More Ghost Stories: Tedium and Ghosts

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More Ghost Stories by M.R. James has been a bit of a grind. So much so, that I’ve put it down multiple times and went on about life thinking, “Do I really need to finish that? By this point, I know how things are going to go.” I’m just so intrigued by the settings and stories that I’m willing to read them even if I find some points a bit tedious.

I can respect the inspiration and foundational impact of M.R. James has provided. Perhaps if I were reading these at Christmas time with some roasted chestnuts and some mulled wine, I’d enjoy them a bit more. However, with 97% of a thirty page story focused on where the garden keys are or courtroom proceedings – not drama, proceedings – or any other mundane proclivities of the early 1900’s, there’s only a blip of a page’s worth of ghostly goodness. 

I wrote this before I even finished reading the last story because, it doesn’t matter. They’re gonna find those keys. The MC Hammer Pants of a ghost of the valetudinarian uncle will show up. The characters will say they are spooked, but it’s really more of a good ole flummoxing. Everyone will be fine and unscarred, except the one and only character to be punished for his trespasses because he killed a woman, thus making her a ghost, and sentencing her to an afterlife of wearing three pairs of Hammer Pants at once and running on all fours. 

Okay fine! There is one more character that was punished, but I do not recall the specifics. I’m not going back to find which one. I’ve taken a cursory glance at the table of contents, nothing rang a bell. Even though I could look at the first page of the story and remember, I don’t want to.

Taking into account that these tales were published well over one hundred years ago, I bet they sure were scary at the time. I can truly appreciate the setting, the ideas; pretty much the whole she-bang minus the execution. I feel like I’m being groomed into accepting the slightest bump on a floorboard to be satisfyingly spooky. 

Which, it is. Each and every single time with previously heavy lidded eyes I say, “You did it again M.R!”. Though it’s fleeting, that’s the payoff. Which is the reason why I read the next story and that I’ll more than likely read the next collection of stories, A Thin Ghost and Others.

First Impressions of Harrow The Ninth

Harrowhark

Harrow the Ninth is the second book in The Locked Tomb Series. Yes, it used to be The Locked Tomb Trilogy, but now there is going to be more. So, that’s good news! I’m a fan of Gideon the Ninth and have been excited to read Harrow the Ninth. 

I still am. I’m probably going to give Harrow the Ninth five stars.

However, I have to admit that having chapters seemingly alternate between third and second person narration was something I wasn’t expecting. I’d gone in blind. No reviews. No samples. I had no idea. My only expectation was more of that Gideon the Ninth goodness. Which is there, just in second person. Alternatingly.

It isn’t that the perspectives – and points in time – alternate between chapters, it’s that second person exists at all. Especially after it did not exist in Gideon the Ninth. My brain was fighting the idea that I was taking on the role of Harrowhark. Who is a character that I’d thoroughly witnessed in the third person. My brain was fighting the idea that I was the narrator witnessing Harrow’s Lyctorial challenges.

For the first fifty pages, there was a sense of relief when I turn to a third person chapter. I knew simple reading bliss would follow. When I hit a new chapter I’d do a quick scan of the page for the use of the word “you.” If I saw it outside of quotes my heart would sink just little. Seriously, just a little. My brain would whir up and start trying to figure out if I’m Harrow or the narrator. 

Eventually, I just relaxed.

Second person narration was a challenge I had to overcome. I have my spoiler free suspicions as to why there is second person narration. I also acknowledge that Tamsyn Muir is smarter than me. Even if I’m wrong as to why, I’m sure Muir has very good reasons for writing parts of Harrow the Ninth in second person.

Ghosts of an Antiquary: Was M.R. James a Nerd or a Bully?

Ghosts of an Antiquary by M.R. James contains stories that helped shape and inspire a genre. H.P. Lovecraft was deeply inspired by M.R. James and is noted as having written at least one essay discussing James’s works. Of course, H.P. Lovecraft had other inspirations, but that’s a post for another time.

Upon reading and reviewing Ghosts of an Antiquary I couldn’t help but notice a few things. One of those things being an ironically ponderous question. Which is, what if M.R. James wasn’t some hoity-toity scholarly type, but in fact a bullish jock wanting to trash some nerds by giving them supernatural wedgies.

Each story sets up some overly educated and well funded twit on some journey through the magical world of cursed antiquities. By their own accord or at the behest of another fancy lad, these antiquarians often find themselves a stranger in a strange land. More often than not, that strange land  is a small mostly forgotten settlement in a rural area. Always they are looking for a book or some other antiquity. Each and every one of these characters are so interested in books or antiques that they ignore clear red flags and hygienic concerns. Putting a rusty dirt filled whistle in ones mouth is a pass from anyone whose mother raised them right. 

Furthermore, there is a little overlap between the stories. Meaning, by reputation, characters have heard tales of weird stuff happening to other characters in other stories. Yet, they continue to do what they do with little regard for themselves and the safety of those around them, namely servants.

Luckily, each one of these characters is met with a frightening situation. Each scenario should make readers give little a nod of the head or the smallest of fist pumps in appreciation for thoroughly terrifying these ninnies. None of the characters are particularly likable, heroic, or redeeming except in the broadest sense of, they are alive and therefore deserve to live. Which, spoiler alert, unfortunately all of them do. 

