The Alabaster Hand – A.N.L. Munby
Four Square – 1963 (Originally published 1949)
The protagonist in T.E.D. Klein’s The Ceremonies mentions that this book is on his shelf. I promised myself I would read all of the horror fiction referenced in The Ceremonies, but after attempting to read the truly atrocious Ingoldsby Legends, I had to wait a while before going any further with Klein’s recommendations.
The Alabaster Hand is the only work of fiction by Alan Noel Latimer Munby that was ever published. It’s a collection of ghost stories that were written while the author was being detained in a prisoner of war camp in Nazi Germany. The collection is dedicated to M.R. James, and James’s influence can be felt in every one of these tales.
Munby was a serious book nerd. He was an antiquarian book dealer, a librarian at Cambridge and the President of the Bibliographical Society. His characters, like those of James, share his interests, and his passion for old books creeps into several of the stories here. There’s mysterious diaries, terrifying grimoires and an antiquarian bookshop run by a pervert. The book nerd in me couldn’t help but enjoy these tales. I spend a good deal of my free time researching quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore, but Munby took these pursuits to another level. I get the sense that Munby was romanticising the life of an antiquarian though. Michael Cox, in his 1995 introduction to this collection notes, “The stories in The Alabaster Hand are deliberately retrospective in their evocation of a world that, by 1949, had largely vanished.” It’s hard to imagine anyone other than a carefree Victorian Lord having the necessary time and money to pull off a life truly dedicated to the pursuit and study of antiquarian books.
There’s one story in here called ‘The Negro’s Head’ that is liable to cause offence to modern readers. It’s about a black lad who is murdered for being black. Although the narrator does not condone this murder, he does end the story with regrets for the “savage who was so grievously wronged at the hands of one of my own countrymen.” I know words were used differently back then, but describing a murder victim as a savage seems pretty silly by any standard. I’m quite sure Munby actually meant well here, but I’d still skip to the next story if I was reading this one on the bus.
My favourites in the collection were ‘Herodes Redivivus’, ‘The Book of Hours’, ‘Number Seventy Nine’ and ‘The Devil’s Autograph’. As fun as some of these stories were, none of them were remotely scary. I recall feeling a bit creeped out when I read some of James’ stories, but nothing in this book had that effect. They’re decently entertaining though, and if you like M.R. James, this may be the next best thing. It’s quite short too. You might as well read it.