Nicholas Orme, Ten Cathedral Ghosts (Wick: Brown Dog Books, 2022), 134pp.
The antiquarian ghost stories of M. R. James have many imitators, to the point where the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ might be said to be a sub-genre of ghost stories (or supernatural stories) themselves at this point. The antiquarian ghost story is ostensibly so called because its protagonist is often an antiquary or other academic knowledgeable about the past, or because the story features some sort of antiquarian investigation or discovery. But James was also an antiquary himself, and thus a strict interpretation of the antiquarian ghost story might require that its writer should be an antiquary as well, because antiquarian ghost stories are a genre of supernatural tale that emerges from the work of the historian, the archivist, or the archaeologist. It is certainly the case that many ghost stories with antiquarian themes attempted by writers with no experience of actually working with the remains of the past often miss the mark and feel like ill-judged mimicry.
Nicholas Orme is among the most eminent historians of medieval Britain alive today, and therefore his slim volume of ghost stories certainly fits that strictest definition of the antiquarian ghost story. Orme knows of what he writes. The conceit of the collection is that they are all set in the same place – the cathedral and cathedral close of the fictional cathedral city of Acester – and recounted by Orme as both a narrator and, in some cases, a participant in the story as the cathedral’s historian. Orme is, of course, the historian of a real cathedral: Exeter Cathedral, on which he wrote a book in 2009 to celebrate its millennium. Whether Acester is a thinly-disguised Exeter is for the reader to decide.
Each of Orme’s stories is capable of standing alone, but they are also linked together by the same location and some of the same characters, such as the vague, hapless and trendy Dean and the caustic, old-fashioned yet spiritually astute Canon Caliver. Having lived for years in the equivalent of a cathedral close myself (The College at Ely), I can say that Orme’s portrait of life in the curtilage of a great cathedral rings true – and the very idea of setting a book in a fictional cathedral close is, of course, a literary nod to the Barchester novels of Anthony Trollope.
As for the ghosts themselves, the first one we encounter (in ‘It Came Upon The Midnight Clear’) is a rather terrifying and malevolent poltergeist-like being that tries to engineer Canon Caliver’s death. The remaining ghosts are rather less threatening than this, even if the grinning skeleton of ‘The Ace of Hearts’ is rather unsettling; and some, like the Victorian lady of ‘Through A Glass, Darkly’, are positively benevolent. Perhaps my favourite trope of the antiquarian ghost story is the role of old documents in uncovering the story, giving insight into the work of the historian; and Orme does not disappoint. Archival work plays a role in ‘The Second Echo’, while an obscure antiquarian volume sets things going in ‘On Matthew’s Day at E’en’. A medieval book is at the centre of ‘The Devil’s Epiphany’, even if it has now been emptied of its sinister import. The restoration of an ancient artefact is at the centre of ‘The Limping Imp’, perhaps the strongest story in the collection which manages to be comic and menacing in equal parts.
Ghost stories written by antiquaries – as opposed to mere ‘antiquarian ghost stories’ in the sense of fitting a Jamesesque genre – are always interesting, speaking as they do to the sometimes unnerving experience of immersing oneself in the past and its documents or relics, day after day. The past has a tendency to become more real than the present; the dead seemingly assert themselves, clamouring for recognition. Furthermore, anyone who spends enough time in an archive is sure to encounter some strange things along the way – peculiar stories, enigmatic yet suggestive inscriptions, unsettling uses of language. All of these are fuel to an imagination already predisposed to detect the uncanny.
Nicholas Orme’s Ten Cathedral Ghosts are well-crafted stories in the tradition of M. R. James’s ‘pleasing terror’, moving from the comfortable, the banal and the familiar into altogether more unsettling realms. They work well together as an ensemble, and we are left with an impression of the community of the cathedral close, both living and dead, which adds another layer of depth and texture to the stories. A book of ghost stories by a historian is always a treat – for when it comes to the power of the undead past to intrude into the present, historians know whereof they speak.