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And now for a review of the first book I bought at this year's Halifax Ghost Story Festival. The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows is a collection of contemporary ghost stories based on existing tales by M R James. The aim was to showcase all the winners of a recent G&S story competition, and all but one of the stories are previously unpublished.

We begin with 'Alberic de Mauleon' by Helen Grant, a prequel to 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook'. The latter is one of the finest James stories (and earliest - tales are printed here by chronological order of source text) and Grant's prequel takes us to 17th-century France, where the eponymous Canon's ecclesiastical duties are encumbered by sporadic visits from his cruel, mocking brother, who has made a point of marrying Alberic's old sweetheart. It's a decent enough tale of revenge, doesn't try too hard to sound Jamesian, and takes us away from the more predictable antiquarian locales of cloister and college library, but beyond that it's nothing special.

Then come a brace of stories based on another James cracker, 'The Mezzotint' - one of his simplest, but also most effective, offerings. 'Anningley Hall, Early Morning' by Rick Kennet is a prequel exploring the identity of the shrouded creature that moves so menacingly across the famous etching of Anningley Hall, before memorably snatching the Squire's child. This one is written in a sort of semi-Jamesian style - it's not too suffocating, but I did resent the direct cribbing of James' phraseology from another of his stories featuring child abduction - 'The Haunted Dolls House' - which jarred and frankly suggests a lack of imagination.

John Lwellwyn Probert's 'The Mezzotaint' is a daring - some might say foolhardy! - attempt to splice Jamesian content with the sort of mad scientist theme you used to see in Hammer horror films (Probert is very into Hammer and Amicus.) Fortunately the quality of the story just about lives up to the chutzpah. Rather than focussing on the dramatis personae of 'The Mezzotint', he considers the picture itself and questions whether other pictures with "moving parts" can be created! Unsurprisingly it's got a lot more science in it than a standard James story, but we must remember that Old Monty was all in favour of incorporating modern technology into ghost stories, and I loved the description of the mad Professor's device, which is a perfect blend of old-school antiquarianism and semiconductor technology. Jacqueline Simpson's 'The Guardian' (a sequel to 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas') also makes a determined attempt at modernity, but the attempt to extract humour from the clash between Then and Now falls flat and the resultant pastiche is indigestible. I did appreciate its shortness though.

Most of the stories in this collection are written in the author's individual style, rather than trying to mimic Monty, but a few brave authors have chosen to step into the stylistic time capsule. In fact, some of the best stories in the book fall into this category. Christopher Harman's "Quis Est Iste?" is the winner of the G&S competition and the only story to have been previously published somewhere else. Harman homes in on "rude Mr Rogers", a minor character who makes fun of the donnish hero Parkin in 'Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad' in the opening pages of the story. The events take place some time after Parkin's horrific ordeal in the double bedroom at the Globe hotel. Rogers has decided to visit the place for himself, partly with a view to debunking Parkin's supernatural experience. Surely the horrible "face of crumpled linen" will not dare to show itself to such a rational man...I rate this one pretty highly - it's not perfect, and at times verges on the ridiculous (drag and ghost stories generally don't mix) but fear wins the day with a creepy climax and I also enjoyed the East Anglian scenery in all its bleak glory.

'Between Four Yews' by Reggie Oliver (a prequel to 'A School Story') also has a fairly old-fashioned tone, but as you would expect from Oliver there is a modern twist and some sexual connotations James would probably not have countenanced...Another fine contribution with some hardcore Jamesian horrors, and probably my joint favourite with the Harman one. Sadly, not all the attempts at Jamesiness have ended well. C.E. Ward's 'The Gift' is the sole representative of the "all style and no content" school of neo-Jamesian fiction. It doesn't help that it's based on a very obscure story, 'The Experiment', which annoyingly I was only able to read half of in Bristol library one day. But even if I had finished the source tale I still think the excessive wordiness and over-thick layer of antiquarian dust would've choked my enjoyment of the story. It feels like Ward enjoys the listing of ancient manuscripts and church features more than the supernatural element, which is always bad news. Unforgivably, he has also chosen to ape James' least-loved feature - a patronising depiction of the "lower orders" and the way they talk. Ouch.

Meanwhile, Ward's is not the only story to go off the beaten track. Mark Valentines' 'Fire Companions' is inspired by 'Two Doctors', a later James tale that often confuses readers, though some appreciate its dreamlike feel and lack of conventional logic. I rather like it and Valentine's tale is charming enough to be enjoyed by those who have not yet read the story. David A Sutton goes one step further with 'Malice', which isn't based on a story at all, but on James' essay 'The Malice of Inanimate Objects'! While nobody can doubt the extreme malice of some objects (my clothes drier and guitar footrest are particularly spiteful) the resulting story of a Victorian family in abject poverty (who are then plagued even further after acquiring the wrong objects) was more depressing than scary, and I'm quite surprised it did so well in the competition. Peter Bell's 'Glamour of Madness' expands on James' last story, 'A Vignette', which was only discovered by Richard Dalby in the 70s. It's more of a conventional horror story than the original, and here again the author unashamedly revels in period lingo. He has a psychiatrist character talk of "nervous debility" and "confinement" (i.e. pregnancy), and I was sure the story was set in the pre-war era before the mention of CCTV...I've never heard a mental health professional talk of "nervous debility" and I've met a few, believe me! Luckily, Bell brings the content as well as the style and so this is not an empty imitation - in fact it's one of the better stories here.

Perhaps fittingly given James' famous reluctance to approach the opposite sex, the distaff side is poorly represented here - only two of the stories are by women. But a feminine presence is allowed to exist in some of the stories. Louis Marvick's 'The Mirror of Don Ferrante' is a sequel to my favourite James story, 'Casting The Runes' and features a lady historian who falls under the influence of Karswell. She acquires his old hand mirror at auction, with revenge in mind of course. This one presents an extreme case of misogyny, which may be a comment on James' attitude to women (though I don't believe he ever hated women) and it is ultimately sympathetic to the female characters. Unsurprisingly it doesn't feel at all Jamesian in content (James was content to ignore women in his stories) but there is a witness' description of Karswell that is very Jamesian in style. Ultimately not really my cup of tea, and I'm disappointed that no better stories were produced in honour of 'Casting the Runes', but it's not a badly written story. Derek John's 'Of Three Girls and Their Talk' (prequel to 'Wailing Well'), is more Gothic than anything, steering well clear of James' style in its depiction of three impoverished young gentlewomen who enlist the aid of magic to snare a wealthy husband. Another deeply depressing story, and somewhat predictable in outcome, but again it's very sympathetic to the female cause and I approve of the decision to use a non-antiquarian style.

Well, I think I've covered all the stories there! As editor Rosemary Pardoe warns in her very personal Introduction, this is a collection for fans of M. R. James and most of the stories really require familiarity with his stories to be enjoyed to the full. I must admit I was a trifle disappointed overall, but then I did have very high hopes. Though James' coyness and propensity for dropping hints and asides provides a great springboard for prequels and sequels, he is definitely a very hard act to follow! I still enjoyed it though and recommend it to hardcore fans and even to fans of antiquarian ghost stories generally, and it is a fine edition with some striking cover art (as we saw in my Halifax post!) And for those seeking an introduction to the subgenre I warmly recommend Richard Dalby's Ghosts and Scholars, an anthology of antiquarian ghost stories from before, during and after James' time. That is a really cracking collection.


Darkling Tales

March 2013

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