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University Libraries

Mysterious Manuscripts, Cursed Chronicles and Specters in the Stacks

By Fred Jenkins

Libraries can be scary places. Many are in creaky old buildings, with dark, isolated corners and the smell of musty old paper everywhere. I remember rummaging through obscure bibliographies on stack levels 1 and 2 at the University of Illinois library as a graduate student. Two floors below ground level, a few bare lightbulbs shining in dark expanse, the sound of water running in pipes. A really spooky place. Thus, it is no surprise to find many ghost stories involve books and libraries. Here are a few suggestions for your socially distanced Halloween frights.

Montague Rhodes James

Montague Rhodes James, onetime provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and noted medievalist, now best known for his ghost stories, started a trend with his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). He wrote many of his stories as Christmas entertainments; in England ghost stories are associated more with Christmas than Halloween (think Dickens). His protagonists were frequently scholars, librarians or antiquaries; books, manuscripts and antique prints figured prominently. Some examples: 

Alan Noel Latimer Munby

Alan Noel Latimer Munby, an undergraduate and later librarian at King’s College, is yet another of several ghostly writers from King’s. Captured at Calais, France, in 1940, he wrote the ghost stories in The Alabaster Hand (1947) to entertain his fellow captives while a German prisoner of war. The book is dedicated to M.R. James and follows in his tradition. As one would expect from a noted bibliographer and book collector, many of the stories involve books. The first, “Herodes Redivivus,” recalls Munby’s own days as a schoolboy roaming the bookshops of Bristol, England. In it, a schoolboy encounters an evil bookseller, a cursed incunabulum and a ghostly dream.

Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies, the noted Canadian novelist, composed ghost stories for the college Christmas party during the 18 years he presided over Massey College at the University of Toronto. He later gathered these into a book, High Spirits (1983). Several stories revolve around books and libraries. “The Night of the Three Kings” is a tale whose action concerns the appearance of the royal ghosts of George V and George VI in the Massey College Library. In “The Great Queen Is Amused,” a spell book of Aleister Crowley is used to conjure up the ghosts of several Canadian authors in the stacks of the college library. “The Xerox in the Lost Room’ is the story of a homeless English ghost whom Davies gives a job copying manuscripts in a secret room in the College.

Morgan Library, New York City

Morgan Library Ghost Stories (1990) is the product of a ghost story competition by the staff of the Morgan Library in New York City. All of the stories are connected in some way with the Library, and most are set in it. Among others, you will meet the ghosts of Samuel Johnson’s cat and the great bibliographer Thomas Frognall Dibdin.

Sarah Monette

Sarah Monette’s The Bone Key (2007) offers a collection of ghost stories featuring an eccentric archivist, Kyle Murchison Booth. One reviewer described it as combining the traditions of Montague Rhodes James and H.P. Lovecraft. If you think libraries can be spooky, try archives and museums!

Tanya Kirk

For a sampler, try The Haunted Library (2016), an anthology edited by Tanya Kirk, a curator at the British Library. In addition to works by M.R. James and A.N.L. Munby, she includes stories by authors better known as mainstream novelists: Edith Wharton, May Sinclair and Elizabeth Bowen.

— Fred Jenkins, a professor with a joint appointment in the Libraries and the Department of Religious Studies, is associate dean for collections and operations in the University Libraries. He oversees the library collections, including special collections and the University Archives.


Davies, Robertson. High Spirits. New York: Viking Press, 1983.

Dupont, Inge, and Hope Mayo, eds. Morgan Library Ghost Stories. New York: Fordham University Press, 1990.

James, M.R. The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James. Edited with an introduction and notes by S.T. Joshi. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Kirk, Tanya, ed. The Haunted Library. London: British Library 2016.

Monette, Sarah. The Bone Key. Rockville, MD: Prime, 2007.

Munby, A.N.L. The Alabaster Hand and Other Ghost Stories. London: Dennis Dobson, 1949; New York: Macmillan, 1950.

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