Ghost Stories from an Art Historian


Halloween always brings out the worst in people.  Garish pumpkin sweaters and sequined Walmart costumes.  It was with that dejection about this commercial holiday that I discovered the ghost stories of a prominent art historian, the Cambridge manuscript curator Montague Rhodes James  James, provost of King’s College (1905-1918), wrote stories in his spare time, yarns weaving his knowledge of antiquities together with the aberrant personalities (which were apparently more common in the nineteenth century), into stories of the supernatural.  They are not easy reading.  The stories ramble, focusing on physical detail without additional effect, rather like a drunk Henry James or a G. K. Chesterton without a sense of humor.  Still, it’s fascinating to see what constituted scary a hundred years ago.  Without the popularly-held image of what a ghost looks like, M. R. James describes them anew (one is characterized as a visage with its facial flesh burned off).  Doom doesn’t last forever, either.  The haunted manuscript acquired by an unsuspected dupe only temporarily brings its owner ill fate.

If Halloween is the time to experience the odd within the confines of the familiar, then M.R. James’ Ghost Stories are truly that.  A glimpse of ancient days written from those very long ago days.

James, M. R. (Montague Rhodes), 1862-1936. Collected ghost stories. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2011. Perkins/Bostock Library. PR6019 .A565 2011

Available electronically, but somehow not quite as scary