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.
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” , but “the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed…not too much like a man in a pageant” . 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”  — 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.
I found this antiquarian ghost story at the Ghosts & Scholars website; it just barely qualifies as a winter tale by virtue of a passing line: Here he paused and took off his hat; the day was warm for December. That’s good enough for me. This is a fun one.
The story concerns bachelor schoolmaster Mr. Jones, who takes a Saturday excursion to visit a newly discovered twelfth-century fresco at the Godstanely village church (which you reach via a path over Terrible Down. How perfect). The church is near the ancient, possibly Stone Age road known as Pilgrims’ Way, and appears to have been built over an old burial mound. Oh, and the fresco….
“Ah!” said Mr Jones, “I understand that the fresco represents a crude but vigorous conception of Hell.”
“Well, it aren’t what I calls right, sir – that picter.”
“Not right? In the old times when the fresco was painted the clergy used to think such representations very good for you. People couldn’t read or write, you know. No education in those days as there is now! They tried to frighten people into goodness by showing them what would happen to sinners hereafter.”
“May be, but it aren’t to my way of thinkin’, sir, beggin’ pardon for the liberty of contradictin’, and it weren’t to the way of thinkin’ of them as put plaster over the thing. Best have left the devils under the whitewash.”
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