The first collection, published in 1904, of the classic ghost stories of British writer and scholar M. R. James.
The stories in this volume include:
James' stories, though sometimes
spectacularly wordy to modern readers, were generally meant to be read
aloud during Christmas celebrations -- an old Victorian tradition had
party-goers telling each other ghost stories at Christmas.
James' protagonists all seem to share common traits -- unassuming
scholars with a high level of interest in antiquarianism -- in other words, looking at
old stuff. Heck, James pretty much invented the concept of the
"antiquarian ghost story" -- anyone who's written anything similar in
the decades since owes James a debt of gratitude.
The stereotypical beginning of the story would involve the main
character having a fortnight or month-long holiday and traveling to some
out-of-the-way, rural location to look at old churches. Either he'd be
staying at a local inn or with an acquaintance -- often someone who had a
fantastically awesome library. After a few days of traipsing over the
countryside, the protagonist finds himself exposed to supernatural
forces -- what kind of forces are rarely made explicit.
The previous paragraph probably sounds like I don't like James'
stories, but I do, enormously. They're predictable in some ways, but
it's a very enjoyable, comfortable kind of predictability. It's
enjoyably nostalgic to remember that people used to write these
incredibly long and detailed descriptions of scenery, that amateur
scholars used to be able to take long holidays just to go out in the
country and look for old stuff, that people used to sit down and write
letters so long and detailed that you could bind a few of them and sell
them as books.
Even better than the joy of the setting, language, and mood,
however, are the scares. James packs some damn good ones in here. His
specialty is the off-camera fright -- he suggests awful things and lets
the reader fill in the blanks. Not that he backs away from more overt
terrors -- once the quiet stuff has done its work, James knows when to
unleash the gory murders and the shrieks on the moors.
The book features a number of James' best-known tales, including
"'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad'" (note the extra quotation
marks -- James was quoting a line from a Robert Burns poem) -- a story
that actually manages to make the stereotypical bedsheet ghost
legitimately scary. There's also "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," a
narrative, believed to be James' very first ghost story, about an evil
piece of artwork; "Lost Hearts," a tale of experimentation and bloody
murder; "The Mezzotint," about an engraving that tells its own ghost
story; "Number 13," about a very unlucky and very strange hotel room;
"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," in which a treasure hunter cracks a code
that he thinks will lead to riches; and "The Ash-Tree," a story about a witch's curse and something horrible hidden inside an old tree.
This book was followed in 1911 by its sequel, sometimes called "More
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary," but really just called "More Ghost
Stories." The two books are sometimes combined into a single volume.
I do recommend this book highly, but I'll warn you that it can be a
bit of an uphill slog. Like a lot of older books, the writing can seem
very dated and archaic. Part of this is a difference in writing
styles, but I think James was also cultivating this, too -- he was a
dedicated antiquarian and academic himself, writing about other
dedicated antiquarians and academics.
James nearly never translates the Latin passages in his stories,
because of course, a university don would be fairly fluent in Latin.
He overwrites his descriptions, partly because that was the style of the
time, partly because he liked to draw readers in and make them
comfortable before he started unleashing the spooks and goblins.
In the end, what makes this book really cool is the fact that, not only did James invent and perfect
the literary ghost story, but he's still considered the absolute master
of that style -- every horror writer from Lovecraft to
King and beyond has read and loved -- and probably
emulated -- James' stories.
"Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" is out of copyright, so is available
in many places online (including right here on E2 -- just go click on them titles up yonder), but you should pick up a print copy, 'cause it's still
cool to own books.