Review – Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, Vol. 1 (SelfMadeHero)

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Publisher: SelfMadeHero
Writer: M.R. James
Adapted by: Leah Moore, John Reppion
Illustrated by: Aneke, Kit Buss, Fouad Mezher, Alisdair Wood
Release Date: 27th October, 2016

Released to commemorate the 80th anniversary of his death, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary features four illustrated adaptations of short stories from acclaimed author M.R. James, widely considered to be the master of the English ghost story.  Adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, the stories here run the horror gamut from ghosts to demons to witchcraft, each tale thriving by virtue of the author’s ability to establish an atmosphere of uncertainty and due to his fantastic turn of phrase throughout.

Impressively, Moore and Reppion leave the bulk of James’s original dialogue and description intact throughout all four stories, preserving the impact of the acclaimed author’s words as he narrates these unsettling tales.  Yes, minor adjustments are made to the source material to better suit the sequential art format, but it’s a testament to the skill of the pair that the illustrated versions of these stories retain the same chilling impact as their prose counterparts.

The first story, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, summarises James’s distinctive style beautifully, with a wonderfully understated situation being given a gradually increasing sense of discomfort and horror as the story unfolds.  It tells the tale of an English tourist and scholar who purchases a manuscript with a darkly demonic secret, and all the way through James lets the sense of unease fester with the sacristan’s unusual mannerisms and tone making it clear that all isn’t necessarily as it seems. The artwork, provided here by Aneke, is detailed and expressive, and her illustration of the payoff to the gradually escalating tension really hits home.

Up next we have Lost Hearts, which recounts the story of an orphan sent to live with his eccentric elderly cousin, only to make a series of grim discoveries about the true nature of his cousin’s alchemy experiments.  James’s narrative is strong and the denouement is powerful, but I found the Manga-esque artwork of Kit Buss to be a little too lively and colourful for the tone of the story, which detracted somewhat from the reading experience.

The Mezzotint, featuring artwork by Fouad Mezher, is the story which impressed me most in this collection, providing a wonderfully understated dose of horror centered around a painting which gradually appears to be changing, playing out a grim scene in a series of chilling moments.  Mezher’s wonderfully stylised, heavily-inked style works incredibly well to emphasise the grim, matter-of-fact tone of James’s words, and the straightforward colour palette made up of just yellows and blues helps draw the eye to the shadowy corners as the story unfolds.  As perfect an example of James’s distinctive style of horror as you could hope for, with the tense, unsettling atmosphere removing the need for any overblown gory visuals.

And finally, The Ash-tree weaves the tale of an inherited house which bears a supernatural curse, and showcases the always impressive artwork of Alisdair Wood. Wood’s distinctive style works well to underscore the skin-crawling nature of the curse, and his cracked, scratchy linework gives everything a dated, haunted aesthetic.  A strong way to finish the collection, and yet another example of James skilfully structuring a story around the skillful implementation of a basic primal fear.

Overall, while the artwork compliments the stories to differing degrees throughout the collection, the unquestioned brilliance of the author guarantees that at least one of the stories here will creep into your subconscious and burrow in, waiting to manifest itself at a later date.  And while the prospect of adapting such a descriptive prose style into a sequential art format may be fairly daunting to some, Moore, Reppion and their assembled artistic talent have proved to be more than equal to the task here.  Highly recommended.

Rating: 4/5.

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ceejThe writer of this piece was: Craig Neilson-Adams (aka Ceej)
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