October 25, 2012


MR James: Collected Ghost Stories
468 pages, Oxford University Press

Review by Pat Black

Kindle’s alright. But sometimes I crave the real thing.  

I’d long coveted a good hardback version of MR James’s ghost stories, and this handsome edition – released ahead of the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth - ticked every box.

Would MR James have liked Kindles? I strongly suspect not. Like me, he would have preferred his favourite books as solid, physical objects. Not just for the sake of taking up space on a shelf or helping to put out someone’s back when you move house, but because books can have a life of their own. They become affixed to certain times and events in life, and they can outlive us.  

They take on a history. They become haunted.

It’s possible you don’t know MR James. That being the case, I’d presume you don’t enjoy stories of ghosts, demons and hairy nasties waiting to give you a scare – because when it comes to writing tales of terror, he is just about the most famous of the lot.  

An esteemed medieval scholar, James had the unusual honour of being the provost of King’s College, Cambridge, as well as Eton. But his lasting fame is as a writer of ghost stories, bridging the Victorian era and the Edwardian – arguably Britain’s last golden age. Many of the tales were created ahead of traditional readings James would give in the cloistered, candlelit atmosphere of ancient colleges and libraries at Christmastime. James produced about four volumes of these tales, all of which are collected here.

To the stories, then; and they’re formulaic in their way. Reflecting the interests of their author, they usually look at naive academics or prelates, chancing upon some malevolent design through messing around with ancient architecture or arcane texts. Write about what you know, indeed; James’s first book was properly entitled Ghost Stories of An Antiquary.

Subtly, the danger and menace exerted by these disinterred evils is established, before James’s characters encounter them in some kind of physical form. From the stories, we may deduce that certain things scared James more than others. First of all, his supernatural horrors are usually hairy. Secondly, we might suspect that James didn’t like spiders much. Worst of all, of course, are gigantic, hairy spiders, and they appear in this book, too.

We’ve all got our favourite stories. Mine is “The Mezzotint”, where a strange print takes on a life of its own, showing a figure with a cross on its back as it crawls towards a country house. “The Ash Tree” looks at some very bad luck which seems to befall people who sleep in a room next to the tree in question at a country house, while “An Episode of Cathedral History” sees another hairy horror unleashed when an ancient barrier is dug up from under the floor of a church. “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad” – easily his most striking title – looks at an academic haunted by an apparition at the seaside after blowing a whistle he finds at a cemetery. Er, yes, just blow into this please, sir. “Lost Hearts” could be the most distressing story, where a wicked scientist looking to carry out unspeakable experiments on children gets a taste of his own medicine. Certainly this last is extremely graphic for its time, and perhaps uniquely so in the Jamesian canon. 

The stories are a masterclass in creeping dread. What’s striking to modern readers is that the nasties depicted – it’s somewhat misleading to term them ghosts, as they are more often demons, monsters and vampires than straight up-and-down visions of the souls of the departed – are unpleasant in and of themselves. Other than vague hints, James does not delve into any kind of lore behind his creations. He wanted to avoid the gothic traditions of the ghost story, pregnant with hidden desires and cloaked in symbolism as they were. This gives his stories a certain proper, English and somewhat dusty atmosphere, a unique selling point. Certainly, the world of science is held in check, too. James was simply looking for an effect in the reader, and would doubtless have been annoyed by critics looking too closely at the texts for hidden meanings. James seemed to deplore psychoanalytic or scientific explanations for his ghouls, being particularly dismissive of the American weird tradition with its horrors from space and other dimensions. He was also scrupulous in avoiding the presence of sex in his tales.

Whether you think he was successful or not, particularly in the latter endeavour, depends on how mischievous you’re prepared to be. Darryl Jones, in his scholarly introduction to this edition, does not shirk the issue of James’ apparent fear of intimacy and physical contact, allied to his horror of hairy things with strange, uncanny mouths, which his knock-kneed academics sometimes felt out in bed in the dead of night. Allied to some oft-repeated notions of what HP Lovecraft’s monstrous Cthulhu really represents, there’s an interesting thesis topic here on what MR James – a lifelong bachelor – and other ascetic figures who wrote about fear were truly afraid of.

But I’m not going there, so to speak. You can examine that idea for yourself in the introduction. For me, on a cold, misty night in front of the fire, I am more than happy to take MR James’s sinister apparitions and haunted abbeys entirely in the spirit they were intended. As something to cause a thrill of fear before the lights go out. For that unusual pleasure, there are very few to equal MR James.    

Have the Kindle edition if you must; you can even get these stories for free, nowadays. But if you wish to have a beautiful, brand spanking new edition to haunt your shelves, seek this one out for Hallowe’en.

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