Reading Yellow Glass

I don’t remember how I came across Yellow Glass and other ghost stories, but I am glad that I did. This debut collection by historian Francis K. Young just came out in September, and it’s a fine contribution to the antiquarian ghost story genre.

Yellow Glass and other ghost stories

Francis Young was born and raised in the same Suffolk environs as M.R. James, and seems to share many of James’s professional and personal interests. His collection opens with a short but thoughtful essay on the relationship between historians and ghost stories, and the affinity of one for the other. I liked the idea that writing ghost fiction can give professional historians a way to express their relationship to the past, in a way not possible through the drier medium of scholarly writing.

M.R. James famously expressed a preference for ghost stories placed in familiar settings and near contemporary times: “a slight haze of distance is desirable” [1], but “the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed…not too much like a man in a pageant” [2]. I love James’s ghost stories, which in my opinion hold up quite well; but after a century these tales may no longer qualify as having “nothing antique about them” [3] — and that’s not getting into the cultural differences among international readers. So it’s always a treat to see solid, well-written, modern tales with an antiquarian sensibility.

Each story varies in theme and approach, and draws on different aspects of the author’s professional and scholarly background. The title story is the most “classic” example of the genre: a professional conservator encounters an unsettling and sinister stained glass rose window in a tiny French town. The story has many of the recognizable elements of an antiquarian ghost story: extensive discussion of church architecture, enigmatic and encoded ecclesiastical art, priests dabbling in satanic practices, strange dreams, and an oh-so-Jamesian ghostly peering eyeball. The resolution is perhaps more reminiscent of Frederick Cowles than M.R. James—that is, more Catholic than Protestant—but the story is a great start to the collection.

“This is My Book” is sort of a historian’s in-joke, centering around the medieval tradition of book curses. It takes a nice swipe at the practice of treating books as objects of interior decorating, rather than repositories of knowledge and culture, and it’s just a fun story in general.

Other stories touch on Icelandic revenants, fairy rings, heraldric art, and family curses. I particularly liked “The Leaven of the Farisees,” with its connection to what I’d call “homely magic,” as well as to the dark “others” whom folklore says live around us. “The Devil’s Breath” is a fairly successful pastiche of a Victorian ghost story.

“The Dreamt Book” is an interesting weird tale, and not one that seems antiquarian on the surface, save for a reference to an extinct Iberian language. But it’s a intriguing story about dreams and friendship and loyalty.

These seven stories are more the quietly unsettling type, rather than outright frightening, but they are all enjoyable, and four of them strong. If you enjoy ghost stories in the antiquarian vein, and are looking for contemporary, updated contributions to the genre, then check out Yellow Glass and other ghost stories.

[1] Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels, V. H. Collins (ed.). (Oxford, 1924)
[2] “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories”, The Bookman (December 1929), 169-172
[3] “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories”

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