When it comes to horror writers, I’ve had always had a fondness for M.R. James’ distinct brand of suspenseful, supernatural prose. His stories are always masterfully executed, relying on tension and atmosphere rather than jump scares and gore. The many adaptations of his works – particularly the BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas – are a testament to the enduring appeal of his style, so I was extremely excited to read the latest adaptation from indie publisher Self Made Hero. I hoped that the writers and artists would add, rather than subtract, to the spooky quality of the source material, and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary does not disappoint, creating an unearthly mix of stories that are dark, strange and delicious.
With all of the stories written by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the quality of the prose is consistent throughout, with each of the artists adding their own nightmarish images to the text. The themes are clear from the beginning: reality vs. the imagination; atavistic fears passed from person to person; the desire to rationalise the uncanny.
The first story in the collection, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, tells of a man known as Dennistoun who comes to acquire a supposedly haunted manuscript from a French cathedral. Considering that the horror in James’ story comes from the reader’s imagination, I wasn’t convinced that this would work in comic form. Fortunately, Aneke’s artwork – equally elegant and disturbing – is a perfect fit for James’ tale, imbuing the pages with an odd, hagiophobic dread. The image of the demon itself, wreathed in plumes of inky tentacles, leaves just enough to the imagination. All in all, it was my favourite story in the book.
The second, Lost Hearts, tells the story of a young orphan boy who is sent to stay with his cousin, only to discover a ghostly presence inside the house. But Kit Buss’ artwork – which is undeniably gorgeous – doesn’t quite match the tone of the story, lending a lush whimsy to an otherwise gloomy tale. This is obviously done to thwart the shocking reveal in the final pages, but for me, Buss’ artwork might have been better suited somewhere else.
The Mezzotint, the third comic in the collection, is about an ever changing print, in which an eerie story of demonic theft and suicide is slowly unearthed. Fouad Mezher’s art is reminiscent of Mike Mignola, so wrought with shadows that everything takes on a gothic, unnatural aspect. The decision to use only shades of sepia is a stroke of genius, rendering the story like the mezzotint itself, slowly revealing its secrets to the reader.
The Ash-tree works as a conclusion to the book, weaving together threads of witchcraft and revenge. Arachnophobes may want to skip this one, as the denouement of the story involves an army of enormous black spiders, all of which fall to the floor ‘with a soft plump, like a kitten.’ Alistair Wood’s artwork is wonderfully scratchy, rich with furrowed lines and sketch marks – perfect for such a horrible, gothic tale as this.
Readers have come to expect a certain quality of Moore and Reppion, and Tales of an Antiquary is no exception to this trend. With thick, matte pages and a touching foreword by Ramsey Campbell, it is undoubtedly one of the finest anthologies I’ve ever read from an indie publisher, sure to delight those who prefer their horror subtle and sepulchral.
Words: Max Deacon @_Max_Deacon.