Be afraid. Be very afraid...
A ghost story writer without equal, M.R. James's tales of the supernatural have terrified generations of readers. Now a Trinity College professor has edited the definitive edition of James's stories. The perfect book to rediscover on these dark winter nights, the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James is a masterclass in the uncanny, but don't be surprised if you find yourself sleeping with the light on. By Ed O'Hare.
It was a curious ritual. A century ago a select group of the students and faculty of King's College Cambridge began gathering in the rooms of the Provost just before midnight on Christmas Eve. There, by the light of a single guttering candle and the glowing embers of a fire, they would listen as he read aloud his latest composition, a ghost story. The story would usually involve some foolhardy scholar displaced from the safety of his normal surroundings whose self-absorbed meddling incurs the wrath of an ancient evil, a phantom, ghoul, demon or some other fearful entity. Invariably, by the time the Provost's guests departed every hair on their heads would be left rigid and stiff drinks would be required all round. The author of these masterly exercises in terror was Montague Rhodes James and one hundred years later he remains the greatest writer of supernatural tales the English-speaking world has ever seen.
On the face of it, M.R. James was a most unlikely person to become famous for horror stories. Born the son of an Anglican clergyman in 1862, ‘Monty's’ acdemic bent was evident from an early age. After attending Eton he went to King's College in 1882, graduated in 1885, became dean of the college in 1889 and eventually vice-Chancellor of Cambridge in 1913. His own work as an antiquarian included directing the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge's art and antiquities collection, cataloguing the college's manuscript collection, translating forgotten scriptural texts and making several important discoveries relating to medieval history. For all his achievements, M.R. James was still, in the words of this collection's editor Dr. Darryl Jones, “a curiously incomplete man.” James lived his entire life within academic institutions. He never married and only ever had one close friend. He loathed new ideas, did his best to stand in the way of progress, and chose to immerse himself in what was, for the most part, historical minutiae rather than engaging in or encouraging any new academic debate.
Ironically, Dr. Jones believes that it was “the very limitations of James's personal, social and intellectual horizons that account for the brilliance of his ghost stories.” It was also the reason why he wrote them in the first place. His anti-intellectualism and fear of progress needed an outlet and this explains why his stories are so often reflections upon “the dangers of knowledge” illustrating “the dire consequences of a lack of understanding of, and due reverence for, the past.” James himself remained mostly silent about his tales. He believed that the ghost story was “only a particular sort of short story” and subject to the same rules that “no writer ever consciously follows.” All James said with certainty was that a ghost story must have two essential ingredients: atmosphere and a “nicely-managed crescendo”; two qualities his own tales never lacked.
Whatever their limitations, the ghost stories of M.R. James are a class apart from most horror writing. They are superb examples of the short story itself, combining great narrative economy with a chillingly clear authorial voice. James always provides just the right measure of information to keep you riveted. The stories are also beautifully structured. James's immense learning allowed him to seamlessly combine real and imaginary history, so that his supernatural goings-on are often presented, by way of obscure antiquarian documents and relics, as having their origin in real historical fact. He drags sinister figures and mysterious events out of the darkness of the past and into the present and this imbues his stories with a dream-like, or more precisely nightmarish, quality.
The masterstroke of M.R. James's writing, and his greatest gift to future generations of writers, is his idea of locating the strange and inexplicable within ordinary domestic surroundings. His tales may be full of Gothic cathedrals, shadowy libraries, lonely country paths, desolate beaches and twilit ruins, but in James's world you are more likely to have an encounter with a ghost in your bed or hotel room than anywhere else. Also, when he does describe one of his spectral monstrosities he really goes for the jugular. Whether skeletal, spidery, covered in lank hair or composed out of something as mundane as a bedsheet, his ghosts instinctively tap into those most basic of human fears, and this is why his stories have retained the rare power to truly terrify.
Despite his pretence that his ghost stories were no more than a bit of frivolity, it's obvious that James took their composition and reception very seriously. He admired the great Irish gothic writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and aspired towards the same kind of understated horror and gnawing dread that writer pioneered. The finest of James's ghost stories - Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester Cathederal, Canon Alberic's Scrapbook, The Haunted Doll's House, Casting the Runes (the basis for the classic 1957 British supernatural thriller Night of the Demon) and Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad - reach a level of fear that no other writer's work has ever achieved and once read they haunt the memory forever.
A treasure trove for every horror lover, this outstanding collection contains all 33 of M.R. James's ghost stories along with his original prefaces, introductions and numerous articles by the master about his supernatural fiction. Dr. Jones, a professor of English at Trinity College Dublin, has done an extremely impressive job of hunting down even the most esoteric of James's historical references, deepening and enriching our understanding of his stories so that, for the first time ever, their full cleverness and intricacy can be appreciated. In a period when horror is a sadly debased artform this collection is a stunning reminder of the heights a real talent can take it to.
Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James
Edited with and Introduction and Notes by Darryl Jones
Oxford University Press