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the alabaster hand

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13 ghost stories in the style of M. R. James

  • Aug 22, 2010
A.N.L. (Alan Noel Latimer) Munby (1913-1974) was in the antiquarian book trade prior to World War II.  He wrote "The Alabaster Hand" (his most famous work) while a prisoner-of-war from 1943 - 1945.  After the war, he became Librarian (1947) and Fellow (1948) at King's College, Cambridge. He was also a J.P.R. Lyell Reader in Bibliography at the University of Oxford (1962-63), and a Sandars Reader in Bibliography at the University of Cambridge (1969-70).

The preface to this book is dedicated in Latin to M.R. James' own shade, and many Jamesian techniques are employed in Munby's ghost stories.  Other stories in this collection are less like those of M.R. James, in that they rely on non-supernatural terror, and as a whole, are less successful in frightening the reader.  Some of the stories end with a whimper, rather than a scream, but a few of them are worthy of the Master.  My favorite is 'The Four-Poster' which has a very chilling, unexpected climax.

The 13 stories:

'Herodes Redivivus'—This story is horrifying but not particularly supernatural, except for a prescient dream that haunts the schoolboy-narrator.  A sadistic, pedophilic book-seller lures the schoolboy-narrator into his cellar.

'The Inscription'—A scholar spends the weekend with his friend, who is tearing down a ruined temple on a island belonging to his manor.  The temple had been built by a wicked, reclusive ancestor.  Soon the friend is being haunted by something he can only glimpse after dark.

'The Alabaster Hand'—A vicar presented to the living of Brandon St Giles, begins to wonder why no one is allowed to sit in a particular stall that is hard up against the tomb of a previous vicar.

'The Topley Place Sale'—The heir of Topley Place tries to sell off the furnishings of his new manor, including the relics of Admiral Topley, who fought in the Napoleonic Wars. However, the old Admiral had expressly stated that his relics should be preserved in his house.

'The Tudor Chimney'—A man remodeling his newly-purchased manor finds a lovely Tudor fireplace that had been bricked up and concealed behind a wall.  Naturally, he decides to restore it, and is soon being haunted by a terrible smell.

'A Christmas Game'—My friends and I used to play this game at Halloween.  We sat in a circle in the dark and passed around objects purported to be intestines, eyeballs, etc.  In this story, the game becomes a bit more realistic.

'The White Sack'—A hiker in the mountains of Skye is making his way back to his lodgings when a mist delays his progress.  Soon he is being stalked by something that resembles a white sack.

'The Four-Poster'—An archeologist dies of a heart attack in an old four poster where he had been suffering from terrible nightmares of the adjoining graveyard.

'The Negro's Head'—The black servant of a bookbinder is accused of being a jinx, and is murdered rather horribly by the bookbinder's apprentices.  His body is thrown into the Thames, where one of the apprentices later dies by drowning.  The supernatural is not very obvious in this story, except perhaps, for the death of the apprentice.

'The Tregannet Book of Hours'—A man buys a medieval Book of Hours and is chagrined when his friend points out that the miniature illustrating the Burial Service is a modern forgery.  Why was the original illustration of the Burial Service destroyed?

'An Encounter in the Mist'—Yet another hiker is lost in the mist, this time in Wales.  He encounters a cheerful old man who gives him a detailed map of the area.  There is only one small problem with the map.

'The Lecturn'—A soldier steals a lecturn from an Irish village church and has it sent home to his father's manor.  It is placed in the family chapel, where the returning soldier soon dies a horrible death.

'Number Seventy-nine'—A collector wishes to purchase an item listed as #79 in a book catalogue, but discovers that the bookseller has burned the item he covets.

'The Devil's Autograph'—A thirteen-year-old orphan goes to live with his uncle, an elderly, reclusive invalid who was a church canon.  His clergyman-uncle is subject to intense fits of depression whenever the subject of Satan is brought up.

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cover from the 1963 Four Square paperback
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