no doubt why this collection gets reprinted again and again (sometimes poorly, as you can see from my review). If there ever was one "classic" single-author collection of ghost stories, this is it.




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