Montague Rhodes James was a renowned medieval scholar and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. He was also the author of some of the finest ghost stories in the English language. His tales are populated by lonely, academic bachelors whose insistence on prying into ancient tomes, forbidden manuscripts and other esoteric materials plunges them into a world of malevolent entities and ghoulish spectres. It is this encroachment of the supernatural into the mundane, bookish lives of his protagonists that makes James’ work so terrifying. Four of his most haunting tales — “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”; “Lost Hearts”; “The Mezzotint”; and “The Ash-tree” — have been adapted by Liverpool-based writers Leah Moore and John Reppion for indie publisher SelfMadeHero’s latest graphic compendium, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Vol. 1. No strangers to adapting well-loved works of classic horror, Moore and Reppion have also reinterpreted titles such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula and H. P. Lovecraft’s Shadow Over Innsmouth as comics and graphic novels, and have written for the likes of 2000 AD, Dark Horse and DC Comics.
The four stories in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Vol. 1, while differing significantly in the styles in which they’re illustrated, offer an appropriately chilly tone and are carefully paced to create tension and atmosphere. Moore and Reppion condense the stories and cut to the core of the horror without ever diluting or compromising James’ carefully woven plots. While one of the main criticisms of graphic adaptations is the potential redundancy of rendering certain works in illustrated form — there are those who would claim James’ work, which was praised for its restraint and quiet suggestion, enabled its readers to conjure unspeakable horrors no artist could ever hope to convey — it should be noted that visuals were always important to James. He commissioned his friend, the artist James McBryde, to provide illustrations for his first collection of ghost stories, and while McBryde died shortly after he began his work, the four illustrations he completed were included at James’ behest. It was James’ intention for his stories to be accompanied by visuals.
Indeed, James’ writing actually possesses a distinct visual quality which easily lends itself to graphic adaptation. Take, for instance, this evocative passage from “Lost Hearts”, in which the narrator recounts the young protagonist’s terrifying dream: The moon was shining through the window, and he was gazing at a figure which lay in the bath […] A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart. As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan seemed to issue from its lips, and the arms began to stir. The terror of the sight forced Stephen backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the cold boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon…
As memorable moments such as this are wrought in striking imagery by artists Kit Buss, Aneke, Fouad Mezher and Alisdair Wood, the same shudders experienced while reading James’ prose are often elicited in this graphic collection, too. As with many anthologies of this nature, there will be artistic styles more pleasing to some readers than others, but all present in this volume are suitably creepy. That these adaptations are so beautifully conceived should offer further reassurance to hesitant admirers of James that the jump from prose to graphics isn’t as jarring as one might imagine. Recommended for die-hard MR James enthusiasts, as well as for those perhaps just discovering his work.
27 October 2016