Having started reading ghost stories by M.R. James, a quietly brilliant writer who has become one of my favorites, around Halloween two years ago, I have since started collecting as many English ghost stories in James’s style as I can. Somewhat frumpy, preferably Victorian, but lingeringly scary – that’s how I like them. I got an anthology on interlibrary loan from UT Austin last week, Ghosts and Scholars – Ghost Stories in the Tradition of M.R. James (1987), edited by Richard Dalby and Rosemary Pardoe, who also edit an informal scholarly newsletter of the same name dedicated to all things Jamesian. A story collected in the anthology, Montague Summers’ “The Grimoire” (1936) – like so many that imitate James, atmospheric but not actually scary – reminded me that Summers, too, edited a ghost story anthology held in high regard by nerds of the genre. Summers’ The Supernatural Omnibus (1932) seems promising – the title of the only story I’ve read, Amyas Northcoate’s “Brickett Bottom,” completely undersells how dread-inducing it is – but what has arrested me about the book so far is the edition I have from Duke University Library.

In what I hope will become a regular feature of this blog, I’m going to talk about some of the marginalia left in this edition, attempting to elicit something of the book’s life and what it has meant to its readers. I’m a rank amateur in terms of descriptive bibliography (which, according to the ABC For Book Collectors, is technically what I’m doing); my observations are entirely subjective and in many cases rather fanciful. But they’re a little timely, too: as recently as a few weeks ago there was a piece in the New York Times discussing what the implications might be for marginalia in an increasingly digital age (it also quotes “Marginalia,” one of the few Billy Collins poems I really like). So with that as my news hook and my girlfriend’s nifty wand scanner (link opens a PDF) in hand – she got it to scan family photos, but amateur bibliography seems just as good a use – I’ll take a look at someone’s anonymous notes in Duke’s The Supernatural Omnibus and see what I can decipher.

(Below the break, an excursion into Greek and insightful but anonymous commentary.)

Published by Doubleday, Doran and Company – now the Doubleday division of Random House – The Supernatural Omnibus, with its wonderfully specific subtitle pictured above, is laid out in a scholarly format befitting (mildly satirizing?) the academic credentials of the anthologist. This first edition, indicated by the crimped seal on at least two pages (pictured below), was initially the property of the Woman’s College at Duke, which was incorporated into the main university in 1972. Before then, it would have lived in what is now the Lilly Library on Duke’s East Campus (there’s a detailed article about the history of the former Woman’s College with pictures of some of the now-vanished university buildings on the brilliant local blog, Endangered Durham). Since there are no ex libri or other notes indicating that this book was donated by a specific person, I assume it was purchased by the library. Here’s the seal, from p. 59, which happens to be the last page of one of my favorite ghost stories, Perceval Landon’s “Thurnley Abbey”:
Throughout the book there is marginalia in a few different hands – hurried underlinings in pencil, checkmarks by titles in the Table of Contents written in black ink with a sharp definition that suggests the use of a fountain pen or possibly a calligraphy pen – but I became fascinated by the hand in fading blue ballpoint who made this note in the Table of Contents:
Suffice it to say, I wasn’t expecting to find notes in Greek when I got the book off the shelf. But, in context with the title from Frederick Marryat’s 1837 story, λυκανθρωπία, or lucanthropia, makes sense: in English it’s the root of our word lycanthropy – the state of being a werewolf.

What I love more than the thrill of finding this ominous Greek annotation is the careful clumsiness of how it’s written, as if she was writing a little too slowly because she wanted to form the characters just right. One might think she was carefully copying the word out of a Greek dictionary open on her desk, but I don’t think so. As my lovely friend Eva, who translated the word for me, points out, the writer made a mistake: the accent should be λυκανθρώπια, not λυκανθρωπία. This leads me to think that the writer was studying Greek, but had not mastered it yet. Still, the note makes a definite impression about the writer: she is intelligent, takes these supernatural stories seriously enough to make a careful note by one of those she’s read and, like most young, intelligent people, she’s a bit of a show-off. In this public book, on a page nearly everyone who opens it will read, she was at least somewhat consciously making a mark about herself for her fellow readers to see.

I have been referring to the reader who writes slowly but not carefully in blue ink as “she” for some time now because of a simple inference: for the first half of its life this copy of The Supernatural Omnibus was the property of an exclusively women’s college library and, making a subjective judgment from the evidence I have, the handwriting looks young and feminine. Fortunately, there is a fair amount of evidence: out of thirty-six stories she annotates eight the exact same way, with a few exceptions. In Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom,” one of the pages was bound incorrectly so that p. 88 faces p. 86: though against the binding the page numbers are printed, the woman with the blue pen has written in “88.” and “87.” on the reverse, apparently for consistency’s sake. Another reader has marked in pencil at the bottom of p. 86, “TURN NEXT PAGE.”, which is helpful but a bit pedantic. These notes show an awareness of the readers who will follow them through these pages, as if the writer in blue, assisted by the writer in pencil, is curating these pages for us.

