Leah Moore and John Reppion spear-headed and adapted an adaptation of the prose stories of the English author of classic horror, M.R. James, along with a group of talented comic artists, in 2016. The title of the comic volume, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, mirrored James’ own title for his story collection. Now, Moore and Reppion have adapted a second grouping of stories from that collection by James, joined by Meghan Hetrick, George Kambadais, Abigail Larson, and Al Davison.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Vol. 2 debuted at Thought Bubble in the UK, and is now widely available, with perfect timing for Halloween season, but also for the Christmas season, with which some of the stories in the volume eerily connect. While American readers may be less familiar with the work of M.R. James, his particular association with the spookiness of the long, dark, Winter season is well known in the UK. And now comics is bringing that mood to life for readers on an international level.
Leah Moore and John Reppion join us on Comicon.com today for a virtual fireside chat about the “ancient and contemporary” attractions of the work of M.R. James.
Hannah Means-Shannon: Since I didn’t get a chance to interview you for the first volume of M.R. James stories for SelfMadeHero, though I did pick it up at an art comics festival called Comic Arts Brooklyn in 2016, we may be treading old ground for you in my questions!
I have been a fan of horror and creepy fiction for many years, but I have mostly on come across M.R. James as a footnote in the work of other writers. What turned you on to his work?
John Reppion: I first encountered James’ writing on some horror anthologies. The Tractate Middoth is one story I remember in particular reading early on–“the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs—thick”. Although I enjoyed it, I can’t say I was blown away at first. It wasn’t until I started reading his collections and getting a bit more of an understanding of who James was and the world he was writing about as a whole that I began to appreciate his work properly. What James did was bring the ghosts of Olde England into the modern world (as it was when he was alive); the point at which the ancient and the contemporary intersect is where his spirits break through. They arrive in libraries, in railway carriages, in guest houses, and in University rec rooms. And when they do, they are almost always angry.
James’ ghost stories are a bit like Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries in that many people think of them as these very cozy, very English tales–and admittedly they are in part–but, once you get right into it, they are often much darker and harsher than most imagine. The discomfort of terrible things happening in, or inhabiting, this comfortable, commonplace world is the hook. These are things which could happen to you if you are not careful. If you are not respectful of the dead, and the un-dead.
HMS: What made you think James’ work was particularly ripe for the comics medium?
Leah Moore: I think James’s prose might prove challenging to a modern reader, in that he does a lot of description of places, or routes taken, or architecture to set the scene, before he gets to the scary parts. I think that comics can get across all of his world building and scene setting, and leave his descriptive embellishments intact, while actually transporting the reader much more quickly to that place, and introducing the protagonist. In comic form, the journeys made by his characters spring off the page, the people they meet are more easily characterized, and the reactions to events are more obvious. I
think that when you read a writer like James, where he obviously delights in making his subjects and characters and settings as obscure and scholarly and dusty as possible, with each one being about a learned man going in search of a very old artefact, or piece of information, it is sometimes hard to keep the pure pulpy adventure of the story in your mind as you read. With a comic, you can enjoy both layers of it at once, without losing any of the original intent.
HMS: While anthologies are something that publishers claim are hard to sell, working with the same original author to draw the book together seems like a great idea, while introducing the reader to a number of comic artists, styles, and moods. What does this kind of collaboration bring to your experience of a project, as writers?
JR: The bulk of James’ work was published in collections (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary 1904, More Ghost Stories 1911, A Thin Ghost and Others 1919, A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories 1925), and I think his stories work especially well when you can immerse yourself in his world, tale after tale. There’s a consistency not just of voice, but of tone; his individual ghost stories very much feel like they are all part of a much larger story. So, in terms of pulling a book together, the hard work has already been done for us by the man himself. We didn’t want to mess with that.
With Leah and I doing all the scripting and adaption, we’re able to make sure we maintain the tone of the stories and the world (as well as preserve as much of James’ “voice” as is physically possible) across the board. Were we to have worked with just one artist across each, or both volumes, however, I feel like there’s a chance it might not have been as accessible as we wanted it to be. We’ve got some incredibly talented artists in Vol. 2 and seeing their different visual takes on the various settings, characters, and the supernatural things which bedevil them, is just as fascinating to us as it hopefully will be to readers.
HMS: What was the fan response like to the first volume? And in your advance release at Thought Bubble to the second volume?
