Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James

I decided to kick off the spooky season with a century-old collection from M.R. James, a medievalist and archaeologist who did a bit of writing on the side. I’ve heard James’s name tossed around with that of other old masters of scary like Algernon Blackwood and others, so I was hoping for some classic chills with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (Wikipedia entry, with additional links to free copies of the collection). These stories gave me a window into what readers found scary 117 years ago—and showed me that writers have really raised the stakes since this book hit the shelves.

Many of the stories follow a similar arc. They’re framed as tales retold by our unnamed narrator by his various friend and colleagues. These friends (most with connections to Cambridge University) travel to various places around Europe to look at collections of rare documents, obscure cathedrals, and poking into stories that might have a grain of truth. They might get a warning from someone local who knows better, but maybe not. Either way, when the sun goes down, something terrible happens in the night that nearly frightens the life out of the friend. As soon as the light comes back, the friend heads for the hills.

Although the stories in this collection are not as terrifying as what contemporary writers (especially horror movie writers) are coming up with these days. But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I appreciated the way that James builds up tension by putting us into crypts and lonely tavern rooms alongside all those scholars who messed with things that were hidden, bricked up, or buried for centuries. These stories are the kind you tell around the campfire, slowly, so that the audience slowly freaks out until the end of the story delivers a cathartic moment of escape. Some of the standouts in this collection are “Number 13,” “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Lost Hearts.”

Readers who like little jolts of scary—especially when it comes along with a side of academic curiosity—will like Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Readers who need something stronger to get their hearts racing might need to stick with horror written in this century rather than the last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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