Which has to be my one complaint about the stories in Ghosts of an Antiquary. None of the main characters die. Nor are they haunted for an extended period of time by their unchecked privilege. They simply discard, burn, or plaster up whatever monstrosity they’ve unleashed and the story ends. That said, there is something satisfying about seeing a bunch of well-to-do educated guys metaphorically wetting their breeches. 

Gideon the Ninth: Lesbian Necromancers In Space!

You can read my spoiler free review here or over on goodreads.

Gideon the Ninth is really good book. So good that I had to write about it with a bit more depth, while still striving to remain spoiler free. It’s the first book in The Locked Tomb Trilogy. If that name doesn’t give it away, it’s a fantasy series. Yes, even though there are more than a few sci-fi, horror, mystery, and urban fantasy elements sprinkled around the book, it is a fantasy series. Gideon the Ninth includes goodness from so many genres taking inspiration and components and mixing them together in a skilled manner to create an intriguing tale.

In some ways the universe of Gideon the Ninth reminds me of Dune’s. There are a bunch of houses, with their own roles and cultures, in control of their respective planets. An absent yet fear imbuing emperor is in charge of them all. Characters have mouthy greek inspired names like Atreides, Nonagesimus, and Tridentarius. One can’t ignore the – perhaps coincidental – similarities of the names Harkonnen and Harrowhark. There’s a mixture of space age technology and the tried and true staples like swords and daggers. Society with all it’s idiosyncrasies and traditions has existed for millennia. Though this particular society seems worse for wear and little threadbare. 

Waning society fantasy setting aside, there’s a murder mystery to be had as a motley group of unruly and humorous characters that aren’t the quite the typical fantasy crowd work to become Lyctor. Which is fancy talk for bad bad necromantic side kick to the emperor. While several characters are off beat, they aren’t from completely out of left field either. Readers are only given deeper access to a few of the characters, having them become a focal point in the story.  There’s a high degree of skill in writing and enough time was given to make all the necessary characters feel at least somewhat rounded. With many appearing as fully formed characters. Which is a feat given that the story is less that five hundred pages, in a fantasy setting, and has almost twenty pertinent characters. 

On top of the characters there is also the world building. No, it isn’t as much as some larger fantasy novels and by the end a fair portion of the world is still enshrouded in mystery. That’s what I found so intriguing. By the time I finished, I didn’t understand how the world fully worked. I’m not even sure how far reaching the universe is. Space is the perfect setting for a tale about necromancers. The near infinite cold void is nothing if not an apt metaphor for death itself. I’m fine with having mystery as it gives me something to ponder on.

I found the writing to be strong. Like a several other readers, I found the first part was a bit of a slog. There were many words I had to look up and the reader is getting hit with some world specific lingo that can be a bit unwieldy in the way it was introduced. Though I can appreciate the effort of avoiding exposition. To be honest, I almost gave up. Having to search for a word every few pages was starting to take a toll on my self-esteem. I’m wasn’t too proud, I just thought I wasn’t smart enough. 

After the first act, the writing loosens up considerably. There’s an anachronistic humor to the characters that becomes apparent. Aviators and elements of leathery gothy punkness squeak into the story. The character’s lexicon is not much different than our own current culture’s lexicon. Which in a way was refreshing. Cussing just occurs with no world specific proxy words. Hell is hell and an eff bomb is set to kill. All of this gives Gideon the Ninth an urban fantasy feel. 

Lastly is the predominant horror element. It’s every where as it should be in a story about death and space. Canaan House is a destitute and derelict place staffed with skeletons that even the necromancers find off-putting. A since of greatness and extinguished life adorn the halls and rooms. Winding concourses are dimly lit and blocked by locked doors. There are things in the dark places. Also, once the spaceships are pushed over the edge of the landing strip, there is no escape.

All of the elements mix together to give Gideon the Ninth a refreshingly new take on a few played out fantasy tropes. Why it’s taken humanity so long to get to a book about necromancers in space, let alone lesbian necromancers in space, is anyone’s guess. 

I almost forgot about the lesbian piece! That alone could serve as an indicator for how integral it is to the story. Do not get me wrong, it does factor into the plot. What it isn’t though is the plot. Gideon the Ninth is a amalgamation of a lot of genres, but it isn’t a “coming out” or “mostly about being a lesbian” story. What’s interesting is that the word “lesbian” doesn’t even appear in the book. Perhaps it doesn’t even exist, because what’s even more intriguing and inspiring is that it isn’t a big deal in this world. There are a couple of characters that are lesbian and it’s just accepted. No other characters mumble or glare about it. In fact, they’re beyond acceptance. It’s normal! Just the way it is, nothing to see here other than representation. What if our own world was the same way, for like, all LGBTQIA2S+? Representation. Acceptance. Empathy. 

If any of this sounds intriguing in the slightest, Gideon the Ninth should probably be picked up. I found it great and it resonated with me in such a way that I know I will reread it sooner than later. I cannot wait to read the rest of the series. In fact, I’ve had to actively distract and reroute myself away from neighborhood bookstores in an effort to not purchase Harrow the Ninth. Though the only reason for doing so is out of consideration for my current TBR pile.