This Folio Life: A ghostly new Collectable
Next autumn we’ll be publishing a collection of M. R. James’s sublime ghost stories in the Folio Collectables series. The selection will be taken from James’s first two books, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), which contain all the masterpieces. Non-Fiction Publisher, Mandy Kirkby, has begun preparatory work already, starting with the search for suitable illustrations.
“I’ve always liked the very first illustrations made by James McBryde for the first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and, always looking for an excuse to spend time in a fine library, I called up early and first editions from the University Library in Cambridge.
“I was in the right place, for sure: M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James was a Cambridge man – a medievalist and biblical scholar and, latterly, provost of King’s College. He drew his plots from that enclosed world (old libraries, bachelor dons pursuing antiquarian research leading to ghoulish encounters) and his settings from the empty and brooding East Anglian countryside. If you’re a fan of M. R. James then you’ll know that every Christmas Eve he would read a new ghost story to his Cambridge colleagues.
“After evensong at King’s they’d take dinner in Hall (with hot spiced beer) and then adjourn to James’s rooms. The ritual was set: James would disappear into his bedroom and his guests would sit and wait in the candlelight. James would emerge from the bedroom, MS in hand, blow out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. And then he would begin.
“McBryde was part of James’s Cambridge inner circle, and would have attended the Christmas Eve readings. He was a talented illustrator at the beginning of a career and James asked him to illustrate his first collection of stories. I think the illustrations are quite wonderful but, disappointingly, there are only four (one shown above). Whilst in the middle of the project, McBryde died of complications arising from an appendicitis operation, leaving the rest of the illustrations unfinished. James’s publisher had suggested another illustrator, but James refused and the four illustrations went in. He regarded the edition as a tribute to McBryde.
“After the disappointment of finding only four illustrations, I did find a consolatory surprise hidden in the edition I’d called up. The book was James’s own copy and contained a handwritten note by A. F. Scholfield, the University librarian at the time, written in 1936, three months after James’s death. It read: ‘This book was given to me after Dr M R James’s death (12 June 1936) by his executors. The edition is not a mere reprint: it contains many corrections, which were approved by him. The pencil notes are in his hand.’ There was a liberal scattering of margin notes in pencil, the great M. R. James improving the text. It gave me quite a thrill to see a writer I admire at work; it never fails.
“For our Collectables edition we’ve settled on the illustrations by Charles Keeping, originally published in a Folio edition of 1973. They’re very different from McBryde’s: where McBryde uses detail and realism, Keeping takes a step back and uses shapes and empty space with a simple dark palette to convey unease.
“What McBryde and M. R. James would have made of them one can only guess.
“Keeping’s style would have been quite alien to them, but I think they would have recognised how skilfully he captures a feeling of dread and how, without fuss, he conveys the bleak atmosphere of James’s stories.”