COMIC REVIEW: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary II

MR James is arguably one of the greatest writers of the spooky short story that there has ever been. Of course, he was very much of his time – the early twentieth century – and what was considered scary then is not what might called that now. So how do you update James’ shorts for the modern audience? Indeed, can you? And should you make them into a graphic novel? With Self Made Hero’s publication of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary II by MR James, adapted by the husband and wife team of Leah Moore and John Reppion (Albion, Wild Girl), the question is answered.

Adapted from the short stories of M.R. James, master of the English ghost story, this is the sequel to last year’s critically acclaimed anthology. The quartet of terrifying tales collected in this volume are Number 13, Count Magnus, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and the classic Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad, all drawn by some of the UK’s top illustrators.

Let’s have a look at the stories to begin with. The original Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published in 1904, and was James’ first collection of ghost stories. In this collection, they are presented in the same order, which worked for me, as they seemed to flow, as if told by the same storyteller.

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In Number 13 the narrator’s cousin stays in an inn (room 12). We’re in Denmark. The protagonist is researching church history. Strange things occur in his room and he’s not even sure there is a room 13, despite noises and singing coming from where it should be. The cousin and another guest (from 14) are attacked by something mysterious and unexpected before escaping.

Count Magnus is perhaps the most enigmatic of the stories. While in Sweden, a traveller becomes obsessed with the count and his mausoleum and the scenes depicted around it. It almost feels like the narrator is the same as from the first story, until the fateful conclusion.

The penultimate tale, perhaps James’ best known story, is Oh, Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad. Put simply, a whistle invites an ancient curse. Professor Parkins, a skeptic, is on a visit to a fictional town in Suffolk. He is investigating a Templar ruin for a colleague and finds a whistle with two Latin inscriptions. Of course, he blows the whistle, and his dreams of witnessing a terrified man begin.

Finally, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is a mystery with a suitably horrific outcome. An expedition tries to work out the clues within a church and its stained-glass window to find gold left by the disgraced titular abbot. It is only once the clues are deciphered and the treasure found that the horror elements are introduced.

On the face of it, these stories might be described as meh. And to be sure, there is little depth to the characterisation and the horror elements would gain little more than a shrug if witnessed today. With the exception of Count Magnus there is little or no toll. Several pages of set-up, a moment of scary revelation, and then home for tea. However, it is the skill in which these stories were told by James that piques the interest. The adaptations are remarkably true in ‘feel’ to the originals in terms of story and pace (although I confess it is many years since I read them).

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What makes this worth picking up as opposed to the original collection is the art. They are illustrated by George Kambadais (Short Order Crooks), Abigail Larson (Abigail Larson’s The Cats of Ulthar), Al Davison (The Spiral Cage) and Meghan Hetrick (Fairest) respectively. Each interprets James’ world through a slightly different perspective, but they all work in bringing out the era and location of the stories. Kambadais’ style is rather flat and expressionistic, which suits the Danish interior location. Larson’s work is angular and cracked, adding age to the tale. Davison, who coloured it, adds an interesting wash effect to the night-time sequences which I really liked. Davison’s own work is almost like watercoloured art for the outdoor scenes and becomes more like Kambadais’ for the interiors, bringing about a nice contrast to the skeptical world and its supernatural counterpart. Hetrick’s art is all about colour and shadow. Her characters are stylised and stand out from their surroundings.

All the artists bring something interesting to these adaptations and are all worth a look in their own right. However, as a collection, as the stories are told and the art evolves, you become more engrossed in James’ worlds and more likely to feel that cold hand on the back of your neck. Thoroughly recommended for a cold October evening.

Title: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary II

Publisher: Self Made Hero

Rating: 3.5/5

Reviewer: Ian J Simpson

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