No self-respecting dedicated reader of this magazine will want to miss acquiring this anthology. Although it does not contain the articles and analysis that Ghosts & Scholars (the Magazine) provides, Ghosts & Scholars (the Book) contains 25 stories and, in length alone, is the equivalent of seven or eight issues. It's a delightful and handsome collection of log-crackling stories in the M.R. James tradition - at least, that's what the cover declares, though I might take issue with that in one or two cases. Andrew Caldecott's "Christmas Re-union" is only Jamesian in that it uses one of the plot ideas MRJ had tried to write up himself. It is otherwise the weakest story in the volume. Sheila Hodgson, on the other hand, also uses an MRJ-plot in "Come, Follow!" and is far more successful. Haunted Library readers may well remember that story from G&S 4 but let me reassure you that only two others will be directly remembered: A.F. Kidd's "An Incident in the City" and David Rowlands' "Sins of the Fathers".
But let's concentrate on what will be new to G&S readers. Editors RP and RD have done a magnificent job in unearthing lost stories and there are only two or three that the omnivorous reader is likely to have encountered: Montague Summers' "The Grimoire" (which is readable but not very Jamesian), R.H. Benson's "Father Macclesfield's Tale" (an excellent story with a ghost detected by swirling leaves), perhaps Cecil Binney's "The Saint and the Vicar" and John Dickson Carr's "Blind Man's Hood" (which I do not feel is in the least Jamesian and, to be honest, is a rather over-rated story).
We're left with some fine pieces and some fascinating. Rosemary's literary discovery, 'B', is present with "The Stone Coffin", certainly the best of the 'B' stories and one which, to me, seems to show more evidence that it is the work of A.C. Benson than the others, primarily because the story seems to be typical of one of Benson's dreams. Certainly its presentation in book-form for a wider audience may bring an interesting response. A.C. Benson is here too in his own right with "The Slype House", a tale which I've always felt is too long and not one of ACB's best.
The best story to my mind is Eleanor Scott's "Celui-là" which introduces a superbly Jamesian ghost in a forlorn sea-shore setting reminiscent of "Oh, Whistle...". I was a little disappointed in the stories reprinted by R.H. Malden and L.T.C. Rolt for, good though they are, I feel there are more Jamesian choices. Malden's "The Sundial", for instance, is more powerful than "Between Sunset and Moonrise", and Rolt has written far more atmospheric stories than the rather too mechanical "New Corner".
There are some real rarities here. Arthur Gray's "Brother John's Bequest" (which isn't really a Jamesian story but is delightful nonetheless) comes from that infuriatingly elusive Tedious Brief Tales of Granta and Gramarye, and E.G. Swain's "The Eastern Window" is a sampler from that equally rare Stoneground Ghost Tales. Rarer still, though, are those tales which never made book-form. Arnold Smith's "The Face in the Fresco", with its rather too active demon, has been resurrected from the pages of the London Mercury back in 1928, whilst from The Spectator in 1930 come two stories from a ghost story competition judged by MRJ himself. James' verdict is reprinted along with "Here He Lies Where He Longed To Be" by Winifred Galbraith, a title that is frankly better than the story, and "The House Party" by Emma S. Duffin, which has a nice chill to its albeit limited length.
One story here has never previously been published: "The Strange Affair at Upton Stonewold" by Frederick Cowles, perhaps a little too predictable as a vampire tale, but with some nice touches. The most modern Jamesian story is Ramsey Campbell's "This Time", which is suitably atmospheric, whilst the oldest is actually pre-Jamesian: S. Baring-Gould's "On the Leads", showing some possible precursors to the tradition.
I suppose I have to be a little disappointed that only Eleanor Scott's story in any way measures up to the skill of the master, a fact that Michael Cox infers in his introduction, but there's still something pleasantly fascinating and intriguing in all of these stories and there's certainly a thrill of discovery in turning to the next little-known tale. The anthology is also brought to life by a number of effective illustrations (John Stewart's to the Malden story still packs a punch), and a portfolio of rare photographs of James and his associates.
This volume of subtle chills may not have something for everyone, but it has more than enough for the connoisseur of scholarly spookery.
Copyright (c) 1988 Mike Ashley
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