Category: ghost stories

Scary Antiquary

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book and other stories by M.R. James, containing the following stories: “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”, “The Rose Garden”, “The Mezzotint”, and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (This edition 2010): Nice little entry in Penguin’s 50th anniversary Modern Classics series collects four of early 20th-century ghost-story master M.R. James’ ghost stories.

James continues to resist becoming dated, and his ghost stories remain a model of economy and terror at their best. Three of the stories here are major, while “The Rose Garden” is a curious inclusion. It’s not bad, it’s simply not among his best, as it comes to an oddly sputtering end after a terrific start. It is emblematic of one of James’ fictional concerns, however — the dangers that a lack of specific knowledge can bring when one starts mucking about.

Of the other three, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” is the scariest, and is one of the finest examples of James’ technique of gradually introducing a supernatural menace. It’s also the most antiquarian of the stories included here (James titled his first collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary). The protagonist encounters Something Awful as a direct result of his interest in an old, small-town French church.

“The Mezzotint” and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” follow similar paths into the past, with an old Mezzotint and old journals, respectively. “The Mezzotint” offers horror at one remove, as the protagonist views the past through the eponymous object in far more detail than is usual for a mezzotint.

“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” wouldn’t be out of place in a revenge-oriented horror comic book of the 1950’s. While it involves a supernatural event of the distant past pieced together by a contemporary protagonist from a box of papers and letters, the story still manages some of James’ most effective creep-out moments. As we learn in ghost story after ghost story, if you don’t know who’s at the door, don’t invite them in. Highly recommended.

The Crime-fighting Horse of Newfoundland and the Mummy That Sank the TITANIC

The World’s Strangest Mysteries by Rupert Furneaux (1962): I bought this paperback on a lark, figuring it would be chock-full of loopiness. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that for books of this type, it’s surprisingly even-handed. It’s certainly no Cosmos, but neither is it like modern-day History Channel stupidity.

Obviously, much of the material explored here has become dated — the book is more than 50 years old, after all. Nonetheless, sections on Kaspar Hauser, the Man in the Silk Mask, Anastasia, and other mysterious figures lay out and evaluate the various cases for who these people were or weren’t.

We also get some stories of things that would turn out to be hoaxes after the book’s publication (the infamous Brass Plate of California being one of them), or that were always hoaxes if one knew where to look for decent information (Welcome to Oak Island, suckers!). The book may be wrong in its conclusions about some of these things, but there is an argumentative process at work: Furneaux isn’t completely gullible and accepting.

Well, OK, sections on the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti seem to have been thrown together, though Furneaux at least explains the overall reasoning for why they may exist (which is to say, cryptids were still showing up in 1961 with some regularity).

His section on the Shakespeare authorship (non)controversy is solid, though he appears ignorant of the simple fact that we know more about the life of Shakespeare than we do of virtually any other person of his socioeconomic class from the same time period: his was not a mysteriously under-chronicled life, and Furneaux repeats some misinformation about the Shakespeare statue in Stratford-Upon-Avon (and seems ignorant of the fact that the “second bed” was actually the best bed to will somebody — as the guest bed, it hadn’t been used).

Overall, fun stuff, with some interesting mysteries to follow up from other sources. Worth picking up if you see it lying around in a used bookstore for a fair price. It’s also deceptively long, hailing as it does from a time when the paperback publishers tried to save money on paper by printing everything in tiny, tiny type. Recommended.

The Strange and Uncanny by John Macklin (1967): I’m pretty sure I read this unsourced compendium of weird, ‘true’ stories when I was about ten. And ten is pretty much the Golden Age for this sort of book. Now we can just download these strange sorts of tales directly from the Internet into our neocortexes. Truly this is a disturbing universe.

One can assess the probably verity of its contents by noting that it rehashes the completely fabricated story of Princess Amen-Ra and her mummy’s role in the sinking of the Titanic, a story that still pops up a lot in stories about unexplained mysteries. Alan Moore even offered a version of it in the graphic novel From Hell.

However, more because of the ridiculous claims of the book than despite them, there’s a lot of fun to be had. I can see how some of the stories creeped me out when I was a lad (including that of the malevolent Egyptian mummy). Others are actually reined in a bit too much for maximum enjoyment. If a story tells me that a demon killed someone, I’d like to discover that the guy was ripped apart by an invisible assailant. I don’t want to learn that he was found with a single gunshot wound to the head. Pistol-packing demons would be cool in certain circumstances, but they lack a certain oomph in this situation.

Some of the ‘true’ stories here bear remarkable resemblances to fictional ghost stories I’ve encountered. And there’s absolute no sourcing here — no notes, no bibliography. Ah, well. You get to read about the telepathic, precognitive Newfoundland horse called Lady Wonder, who helped police in that province solve a couple of missing persons cases. Is this true? I’ll have to look it up. Recommended.

Endure or Avoid

Madame Crowl’s Ghost: written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited and introduced by M.R. James (Original edition 1923; this edition 2006) containing the following stories: Madam Crowl’s Ghost, Squire Toby’s Will, Dickon the Devil, The Child That Went with the Fairies, The White Cat of Drumgunniol, An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street; Ghost Stories of Chapelizod, Wicked Captain Walshawe, Sir Dominick’s Bargain, Ultor de Lacy, The Vision of Tom Chuff, and Stories of Lough Guir.

Mid-to-late 19th-century Irish Protestant writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu is really the second giant with a career output mostly in what we’d now call horror, dark fantasy, and the supernatural (or even Weird) fiction, after Edgar Allan Poe. It’s a testament to his skill and vision that this is a fantastic collection, even though it omits the two horror stories he’s best-known and most-anthologized for, the seminal vampire novella “Camilla” and the psychological chiller “Green Tea.”

Dracula‘s Bram Stoker clearly knew Le Fanu’s work, as Dracula borrows mightily from “Camilla” (which remains a far superior story) and from Le Fanu’s recurring occult investigator Dr. Martin Hesselius, the latter in the person of Professor Van Helsing.

The stories collected here span the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s, but for all their period-appropriate language and narrative approach, they are nonetheless imaginatively modern on the topic of ghosts. Le Fanu’s ghosts seem to obey certain nebulous rules, even as to who they can or cannot appear to. They are not, however, easy to get rid of. Mid-19th-century Great Britain may have been a more Christian place than it is today, but there are no exorcisms here, and no deus ex machina endings. Ghosts are things to be either endured or avoided.

The Fairie also appear in some stories, most strikingly in “The Child That Went with the Fairies.” They aren’t nice. Really, really, really not nice, and this story really works as an epitomal tale of stolen children, a recurring trope in traditional stories of the Fairie in the British Isles. One calls them The Good Folk or The Kind Folk in the hopes of flattering them, not because they are.

Throughout the stories, Le Fanu deftly establishes setting and regional dialect, regardless of where the story is set. There are both urban and rural tales of the supernatural here. There are disturbingly fluid spectres, at least one Devil, ghosts whose touch corrupts and kills, innocent lives stolen or ended by all manner of unearthly beings, and terrible discoveries behind hidden doors.

Le Fanu has what would be now called a “cinematic eye” at points — there are some marvelous visual descriptions in “Squire Toby’s Will” of strangely mutating, threatening shadows that resolve into figures but dissolve when closely regarded; this skill manifests in several other stories as well. Some of Le Fanu’s ghosts resemble those 3-D posters that suddenly resolve into an image when looked at the correct way. Except the posters aren’t out to kill you.

M.R. James originally selected and introduced this collection in the 1920’s, which is fitting given James’ place as perhaps the most accomplished and influential writer of ghost stories in history. All in all, an excellent collection. Highly recommended.