A.N.L. Munby – The Alabaster Hand (1949)

Review by Justin Tate

Munby would enjoy knowing his collection of ghost stories is now a scarce find and highly collectible. The majority of these 14 tales involve rare book curators or other enthusiasts of antiquity. An occult mystery typically surrounds the rare object in question, as is explained to the protagonist by an acquaintance around a roaring fire.

Like artifacts in his fiction, Munby’s book has its own intriguing history. During WWII, he was captured and held in Germany for five years as a prisoner of war. It was during that time, 1943 to 1945, that he wrote these stories.

It’s hard to imagine writing anything of literary merit under such tumultuous circumstances, but he managed to pull it off. The pacing is casual, relaxed, and conversational, as one often desires from Victorian-era ghost stories.

Indeed, Munby’s tone is largely borrowed from formulas established by the likes of M.R. James, Henry James and Charles Dickens. There is the classic story-within-a-story component, an obsession with the past, eerie dwellings, and atmospheric gloom. The language is easier to digest than these more verbose authors, however, and the dilemmas more quickly revealed.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Munby exceeds in talent of these classic authors, but his imitations are worthy reading. His talent for setting up premise and introducing mystery is routinely marvelous. Admittedly these elements falter once the supernatural gets involved.

Antiquing descriptions are abundantly vivid—probably because of Munby’s own obsessions with old books and artifacts—but when the plot progresses to action it loses steam. There’s not a bad story in the collection, but there’s also none that deliver anything truly memorable.

Overall, I suspect The Alabaster Hand is sought by WWII buffs more than fans of exceptional ghost stories. Still, a fun one to have in the collection and something I can imagine myself revisiting from time to time.

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