The Alabaster Hand

24 Feb

In the field of supernatural fiction, it is fair to say no author casts a longer shadow than M R James. It is arguable, however, that no author has come closer to inheriting the mantle of the great James than ghost story writer Alan Noel Latimer Munby (1913-74). The son of an architect, he was, like James, educated at King’s College, Cambridge. It was here that his fascination with ancient books began, and he later became librarian of the college. Munby also became a leading figure in the antiquarian book trade and for many years was associated with the legendary book dealer, Bernard Quaritch. He wrote several bibliographical studies and a number of his short stories combine his interest in books and the supernatural, as well as being written in an elegant and scholarly style reminiscent of his role model, James. Curiously, however, Munby’s only collection of ghost stories, The Alabaster Hand, published in 1949, was largely written to pass the time away while he was a German POW at Eichstatt in Upper Franconia from 1943-45. Whilst a prisoner of war camp would not, perhaps, ordinarily be thought conducive surroundings for the creation of a classic collection of ghost stories, The Alabaster Hand is strong evidence of the way in which creativity must have helped some who found themselves in this position to preserve their sanity.

Not only was A N L Munby one of the closest of M R James’s many imitators to him in scholarly accomplishment, he was also perhaps the closest in devotion to the institution – King’s College – in which both men passed much of their working life. There is no doubt that Munby was both conscious of and indebted to the famous author’s literary achievements – The Alabaster Hand contained a Latin dedication to James and is deliberately evocative of his writings. However, Munby was not part of the original set of Jamesian writers, like E F Benson or Arthur Gray, who had known the great man in his prime and who had been present at the first readings of his stories to select gatherings of friends in King’s. This is because James’s first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, had been published in 1904, nine years before Munby was born. When Munby went up to King’s as an undergraduate in 1932, James – a former Provost of the college – was then in his seventy-first year. The stories in The Alabaster Hand, written in conscious imitation of James, are therefore purposely retrospective in their evocation of a world that, by the year of the volume’s publication, had largely vanished. This is again an echo of James, who was similarly dislocated from the period that was the setting for many of his most famous ghost stories.

It is also worth emphasizing Munby’s academic distinction. He went up to King’s in 1932, reading Classics to begin with but then changing to English (then a relatively new degree subject). He did not get a particularly good degree, a modest II.ii in fact, but he was to more than make up for it in the years that followed. On graduation from King’s he immediately secured for himself a prestigious position in Bernard Quaritch’s antiquarian bookshop in London, shortly after which he joined Sotheby’s in 1937. After the war he returned to King’s as Librarian, a post he held until his death in 1974. Munby’s published output was relatively small but his eminence was publicly marked by his appointment as Lyell Reader in Bibliography at Oxford and Sandars Reader at Cambridge. Just for good measure, he was also a visiting Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford; an Honorary Fellow of the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York; a Trustee of the British Museum Library and, in 1974, became President of the Bibliographical Society. As a scholar, therefore, Munby is much more like the great original than, say, E G Swain or R H Malden, neither of whom, though they were competently learned, were academics of unequivocal distinction like James.

Jamesian touches abound in Munby’s chilling tales. A typical instance occurs at the end of The Inscription, in which the tomb of an 18th century diabolist is unwittingly disturbed, with fatal consequences for the narrator’s friend. The entrance of the temple in which the tomb is situated has been partly demolished for its stone, but the antiquarian protagonist observes an incomplete sentence of Roman capital letters and deduces – wrongly, as appears later – that the temple has been built in 1769. This recalls the techniques used by James in such stories as The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and A Neighbour’s Landmark. But in one important respect Munby’s stories do not follow the pattern established by M R James, whose tales often have a disturbing, anarchic dimension just beneath their surface urbanity. Munby’s supernatural visitants have little of the repulsive palpability of James’s, being typically observed rather than directly experienced by the potent senses of touch and smell which James employs to such devastating effect in tales such as the aforementioned Abbot Thomas (“a most horrible smell of mould and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own…”). Munby’s ghosts, however, display the individualism of their author. They may not all be malevolent or odious, as James suggested they should be in his Introduction to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911) but, nonetheless, the impression they create is a memorable one. For example, who can forget the moment when the icy alabaster hand in the title story of Munby’s famous collection moves and clutches at Cecil Travers? An Encounter in the Mist serves as a good introduction to the fictional writings of Munby (click to read!).

To sum up, Munby led an enviable life in many respects, at least before and after his years of captivity in Germany. He was one of those lucky individuals whose private passions also provided his means of earning a living. He died on 26 December 1974, the day after his sixty-first birthday (his second Christian name was given in acknowledgment of his birth on Christmas Day). As a scholar and bibliographer, Munby’s reputation is secure. In the pantheon of great ghost story writers he also occupies a small but distinguished place owing to his only collection of stories, The Alabaster Hand. Contemporary reviews all singled out for comment the dominant qualities of old-fashioned restraint, gentlemanliness, Englishness and authentic learning that Munby’s stories conveyed. The result is a volume that has stood the test of time and can be appreciated today by all lovers of M R James and supernatural fiction in general for the pleasures that the antiquarian ghost story can provide.

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4 Responses to “The Alabaster Hand”

  1. Hugh Paxton February 24, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    I have written my best ghost stories while attending staff meetings at Japanese universities. It would be unfair to equate a Japanese university staff meeting with the horrors and deprivations of a Nazi POW camp. But there wasn’t any food, years weren’t years, just twelve hours or in one case 18 hours, and the only sustenance was green tea, cigarette smoke and lots of blather.My mind and imagination required an alternative location. Everybody involved in these meetings seemed impressed by my enthusiastic writing. They assumed I was taking notes of their wise words. I was in fact busy with a drainage project in the Fens that had unearthed a startling burial pit of deformed pre-druidic skeletons. Your website is just the ticket! Thanks and keep it up!

  2. Sandra February 24, 2013 at 3:21 pm #

    Very interesting. I will look for this book.

  3. Dawn March 10, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Thanks for this post. l will go in search of Munby for my bedtime reading pile — and I sent a link (to your books) to a young friend who recently returned to the US from a stint at Oxford…

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