At the end of the last century (which now seems quite a while back) Ghosts & Scholars
ceased publication as a fiction magazine and became a twice-yearly newsletter dedicated to topics M.R. Jamesian. Over the last couple of years, however, editor Ro Pardoe has published a number of short stories, after inviting readers to finish off or flesh out ideas (such as the mysterious 'game of bear') that James abandoned or never got round to fleshing out. The best stories were published in the newsletter and proved very popular.
So successful were these competitions that - to write entirely new prequels or sequels to any of M.R. James' published tales. A dozen of these new stories were selected by Ro Pardoe for publication by Robert Morgan's Sarob Press
in a fine edition with an excellent cover by Paul Lowe, showing the thing of ''Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad'' wafting its way up the shingle.
The stories gathered here fall into two obvious categories - prequels and sequels - and most authors favour the latter. There is one other important subdivision, though. While most authors make it clear which of James' works is being referenced, some keep the reader guessing - and I won't give the game away here.
The winner of the Ghosts & Scholars competition is a sequel, 'Quis Est Iste?' by Christopher Harman - hence the cover illustration, which serves for both James' story and this sequel. Here we discover just what 'rude Mr Rogers' got up to when he returned to the scene of Professor Parkins' worst ever vacation. There is a strange, nightmarish quality about the story, and Harman leads the reader to a climax that offers something new and disturbing, while keeping to the spirit of the original.
Among the prequels are two compelling longer tales. Helen Grant offers a surprising insight into the early life of 'Canon Alberic de Mauleon', surprising your humble reviewer with an old-school plot device. A different old school features in 'Between Four Yews', in which Reggie Oliver provides a very solid and absorbing revenge narrative. The comparatively slight 'A School Story' might have been inserted into Oliver's tale as a relatively minor episode.
Some of the shorter stories take one ingredient from an original story and explore possibilities. Thus Jacqueline Simpson, in 'The Guardian', considers how modern scholars might get Abbott Thomas' treasure without incurring any nasty penalties. Her solution is ingeniously straightforward. Very different is 'Anningley Hall. Early Morning' by Rick Kennett. Here the author proposes a rational but still startling reassessment of the story within the story in 'The Mezzotint'. A more straightforward sequel is 'Malice' by David A. Sutton, in which an inanimate object is deemed to be responsible for a terrible domestic tragedy. But which object is really to blame?
The story 'Two Doctors' is not very popular even with James addicts, and I was surprised to see Mark Valentine tackle it. In 'Fire Companions' we are granted a glimpse of what may be the central drama of that obscure tale. But Valentine also gives us a well-crafted insight into the mental torment of the villain of the piece, who did not really profit from his dabbling in the dark arts.
'The Mezzotaint', by John Llewellyn Probert, is very different again. Here we have a rather jolly variation on the old horror film setup, involving two doctors discussing just how deranged a patient appears to be. And, as we all know, in this setup the apparently mad patient has some insight into a rather unpleasant truth. Uniquely, this story offers a sci-fi twist to the idea of living pictures, playing fast and loose with the idea of the moving image as the source of horror.
Among the stories where the original tale is kept obscure till the end is Derek John's 'Of Three Girls and Their Talk', which begins as a period tragic-comedy but soon moves into strange territory. A conventional folk belief, and the advice of a 'wise woman', prove fateful to the eponymous young ladies, whose only real crime is to want to marry a rich husband and avoid the workhouse. In C.E. Ward's 'The Gift', by contrast, the wealth that is being sought might well help with the upkeep of a rural parish. A somewhat over-curious clergyman pays a heavy price when he ignores some fairly explicit warnings. In both cases the author's plan is to keep the reader guessing as to which Jamesian horror is lurking offstage, and they both manage very well.
Sometimes the original story offers more of a jumping off point for a rather different kind of tale. Thus in Louis Marvick's slightly Gothic 'The Mirror of Don Ferrante', the auctioning of Mr Karswell's possessions puts into circulation an item that might have been better left in storage. As with most of the stories here, the style is not Jamesian, but the careful construction and use of an ingenious device show his influence.
The final story, 'Glamour of Madness', takes its cue from a telling but easily-overlooked detail in 'A Vignette'. Building on this central idea, Peter Bell offers a rather harrowing account of a fixed idea that comes to possess a girl, and provides a satisfyingly Jamesian explanation for her fate. As with most of the longer tales, this one has a framing narrative. But Bell also prefaces it with a quote from M.R. James that, I think, sums up the continuing appeal of his best stories. It begins:
'Are there here and there sequestered places where some curious creatures still frequent...?'
In this book the authors take us to various sequestered places, and point to what might seem first to be merely shadows. This is, I think, a must for admirers of M.R. James, not least because it shows how influential his ideas about the ghost story still are.