LM: The response has been fantastic actually, among horror fans, James fans, which have a lot of overlap with all the Lovecraft fans out there, and most wonderfully for us, among people that don’t usually read comics. We did an event with the first book at our FACT cinema, where they screened the BBC Ghost stories for Christmas TV adaptations of Oh Whistle and I’ll come to You along with Dickens’ The Signalman. We provided an introduction to the films, and then signed books afterwards, and the amount of people who were buying them as Christmas presents for their parents or even grandparents was amazing. James’ work is entwined in the British psyche, and their idea of Christmas, so the ordinary public are more receptive to the comic of it than you might imagine!
The second book sold really well at Thought Bubble this year and it was very satisfying to sit behind stacks of the two volumes and watch them vanish. The thing I love is seeing people faces as they flick through and see the gorgeous watercolours by Al Davison and Meghan Hetrick, or the beautiful linework by George Kambadais and Abigail Larson. I hope the adaptations really bring something fresh to readers of James, and also bring James to fresh readers!
HMS: About a year ago, the climate seemed to be “Horror doesn’t sell”, something I found pretty ludicrous, but I heard repeated by many publishers and pros. One year later, many people are saying we’re entering a horror renaissance, evidenced, for instance, by a number of new horror titles coming up from Image Comics. You both have worked in horror for some time, so what do you make of this variable attitude?
JR: The latest horror craze seems, to me, to be very much tied into the weird 80s redux we’re experiencing, not just in entertainment but across culture (and politics). Stephen King is once again THE horror writer, and everyone is seemingly looking for “the next Stephen King” or “X’s answer to Stephen King”. Meanwhile everyone who already writes horror–be that novels, or comics, or films–is just carrying on doing what they were doing.
Don’t get me wrong, I love 80s horror, I love Stranger Things, I love Stephen King, and I definitely love the fact that horror seems to be something that sells (or had the potential to sell) big once again. I just hope the good stuff outweighs the attempted cash-ins. Maybe some people who wouldn’t normally pick up something labeled as horror will do so and get turned on to something they might have otherwise missed out on. That can only be a good thing.
There’s some hugely exciting horror comics out there like Steve Niles and Alison Sampson’s Winnebago Graveyard, 2000 AD have just brought back two classic UK horror comics, Misty and Scream! in time for Halloween, and there’s Pornsak Pichetshote and Aaron Campbell’s Infidel [coming up], which I’m really looking forward to. Horror comes in many tones, many flavors and I think it’s great to see people exploring all the possibilities the genre has to offer.
HMS: The press for this new book describes the stories James tells as “understated”. That seem like it might be challenging to evoke and yet affect the reader strongly enough, particularly as desensitized as we can be these days due to film and TV horror gore. Any key strategies?
JR: In adapting James’ stories into comics, we do lose some of his narration (although it depends on the story exactly how much), but we’ve done our best to edit down rather than re-write his words wherever possible. He is very much the literal story-teller, as well as author, and retaining that voice is something we thought was important.
When James first started writing his ghost stories, it was so he could read them aloud to some of his University colleagues in the long dark Winter evenings. Consequentially, many of the stories have this conversational, even gossipy, tone to them and people sometimes misinterpret that as rambling. What he’s actually doing is lulling the listener/reader into a false sense of security; he’s saying “this is all perfectly normal, boring even” and then he drops in some tiny, chilling detail. These build and build until they reach a kind of descriptive crescendo where the supernatural element is explained in terrifying detail. His stories are understated up to a point–but it’s very much the calm before the big, shocking revelation.
HMS: Also mentioned in press for the book is the fact that it has both Halloweeny-horror appeal and ties to Christmas in a gothic vein. Do you think there’s been an underlying Gothic element to Christmas through the years? I can think of that seminal tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, from the middle ages, and then, of course, Charles Dickens’ soft spot for thrills, if not horror.
LM: I think that there has always been a need for these darker tales in the middle of winter, if not specifically Christmas, just because it has always been the scariest part of the year. January was called ‘Wolf Month’ by the Saxons because that was the month where you were most likely to be eaten by wolves. Dickens’ obsession with horror and ghost stories at Christmas came from his own childhood during the ‘Year there was no summer’ in 1816, where the eruption of Mount Tambora caused a volcanic winter that devastated the crops for whole year across the whole of Europe.
It was known as the famine year, because everybody died. This was the year Mary Shelley was writing Frankenstein at Lake Geneva and single-handedly creating the Gothic genre. The picture-postcard Dickensian Christmas that he describes so well, and that we all aspire to, with crunchy snow and carol singers, is Dickens responding to those apocalyptic winters of his childhood, and writing very moral tales of what every good person should do at Christmas to help the poor.
Big thanks to Leah Moore and John Reppion for taking the time to do this extensive interview with us about this intriguing new volume.