Books that go bump in the night
By MICHAEL CAINES
Apparently it's still just about possible – today at least – to book for the A. N. L. Munby conference at the end of this month that I mentioned previously on this blog. I mention it again not only in a spirit of rampant self-promotion (I'm giving a paper on Munby and the TLS – of all the unexpected things) but also to note something I only mentioned in passing last time round: that Munby the bookman was also Munby the writer of ghost stories.
The Sundial Press, more familiar to me as the small press that has reissued some works of the Powys brothers and their circle, are reissuing a collection of these stories, The Alabaster Hand. The claim, drawn from the Who's Who in Horror and Fantasy Fiction, is that Munby is the writer "who comes closest to inheriting the mantle of M. R. James".
That's quite a claim, isn't it? Other readers must have their own candidates to inherit the mantle of the master, but here at least are a few votes in Munby's favour. It's also a bold statement given how difficult it is, apparently, to write a ghost story that can actually scare its readers. And it might involve avoiding Jamesian trappings as much as paying homage to his techniques.
To take a personal favourite as an example: there's a purportedly real-life incident buried in Twenty-Five, an early exercise in autobiography by Beverley Nichols, and it's all the better for being surrounded by Nichols's otherwise unflappable reminiscences about mixing with politicians, writers, etc. It is the last place you'd look for a ghost story.
In any case, I'm sure Munby, as a book collector, would have been amused, if not proud, to see "near fine" copies of the first edition of his collection going for somewhat more than a song.
A short TLS review of the reissue will follow in due course, I hope. For the time being I'm looking forward to the postprandial entertainment for delegates on the first night of the Cambridge conference: a reading from one of those stories with an appopriately bookish inflection, "The Tregannet Book of Hours", by the actor Richard Heffer.