As befits the scariest month, I embarked at the beginning of October on a volume of ghost stories by British scholar and author, M.R. James. (Collected Ghost Stories, Oxford University Press, 2013.)
I must admit that, until I stumbled upon this title whilst browsing online, I’d never heard of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). Promotional material touts his work as some of the finest of the supernatural genre, right up there with Poe, Dickens, Conan Doyle, Lovecraft and Stoker. Indeed, the back cover claims he’s ‘considered by many to be the most terrifying writer in English.’ How could I have missed him?
This omnibus, in perpetual print since its publication in 1931, contains all of James’ ghostly tales, including the two most popular, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and Casting the Runes. The 2013 edition starts with a lengthy introduction by Darryl Jones, Professor of English at Trinity College Dublin. If you get this book, don’t skip it; it offers valuable and fascinating information about James’ background and career, and of the ghost story form itself. There’s a timeline of the author’s life in relation to cultural events of the time, and an appendix of James’ notes on his stories.
I learned, for example, that the modern ghost story is dead. That is, proper ghost stories are always set at least a hundred years in the past, which by its archaic detail imbues the proceedings with a ready-made ambiance of mysterious antiquity and shadow.
It’s important, I think, to remember the era and environment in which James, a Victorian and a lifelong college man, was writing. Whilst I recognize how well-crafted his tales are, I did have some trouble with them at first. Modern audiences, so used to overwrought Hollywood blockbusters with catastrophic violence, blood and gore in every scene, will not, perhaps, appreciate James’ subtlety. Today’s fare consists of a continuous series of intense blast-’em-ups with no true climax, so the brief moments of horror in his stories might – as they did with me, at first – disappoint. After the third or fourth tale, however, I’d acclimatized to the author’s style, and found myself drawn in to his claustrophobic world of remote country houses and haunted inns, ancient churches, cobblestones, lamplight and fog.
James’ dénouements might also leave the reader wondering, “Is that it?” – or, “What happened?” The demons and fiends which so terrorize our protagonists are always shadily-sketched, and endings can often be abrupt and more than a little vague. And, as I’ve mentioned, the story arcs, whilst concise – as all good short stories should be – are rather more gentle than the sensationalism we’re used to. But all of these, I believe, are precisely what make James’ works so skillful. Rather than over-the-top, jump-out-of-your-seat horror, the ghost stories of M.R. James are designed to evoke a creeping sense of spookiness, of suspicion, mystery, paranoia and doubt. If you’re looking for some deliciously gothic shivers this season, do give this book a try.
In James’ honour, I’ve tried my hand at penning a Victorian ghost story. You’ll find it on my new creative writing site, Flagstones & Fog. The blog is intended to be a repository for my occasional jottings – short stories, poetry, book reviews, perhaps excerpts from the novel I’ve been working on for a very long time (and perhaps will never finish). I’d be exceedingly pleased if you paid me a visit there!