The Alabaster Hand by A N L Munby

1974 Tandem paperback

In a brief foreword to The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories (first published in 1949), A N L Munby says that these stories “were written between 1943 and 1945 in a prison-camp just outside the ancient walled town of Eichstätt in Upper Franconia”. In fact, Alan Noel Latimer Munby — “Tim” to his friends — spent five consecutive years in German POW camps. He’d joined the Territorial Army some years before the Second World War started, and in 1940 was sent to the continent to help defend Calais. Two days later, with German guns less than 100 yards from the town, Munby and the captain of the French defending forces shared a bottle of brandy, then gave themselves up. Munby was sent to Laufen in 1940, Warburg in 1941, and then Oflag VII B in Eichstätt in 1942. While there, he formed an antiquarian society and gave lectures (he’d been a book cataloguer for Sotheby’s before the war), wrote humorous poetry and a mock-Baedeker guide to the camp, helped make fake uniforms and stand-in parade dummies for escapees, and, of course, wrote ghost stories in the style of M R James. (At least one of which, “The Alabaster Hand”, was composed during an air-raid blackout, with Munby and a friend composing alternate paragraphs.) Three of these tales — “The Four Poster”, “The White Sack” and “The Topley Place Sale” — were published in a camp magazine, printed on a press owned by the Bishop of Eichstätt. (A fellow POW, Elliott Viney, who helped with the magazine, was later the printer of the first edition of The Alabaster Hand in England.)

But before this makes it sound as though Munby had a jolly war, when he was freed and returned to England in 1945 he found that his wife, whom he’d married only the year before his capture, had just died. (He’d marry again, and have a son.) Munby returned to his work for Sotheby’s, but soon left to become librarian at King’s College, Cambridge.

If it weren’t for that foreword, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for signs of the Second World War in the Alabaster Hand stories — though that, of course, may be the point. Munby’s narrators (or, quite possibly, his single narrator, as they could all be the same person) gad about the British countryside, visiting friends who own country houses, popping into isolated chapels in remote villages, or take walking trips in Welsh or Scottish mountains. They peruse booksellers’ catalogues, discover the stories behind obscurities in their own antiquarian collections, and have time to listen to the supernatural experiences of old acquaintances. It’s quite possible these ghostly stories, scary though they are, were mainly designed as a sort of mental holiday from the realities of Stalag life, both for their writer and his fellow-prisoners.

But there are a few moments when war — not the Second World War, but still possibly based in elements of Munby’s own experience — breaks through the pipe-smoke fug of academic bookishness and M R James-ishness. For instance, in “The Lectern”, we learn of one Thomas Prandle, whose sheep-farming forebears raised themselves to somewhat surly minor gentry (there are a few examples of upstart gentry behaving badly in these stories, and they always get their comeuppance). Prandle joins the late-18th century equivalent of the Territorial Army, and eventually gets his chance to do some overseas soldiering, though not (as with Munby) in France, but in Ulster. It falls far short of his dreams of soldierly heroism:

“It very soon became clear to Prandle and his troop that this wasn’t the glamorous business for which they’d been training so long. Instead of the dashing cavalry charge that he’d pictured he found the drab necessity of conducting house-to-house searches in a hostile countryside. There is no glory for the soldier matched against guerrillas — no enemy is drawn up in line to do battle, only a sordid series of murdered sentries, shots in the dark and vanishing assailants. The inevitable reprisals only made a bad situation worse. The soldier is at an enormous disadvantage in dealing with civilians. If he is a man of chivalry, they can insult him with impunity, for he cannot retaliate. If an unarmed man is killed by a soldier there is an immediate outcry…”

This surely can’t have been Munby’s experience in Calais, as he wasn’t part of the occupying forces, which makes me wonder if he perhaps formed this picture of Thomas Prandle from observing his German captors.

First HB cover, with art by Joanna Dowling

The only explicit mention of modern war comes in “Number Seventy-nine”, the tale of an antiquarian bookseller’s cataloguer, Merton, who “came down from Oxford in 1913, and got caught up in the war before he’d settled down to anything. He was badly shell-shocked in France, and when he got his discharge in 1918 he was a nervous wreck…” Merton, much to his employer’s delight, becomes engaged, but is even more distraught when he loses his fiancé in an automobile accident. (Reading which, I couldn’t help wondering how Munby must have felt about this tale when his own wife died before his return to England.) Merton turns to spiritualism and then, in a final desperate move, to a manuscript on necromancy his employer has just acquired. His employer (who is telling the sorry tale-within-a-tale to Munby’s narrator) hears Merton scream and run from the shop, and looking out, sees “a shadowy figure… of grey colouring” following him, accompanied by a smell he recognises from an exhumation he’d happened on as a boy. (Smells — quite often of burning — accompany other Munby spectres, too. The reality of burned flesh may be another wartime experience of Munby’s.)

The most visceral passage in all of these stories comes in “The Tudor Chimney”. The narrator’s wealthy friend, who has recently taken up the hobby of renovating an old house, opens a bricked-in chimney and looses something that the narrator encounters one night. Generally, in these tales, the spook is witnessed by someone else, or is even relegated to a tale-within-a-tale-within-a-tale, but this time the narrator himself sees the thing, and his response is authentic:

“There are certain human passions that strip from a man the veneer of civilised culture which normally encases him, that turn him into something primitive and elemental. I felt myself spiritually naked when face to face with the apparition that confronted me that night.”

This passage stands out because, generally, Munby’s narrator is quite cool about the existence of ghosts. In “A Christmas Game”, the narrator sees one coming for a fellow guest, but, knowing it’s not there for him, doesn’t seem to feel any fear. It’s not as with Lovecraft, where the very fact of an entity’s existence is enough to drive a man to madness. Nor is this quite M R James’s approach. Mike Ashley has described Munby as the “Closest to inheriting the mantle of M R James”, and the air of antiquarianism, churchiness, strangely-historied things bought on impulse at auction, and horrors rooted in recent centuries past, is certainly there. But the differences are evident in a tale like “The Tudor Chimney”. While James generally lays out, piece by piece, the whole background necessary to understand the full import of his spook before it makes its final appearance, Munby has us see the ghost, and know it as a ghost, then his characters start the investigation into what or who it is, how it came to be a ghost, and how to lay its disturbed soul. And once it’s dealt with, the characters get on with life pretty much as before, no sanity points lost. A ghost, as the narrator of “The Tudor Chimney” says, “isn’t the sort of thing one can shut away and keep out of one’s mind”, but it’s also, in these stories, not the sort of thing to shake one’s faith.

Munby’s tales are brisk, compared to James’s, and once you get past the POW’s holiday-in-the-mind of gadding about the British countryside engaging in idle antiquarian research, the supernatural elements are introduced quickly, have their stories told in straightforward narratives rather than Jamesian hints, and then they’re put to one side. But they’re effective tales for all that, and if they’re lacking the weird power of M R James’s originals, they get their little shiver of terror by more than mere association.

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