Saturday, July 12, 2014

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.

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