H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) praised fellow horror writer M. R. James (1862-1936) in his essay, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, as “gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life.” Lovecraft was further impressed by the sorts of monstrosities that James called forth. As in Lovecraft’s own works, the horrors that fill the pages of James’ stories are a far cry from the traditional ghosts that haunt in the conventional Gothic tradition. Lovecraft wrote, “for where the older stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly through the sense of sight, the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy — a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt man and beast — and usually touched before it is seen“.
The tactile, rather than visual, nature of James’ horrors would seem to make their graphic presentation something of a challenge, and Lovecraft’s assessment might seem to entail that those stories are best left to the written word alone. Leah Moore’s and John Reppion’s graphic collection prove that’s not the case. Their Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a riveting collection of some of James’ best stories, fit for a dark Halloween night or, for that matter, read, as James intended, on the long dark nights of Christmastide.
Four of James’ best stories are included here; their horrors prove themselves to be just as tactile in the pages of a graphic novel as in James’ short stories. Much of this success is the result of the authors’ obvious devotion to James’ original work. When they can, they let his dialogue and descriptions take center stage. When they have to make changes for the sake of the demands of graphic storytelling, they do so in ways that never seemed forced. With a different illustrator for each of these stories, Moore and Reppion could have easily lost control of James’ tone and style; they don’t. These are the tales of the old antiquary himself, through and through.
This volume of tales, all taken from James’ first book, the 1904 Ghosts Stories of an Antiquary, begins with “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” a tale as typical of James’ style as any. The story follows an English scholar who, in his exploration of an ancient cathedral, discovers a 17th century folio containing illustrated leaves from even older manuscripts, one of which depicts an encounter between King Solomon and something unholy and dark. The artist, Aneke, is a good fit for this tale, with a style that captures the ancient madness and horror that lurks in the pages of the scrap-book and leaves the reader wondering if the curse passed on through that book has been passed on through this one as well.
Next up is “Lost Hearts”, illustrated by Kit Buss. The juxtaposition of this story with the last one, and of Buss’ big-eyed anime-influenced style with Aneke’s, is at first jarring. It soon becomes apparent, however, that Buss is a brilliant choice for this story of Stephen, a young and innocent orphan who’s taken into the home of his warm and eccentric uncle. Things are not as they seem, of course, and Stephen soon discovers that he’s only the latest child taken in by the old man whose purposes are more nefarious than they at first seem. Aneke’s rendition of youth and innocence, and of warmth and eccentricity, are the perfect counterpoint to the ancient evil, the cold devilishness that hides behind locked doors.
The third tale in the collection is “The Mezzotint”, illustrated by Fouad Mezher. In this story, a certain Mr. Williams is engaged by the Cambridge museum of art to research and acquire English topographical drawings for its collection. A lead from a prominent dealer results in the acquisition of a mezzotint that is, at first look, unremarkable. Over time, however, the picture seems to come to life; at each subsequent viewing new details are added, horrible new details. Mezher’s shadowy art works well with this story, and each new representation of the mezzotint is suitably more and more wicked. Not that there are any grotesqueries in this tale, unlike the two that precede it. Mezher, Moore and Reppion produce the horror in a way that James would surely have approved of — in shadows and by degree.
“The Ash-tree” is the fourth and final work in the collection. Set in an old country manor, the tale is built around an ash-tree that stands outside the window of one of the old home’s bedrooms. This is a story of a witch who transforms into a large hare, a story of death and contagion, and a story of revenge and curses from the past. Of all the artists in this collection, Wood’s style is probably the most traditionally horrific, with lines and shadows that, even in the most ordinary of moments, evoke the dark and the sinister. While James’ dwarfish and hairy creatures make only the briefest of appearances, Wood manages to terrify from start to finish.
In Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Moore and Reppion have produced a successful new take on the terrifying tales of M. R. James and delivered, in Lovecraft’s words, “a hellish night abomination”. Working with an inspired group of artists, they offer graphic retellings of some truly terrifying tales, retellings that manage to capture the tactile nature of James’ hauntings and horrors. Like James’ own monsters, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is lean, dwarfish, and hairy. It’s sure to keep you up at night.