Rare Books: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Through his first collection of short ghost stories, M.R. James had established a new form of horror narrative that was unique in its storytelling and eeriness.

A Different perspective

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was first published in 1904. It was the author’s first collection. From this first publication, Montague Rhodes James established an extremely unique groundwork for storytelling narrative. While pursuing the pre-established genre of horror, he chose to deviate from the styles that had previously attained recognition (Frankenstein, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, & Dracula). Instead, he developed his own original narrative style. Additionally, his subject matter too was considerably different.

While the previous great works emphasized on the personalities of the protagonists as the main source of horror, M.R.James instead concentrated on stories. Characters formed the backdrop in stories like Frankenstein and Dracula, where the obsession of one was the terror of many. Instead, for M.R.James, history, and antiquity stood as the foundation. He interpreted history as a still obscure world whose forbidding darkness is hidden behind deep layers of mists. Those who somehow managed to cross the mists would encounter fatal blows of misfortune.

Such extreme misfortune resided in the paths of many in these stories. For example, in Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book, an English tourist, interested in ancient history like the author himself, finds an old book. As he buys the collection and takes it to his place, he soon discovers that grave dangers await him. M.R. James follows this narrative structure in most of the stories. A discovery of academic interest leads to something ghastly. Through this technique, he evoked a story arc that was historically resonant. Additionally, he established a form of horror that relied on a gradual narrative unfolding for its expression instead of abrupt shock tropes.

Avoiding tackiness

Through a heavy focus on antiquarian context, M.R. James produced stories that were of scholarly taste. His vision reflected on his nature of narrators. The scholarly narrators evoked a sense of dignity and reserve. Such an academic impression generated a seriousness that was contrary to the tackiness of common horror. In fact, his initial readers too were academics and scholars. He first read the stories aloud to fellow scholars during a Christmas Eve.

However, this scholarly image never overshadowed the story. The author’s central focus was on the gradual unraveling of a macabre that is hardly tangible. In fact, his ghosts are never in the story for long. The evoking of their impression plays as much part in each story as the actual ghosts themselves. Consequently, they appear even more horrific, as the preceding image is equally ghastly. The resulting feeling of dread is what makes this collection of short ghost stories special and unique.

The atmosphere plays an important role in the development of this dread. Consequently, readers living in bustling cities might not become absorbed into these works. However, there is a visual quality in the atmospheres that M.R. James creates. This has enabled the works to translate seamlessly into the visual medium, with the BBC producing haunting films based on his works. The films have reached a new audience for the writer. People who had never heard of M.R. James before are becoming interested in his works. This fluidity of his content further validates the writer’s stature as a master of the horror genre.

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