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Scholarly Scares: A Jamesian Salute

Scholarly Scares: A Jamesian Salute

The godfather of ghost stories is, of course, MR James. Haunted gourds are enormous fans of all things Jamesian. He was a formidable scholar, but it's the ghost stories we really love. If by any chance you are unfamiliar with them, please take the first opportunity to immerse yourself in his tales of rational but hapless scholars going about their everyday business: disturbing barrows, pinching artefacts from Templar ruins, buying haunted mezzotints and engaging in hazardous bibliography (avoid privately-printed Commonwealth-era Books of Common Prayer – unless the Bryarses are trying to sell you one).

A favourite is 'Casting the Runes', which includes a scene of occult vengeance in the British Library (then part of the British Museum; we learn it can be dangerous to write a bad book review, even of a bad book), as well as literature's most terrifying magic lantern show. I'm sure I've heard somewhere that the villain, Kerswell, was modelled on colourful bookseller and Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association founder Frank Karslake, but I don't have the reference to hand. Not that I have hands, being a pumpkin and all.

Let's assume that you know and love MR James, and having read and re-read every story many times you need to find more in the same vein. It can be done. ANL Munby was a bookseller and librarian, who amused himself by writing ghost stories while incarcerated in a POW camp during the last war. 'The Alabaster Hand' was published in 1949 and dedicated to James. Maybe start with 'Number Seventy-nine'. The title refers to an item in a bookseller's catalogue, a manuscript which – fortunately for the narrator – is unavailable when he calls at the bookshop to view it.

Robert Westall (whom you might know as author of 'The Machine Gunners') wrote a highly enjoyable collection of chilling stories published as 'Antique Dust' in 1989, drawing on his experiences as an antique dealer. The saleroom scene which introduces 'Clocky Watson' is every bit as good as the supernatural elements in the same story, and there are plenty of other pleasing moments, such as the archaic obscenities scrawled on memorial tablets which disrupt a school trip to a haunted church (our antique dealer narrator is present because he is trying to date one of the teachers).

And for one final outstanding story: William Croft Dickinson's 'The Work of Evil', published in 'Dark Encounters' (1963) and recently included in the British Library's anthology, 'The Haunted Library' (2016). Its setting is the special collections department of an un-named Scottish university library. Some books must never be catalogued...

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