This is a review of quite an old title, in fact one dating from 1895 and freely available on Project Gutenberg. But The Lost Stradivarius, by John Meade Falkner, has been described as the novel that M.R. James never wrote, and as an ardent Jamesian, I’m naturally going to want to read such a work. Perhaps I wasn’t as impressed as I hoped to be from such a description, but I was sufficiently diverted.
The Lost Stradivarius, for one thing, shares the same collegiate setting that James loved, unfolding much of its action in Magdalen Hall College, Oxford, where the possessed violin of the title is discovered by John Maltravers, the chief protagonist and ultimate victim of the instrument’s dark accompaniment. Music is obviously central to the work, especially the “Areopagita” of Carlo Graziani, which apparently has the power to summon back a ghost – the spirit of a dead 18th-century rake, Adrian Temple, whose influence over Maltravers recalls that of Joseph Curwen in H.P. Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward., and who leads him on a similarly dark path.
Falkner himself was a more than interesting character, a capable businessman who eventually ended as chairman of Britain’s huge Armstrong-Whitworth Company, and who wrote in his spare time, also penning the better-known smuggling drama Moonfleet (1898). As a writer, he seems to have been very much a man of his time, especially in the values and sentiment of his work. James was anything but a sentimentalist, and his dry sometimes chilly attitude, which occasionally distils into brutally objective dissection of the terrors of his protagonists, is one of his timeless strengths as a ghost story writer. Falkner is if anything more reminiscent of Arthur Machen, who has a similarly prurient approach in some of his work, such as The Great God Pan (published in book form one year before Falkner’s novel, in 1894) to late Victorian preoccupations such as the dangers of sin in Latin countries.
As one of Falkner’s characters says, “We can scarcely doubt that as certain forms of music tend to raise us above the sensuality of the animal, or the more degrading passion of material gain, and to transport us into the ether of higher thought, so other forms are directly calculated to awaken in us luxurious emotions, and to whet those sensual appetites which it is the business of a philosopher not indeed to annihilate or to be ashamed of, but to keep rigidly in check. This possibility of music to effect evil as well as good,” is the novel’s theme, but it is clearly evil in the sense of sin and vice, more than the less moralistic but ultimately more terrifying forms that James dealt in. And here’s Falkner’s narrator describing a Neapolitan saint’s festival: “I cannot, however, conceive of any truly religious person countenancing such a gathering, which seemed to me rather like the unclean orgies of a heathen deity than an act of faith of Christian people.” Hard to imagine James the cosmopolitan ever using such sententious language.
That said, the story builds and progresses nicely towards its climax, and the central conceit of “the Visio malefica, or presentation of absolute Evil” is as unnerving as any of James’s terrors. The Lost Stradivarius may not have aged so well, but it more than makes the grade as a well-constructed ghost tale.