"Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" Trade Paperback Review
Written by James Ferguson
Published by Self Made Hero
Written by M.R. James
Adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion
Illustrated by Aneke, Kit Buss, Fouad Mezher, and Alisdair Wood
2016, 64 Pages
Trade paperback released on October 4th, 2016
When you think of classic horror writers, names like Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft immediately come to mind. M.R. James is another such writer that should be in that mix, although I was unfamiliar with him until reading the graphic novel adaptation of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. James was an English writer about a hundred years ago specializing in “atmosphere and suggestion” over gore. It's a more subtle horror. This can work well in prose as you have the room to create a mental image for the reader. How does this translate into the comic book medium?
The short answer is “not well.” I'm sure that Leah Moore and John Reppion did the best job they could, but the end result is very wordy, relying heavily on omniscient narration and basically telling the reader what's happening in each panel. This does a disservice to the talented artists that contributed to this project. Instead of using the images to help tell the story, they're used more for illustrative purposes, showing what is happening in the text. The whole point of the medium is for the words and pictures to work together. Here they come across more like an add-on.
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It doesn't help much that the stories themselves are rather dry and boring. Again, this might come through differently in prose. The overly descriptive narration makes the images less impactful. There's little to get excited about when I know every single little facet that's going on thanks to the text boxes. I understand that M.R. James' specialty was in “understated horror” and not your typical jump scares or gross out murder, however there are many comics that convey tone and create terror in the same intended manner far more successfully. You can look at anything from Mike Mignola for good examples.
James' stories tend to end abruptly. Basically, some Englishman gets himself into a strange situation, something weird and sort of scary happens, then it ends. No explanation is given and we don't have time to get to know the character before they're thrown into the supernatural, so their fate doesn't pack much of a punch.
The scariest tale in the collection is “The Mezzotint,” illustrated by Fouad Mezher. It follows a man doing some research and finds an image of a house that seems to change over time, with a mysterious figure running up to the front door. There's something so unsettling about the idea of a still image moving, especially one that changes when you're not looking at it. Mezher's artwork captures that sense of dread that comes from this disturbing feeling. He uses shadow very well, often casting the characters in near darkness.
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The creepiest artwork of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary has to be Alisdair Wood's in “The Ash-Tree.” The final images in this story will send a shiver up anyone's spine, especially if you're not a fan of spiders. He uses some great angles to make the creatures look even more overbearing as they rain down around the characters.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a dry and very British collection of spooky stories. There are some interesting supernatural elements sprinkled within each tale, but it stops just short of creating any real scares, as if M.R. James was concerned about offending the reader. The artwork is solid in each segment and can overshadow James' narration. It might be best to read this book while ignoring the text. Just look at the images and put it together in your mind.