Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary, Vol 2 by M.R. James, adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, with art by George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, Al Davison and Meghan Hetrick (graphic novel review).

M.R. James (1862-1936) is widely acknowledged as one of the foremost exponents of the English ghost story. Across a long life spent almost exclusively in the ivory towers of academia, first at King’s College Cambridge and, later, as the Provost of Eton College, he wrote some 33 ghost stories, most of which appeared chronologically in 5 short collections over the years. His entire body of work was republished in ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ in 1931, a book which has never gone out of print since. At an average composition rate of one story a year, James was hardly prolific. What he lacks in quantity, though, he more than makes up for in quality.

This second volume in SelfMadeHero’s graphic novel adaptation of James’ work adapts the last four stories in his first prose collection, ‘Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary’ (1904). As with Volume 1, which I reviewed here in December 2016, the textual adaptations are by husband and wife team Leah Moore and John Reppion, while the artwork for each story is provided by a different artist. As with the previous volume, the key question to ask is whether such perennially popular prose stories gain anything from being translated into this new medium.

‘Number 13’, which was originally written in 1899 or 1900, tells the tale of Mr. Anderson, a Briton on his first visit to Jutland, where he wishes to research the history of the church in Denmark during the Reformation, as the growing Protestant movement rebelled against what they saw as the excesses of Roman Catholicism. Anderson decides to stay at an ancient hotel in the city centre and is put in Room 12. This fact is central to the plot, which revolves around the existence or otherwise of Room 13, next door to Anderson’s. If this sounds odd, that’s pretty much the entire point of the story. Like so many of James’ tales, this one begins with an entirely ordinary situation and gradually increases the tension right through to an alarming climax. The adaptation is faithful to the original prose story, preserving all the key plot points and much of the phrasing, while Greek artist George Kambadais’ pictures enhance and expand on the text, contrasting a realistic style and colour palette at the beginning of the story with an increasing use of dramatic imagery, underpinned by red tones, as we approach the climax. As horror writer Jason Arnopp notes in his foreword to the book, one of the exciting things about reading a graphic novel adaptation of a prose ghost story is to see how the artists chooses to visualise or not the ethereal creatures at the heart of each tale. Kambadais is definitely up to the challenge here.

‘Count Magnus’ continues the theme of foreign travel, almost certainly inspired by the author’s own holidays in the Nordic countries around 1900. Mr. Wraxall is a travel writer who visits Sweden in 1863 to research a guidebook he is planning. He intends to broaden the subject matter beyond the merely descriptive to cover the history of some of the most important families in the country and, to this end, travels to the ancient Manor House of the De La Gardie family, built by their imperious forebear Count Magnus De La Gardie in the 1600s. Wraxall hears rumours about the Count, none of which are favourable. He allegedly whipped his serfs or, worse, if they turned up late to work, burned down the houses of families whose lands were adjacent to his, while they were still inside and, most damningly, went on a pilgrimage to Chorizon, a town in the Holy Land that was named by Jesus as a den of iniquity and the likely future source of the Antichrist! Inevitably, given these rumours, Wraxall’s researches into Count Magnus uncover a horrific truth. The character of Count Magnus provides an effective focus for the evil contained in this story, while Abigail Larson’s stylised art, along with a ‘cold’ colour palette of blues, greys and browns, combines to generate a feeling of uneasiness from an early point in the story until its end. However, there is one crucial error in the lettering: in the second panel of the story, the date is given as 1868. This should read 1863, otherwise the reference to that year at the conclusion of the story makes no sense. That minor typo aside, however, this is another successful adaptation.

The third story is possibly James’s most famous one. ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ returns us to Blighty and sees Parkins, an Oxbridge don, heading away from the hallowed halls of his ancient institution at the end of term, intending to improve his golf and do some writing on the Suffolk coast. One of his colleagues asks him to reconnoitre the nearby ruin of a Templar church, to see if it might be worthy of an archaeologist’s attention. When he does so, he finds a small metal tube hidden in the ruins, with predictably dire results when he works out how to use it. This is a powerful and unsettling story and Al Davison’s artwork adds a new dimension to the horror, providing an effective contrast between the moments of normality and those where things are going wrong for Parkins. My only concern, on re-reading the original story, was that the detail of these climaxes came across a little more clearly in prose than in the adaptation.

In the final story, ‘The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas’, Victorian antiquarian Mr. Somerton finds a reference in an ancient book he’s translating from Latin to a huge hoard of gold hidden by Abbot Thomas, a sixteenth century monk, somewhere in the grounds of his monastery in West Germany. No-one has ever found the treasure trove, despite the Abbot leaving a number of cryptic clues to their whereabouts written in some stained glass windows. Somerton decodes these clues and heads over to Germany, ignoring the final part of the text he’s translated, which suggests that the Abbot placed some kind of mystical guard over his money. Inevitably, that’s a big mistake. This was my favourite of the four stories in this volume. The plot was complex, aided by some interesting cryptography, the characters held my interest throughout and the story’s climax was genuinely shocking, bringing Lovecraft to mind. The adaptation works well and Meghan Hetrick’s art is the most colourful and energetic in the book, becoming almost surreal in a couple of places, which fully complements the feel of the original story.

Like Volume 1, this collection simultaneously benefits from the consistency of Moore and Reppion’s adaptations of the original stories and the diversity of approaches to illustration demonstrated by Kambadais, Larson, Davison and Hetrick. On occasion, I felt that certain small details from the original stories were missing from the adaptations, making some of the storylines slightly more opaque than they might have been. On the other hand, the translation into the graphic novel format undoubtedly makes these century-old ghost stories more accessible to a new audience and will hopefully garner M.R. James some new fans.

In conclusion, I think this is another successful adaptation of classic literature into a graphic novel, demonstrating the versatility and value of the medium. I hope and trust that the series will continue through the rest of James’s back catalogue.

Patrick Mahon

October 2017

(pub: SelfMadeHero, 80 page graphic novel. Price: £ 9.99 (UK), $14.99 (USA), $17.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-1-910593-39-4)

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