Sunday, October 24, 2010

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (copy)

October is the perfect time for ghost stories. The crisp autumn night under the stars in front of a red-yellow glowing campfire, is the perfect setting too. Oh, the lazy teenage hours spent listening to anyone who would offer a creepy tale like “The One Armed Man” or “The Hook” looms large in my set of favorite memories.

I would listen to stories about the Bell Witch of Tennessee without blinking. Imagine my joy when I learned John Bell’s daughter moved to Panola County and is buried in Batesville. It is said that if you walk over John Bell’s grave you will disappear. Wonder if the same is true for the daughter Betsy Bell?

Someone handed me Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by Montague Rhodes James two years ago and I picked it up for a trip to the coast. I read the ghost stories to my husband as he drove. We made it there and back without any accident or weird incident, but I read it in the daytime hours and not surrounded by cloudy darkness.

M.R. James (1862-1936) is considered to be, “the finest 20th century writer of ghost stories.” Who? It is in print. Has to be true, right?!? The introduction continues, “Yet Dr. James was not a very prolific fiction writer. He wrote only four books of ghost stories.” Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, written in 1904, is considered his best.

All the stories began as parlor productions. He told one innocently at a party and then he was asked to retell the story at another. Once he perfected his delivery, he wrote it down for future reference. As I read some of the stories, I can picture a scholar standing in front of an intimate group with sherry in hand for this is how some of these begin. The tales have autobiographical elements.

Warning to those who do attempt to read this collection, have a dictionary within reach. Can you define these words: catarrhs, mezzotint, sacristan, missal, antiphoner, morphology, ophiology, and palaeographer? We read handfuls that were indefinable such as the word stupige.

I experienced some hair-raising moments during the reading, but I realize this is a rare book. Local libraries do not have the title on the shelf, but they have plenty of other selections. Drop by one and scare up a ghastly book.

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