When I was about 14 my brother's girlfriend bought me a couple of second-hand books for my birthday. One was a picture-book of Victorian sheet music covers and the other was the The Lost Stradivarius by J Meade Falkner. She had bought them for me because she knew that I loved music. Indeed, I loved music so much back then that I often neglected to read.
I put both books under my bed and in the fullness of time they vanished beneath a carpet of dust. About a year later I found them. The Victorian sheet music illustrations didn't interest me very much, but as soon as I started reading The Lost Stradivarius I was completely besotted. The plot is straightforward: a young aristocrat, John Maltravers, discovers a Stradivarius violin concealed in his rooms at Magdalen College, Oxford. Its previous owner – an occultist – had sought to conjure the Visio Malefica, a vision of absolute evil. Maltravers becomes obsessed with the violin and the black magician's history and this obsession eventually destroys him.
The Lost Stradivarius is sometimes described as the novel that MR James never wrote. There are similarities, but to make such a comparison diminishes Falkner's achievement. It is, in fact, a good deal better than James (who I greatly admire). The characters are more rounded, the set pieces more frightening, and the principal themes more ambitious. Much of the narrative is underpinned by Neo-Platonist mystical philosophy and Falkner explores late 19th-century preoccupations such as the relationship between beauty and morality. Music is crucial to the plot, treated not merely as organised sound but as a means of opening channels between our world and the supernatural.
I have a particular affection for The Lost Stradivarius because it is the first book I ever recognised as "literature" without having to be told. My only exposure to books and reading was English classes in a big secondary modern school in Tottenham. It was the 1970s, so educating pupils wasn't a priority. Yet Falkner's elegant prose was sufficiently powerful to make me think I had stumbled across a piece of polished writing worthy of inclusion in the canon. Many years passed before I discovered that Falkner did have a modest literary reputation. A full-length ghost story is a difficult thing to write; most supernatural classics tend to be short stories. The Lost Stradivarius, however, is a rare and notable exception: an extended work that fully transcends the limitations of the genre.
FR Tallis's new novel, 'The Sleep Room', a psychological ghost story, is published by Pan Macmillan
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