Finding out about things

Alan Bell

  • Montague Rhodes James by Richard William Pfaff
    Scolar, 438 pp, £15.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 85967 554 8

Montague Rhodes James is secure in his reputation as a ghost-story writer of almost unparalleled quality. Even general readers of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary will immediately be aware of their strong autobiographical element, the authentic circumstantial detail about the natural that makes the supernatural all the more convincing. The firm command of technicalities, whether of libraries, manuscripts or misericords, the institutional background peopled by characters like the Sadduccean Professor of Ophiology and college fellows spending their long vacations in decayed cathedral towns, help to provide a persuasive background against which the author can deploy his menacing figures and evil presences (which are more convincing hinted at than described). The explicit and the implicit become easily blended, and one might be pardoned for thinking that the author himself had known such experiences, that it might well have been he who, crablike,

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