This curatorial sensibility pervades her lengthier notes which, as I mentioned, are usually in the blank space at the ends of stories, taking up a small paragraph’s space. Her handwriting is a cursive script, which doesn’t look as old-fashioned as the Zaner-Bloser hand my grandparents wrote in but more constrained than my mother’s cursive, especially the formal capital letters. It bears a resemblance to the handwriting of one of my favorite professors, who grew up in the 1950s. With my very limited knowledge of modern American handwriting, I’ll make the young woman with the blue pen my professor’s contemporary, dating her handwriting somewhere between the 1950s and the 1970s. The lines are spaced evenly apart and the writing evenly weighted, as if she was pressing down a bit. Maybe the blue pen didn’t write well otherwise, or maybe conviction made her press harder – her notes are certainly confident enough. A note at the beginning of Bram Stoker’s “The Judge’s House” identifies the story’s provenance as “From DRACULA’S GUEST, Routledge & Sons, 1914″ – she has lightly underlined the book’s title and written between the note and the first line, “A vastly inferior portion of the original novel.” There is some controversy as to whether “Dracula’s Guest” was the original first chapter of Dracula; my Penguin edition makes no mention of it, but in the Preface Florence Stoker, widowed two years before, describes the story as “a hitherto unpublished episode,” and some subsequent editors have included it, boldly placing it at the beginning of the novel or quietly tacking it on as an appendix. According to Jack Ross, who has a great overview of the controversy at his blog, the first edition to include “Dracula’s Guest” as a part of Dracula itself was published in 1979 – this means the reader with the blue pen likely had to seek out the story itself. As the only edition of Dracula’s Guest available at Duke is a paperback published in 2006 – this doesn’t mean there wasn’t once an earlier edition but still – I can’t determine where she found “Dracula’s Guest.” But there’s no doubt of what she thought of it. “The Judge’s House” she liked, though: her assessment begins, “Despite the musty gothic trappings, this is a house of true terror.”

Most of her annotations have this earnest seriousness about them, and though I was somewhat disappointed that she only wrote after eight stories, those eight betray a focus on stories about vampires, werewolves, and demonic apparitions. Though she may have read them, the stories strictly about ghosts don’t merit notes: three stories by the first really influential Victorian supernatural writer, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, are included in The Supernatural Omnibus, but she only jots a critical statement after “Carmilla.” A novella now mostly famous as an inspiration for Dracula and for its lesbian overtones, “Carmilla” was loosely adapted into Carl Theodor Dreyer’s film Vampyr (1932), more a fever dream than a vampire movie (the booklet with the Criterion Collection DVD includes “Carmilla” in its entirety; I’ve also written briefly about Vampyr here). This is the annotation I like best, perhaps because her erudition doesn’t slip into somewhat pedantic judgment. More than anything, you can feel her admiration:


[Transcript: “Save Count Dracula, Carmilla is supreme among vampires. (Note the transition of the vampire from legend to Varney through Poe’s Ligeia and Le Fanu’s Carmilla and Stoker’s Dracula to James’ Magnus and de la Mare’s “Seaton’s Aunt.”]

Her syntax is slightly unclear, but that she has read widely in the vampire story tradition is not. Her critical appraisal is asserted and then she has done with it – she focuses instead on a chronological outline of vampires in English literature, going through the Victorian penny dreadful Varney the Vampire (1845), a slight backtrack to Edgar Allen Poe’s “Ligeia” (1838), “Carmilla” (1872), Dracula (1897), M.R. James’s “Count Magnus” (1904), and Walter de la Mare’s “Seaton’s Aunt” (1923). The phrase “from legend to Varney” makes it seem like those are the start and end points of the series when they are only the first two items, but that slip along with the parenthesis she leaves open at the start of the list makes me think she was writing quickly, breathlessly. Situating “Carmilla” within the tradition is her focus – she has momentarily stepped outside herself, her carefully written notes. The curator takes a step back and for a moment sees the work whole, stumbling over herself to make her knowledge worthy of her awe.

As I mentioned, the woman with the blue pen focuses her annotations on stories of infernal apparitions – vampires, werewolves, demons – or on stories by writers better known for their fiction in that vein, like Stoker’s “The Judge’s House,” a late ghost story. She references M.R. James, the ghost story master, in the note above, but “Count Magnus” (a favorite of both Thomas Hardy and A.E. Housman, incidentally) is his only work with vampiric overtones. Her other notes betray a knowledge of the gruesome imagery of the Gothic novels that influenced the stories in her list – in her note to “The Judge’s House” she mentions Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), and after “The Phantom Coach” Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Since she refers to specific moments in these novels, they aren’t mere name-drops, either. The question follows: was this young annotator working on a thesis or term paper, tracing the developing themes of lycanthropy – werewolfism, that Greek word she painstakingly spelled out – and vampirism, rational man transformed into appetitive beast, out of the Gothic tradition of the late eighteenth century? Did this book sit on her small desk, not two miles from my own, or did she find it in the stacks repeatedly, writing incisive comments by lamplight in a carrel at the Woman’s College Library, fixing them on the page and in her mind for use later?

Or are these notes her thesis? By that I mean that her annotations don’t necessitate another purpose at all. It is just as likely that she was an assiduous reader who wanted to preserve her responses, guiding herself and those who follow through a body of work she knew well. Her anonymous notes may not add up to a sustained reading of a whole tradition, but they are disarmingly candid and insightful, her strong opinions cast in charming relief by spelling mistakes and the earnest loops of her pen. I can thank her for recommending some stories I’ve never heard of and for furthering my conviction that the faint, fragmented voices of marginalia should not only be preserved but read carefully, that the ghosts who speak to us in books need not be contained by margins.