Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Published just in time for readers to enjoy through the ever-darkening nights of October, SelfMadeHero’s latest offering is a second volume of graphic adaptations of the tales of MR James: a medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, who is remembered today as the finest purveyor of ghost stories in the English language. James’ work, written to be read aloud at cosy, candlelit gatherings, is rife with themes of obsession, half-glimpsed terrors, and frequently involved lonely academics whose haughty scepticism is shattered when they encounter supernatural visitations as a result of their hunger for knowledge and unscrupulous curiosity. Adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, and featuring the illustrations of Meghan Hetrick, Abigail Larson, Al Davison and George Kambadais, the tales adapted for this volume include some of his best known work.

“Number 13” concerns a bookish historian who, while conducting academic research in Denmark, discovers his hotel has a mysterious thirteenth room that only manifests at night and houses a particularly malevolent inhabitant. George Kambadais’ illustrations delight in suggesting the infernal being that lies in wait just behind the door of the eponymous room.

Illustrated by Abigail Larson (with colours by Al Davison), “Count Magnus” tells of a travel writer who receives permission to examine a large collection of historical documents that belong to a Swedish noble family. He soon develops a morbid fascination with the accounts of one of their long dead ancestors, a cruel nobleman named Count Magnus. As he delves deeper into Count Magnus’ occultist past, the writer is menaced by shadowy figures from beyond. Larsen’s illustrations help imbue this story with a distinctive Gothic atmosphere and are particularly effective.

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is perhaps one of James’s most well-known tales. It tells of a stuffy academic who, while holidaying on a particularly desolate stretch of the English coast, stumbles upon an old whistle. Soon after, he experiences a deeply unsettling spectral visitation which manifests in the spare bed in his hotel room. Some of the imagery in this tale — particularly the long, lonely stretches of beach — was captured beautifully by Jonathan Miller’s BBC adaptation, but illustrator Al Davison does an admirable job of evoking his own vision of a very memorable haunting.

Lastly, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, illustrated by Meghan Hetrick, details the grim plight of a scholar of medieval history who, while conducting research in an abbey library, finds clues that eventually lead him to the hidden treasure of a disgraced abbot; but the treasure is not unguarded… With the retention of James’ original framing narrative, this tale really boasts a sense of unavoidable, inevitable doom, and Hetrick’s illustrations render key moments — such as when several characters descend into the depths of an ancient well — particularly atmospheric.

This volume should appeal to diehard admirers of MR James’ chilling works, as well as tentative newcomers. While some fans may balk at graphic adaptations of immensely suggestive works that subtly conjured lurking horrors, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination, Moore and Reppion are highly sensitive in their approach. While the tales are condensed, key dialogue and memorably nerve-jangling passages and excerpts of dialogue are retained. The contrasting styles of the illustrations complement each of the stories and though some of the artists don’t hold back from depicting the ghoulish phantasms that stalk through the pages of James’ work (well, it is a graphic adaptation), others take a more restrained approach. All are hauntingly effective.

MR James

Leah Moore
John Reppion

Meghan Hetrick
Abigail Larson
George Kambadais
Al Davison


12 Oct 2017

Posted by James Gracey

James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (Devil’s Advocates). He contributes to Diabolique, and has also written for Paracinema, Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.