Fiction Reviews

M. R. James: Collected Ghost Stories

(2017) M. R. James (Darryl Jones ed.), Oxford University Press, £16.99 / US$25.95, hrdbk, xxxvi +468pp, ISBN 978-0-198-79736-4


Discovering the writing of M. R. James is an important moment in any horror writerís life.

Horror Fiction writers and diligent fans might come across James as they find Lovecraft, Dickens or Poe, but others may hear his name later, when they truly delve into the old darkness to see who lives there.

The Oxford University Press edition of Jamesí collected work is a gorgeous volume. The old-style binding and plain cover offset with a printed two-tone skull, vertical title and author name makes it subtle but eye catching on the shelf.

For a modern writer, reading James is an education in narration. The stories were told as part of a Christmas ritual at Kings College Cambridge, and as such, led themselves beautifully to being spoken to an audience. There is an antiquary tone to the writing, which is to be expected now, but this in itself is an educational pleasure, giving a perfect sense of the appropriate style of the time without being overly difficult to access. This collection pulls together all the works from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories, A Thin Ghost and Others, A Warning to the Curious and Other Stories and Wailing Well along with six additional stories which were first published in magazines. The earlier works were much tighter executions of the craft with the later pieces taking more time to deliver their requisite chill.

Also included are the collected forewords James wrote for the books and a collection of notes on each tale. These are invaluable sources for scholars and writers in training.

Jamesí stories often makes use of similar components. There is a usually a rural English setting, a naÔve scholarly protagonist and some form of ancient text or artefact that attracts the attention of supernatural forces. However, this is not to suggest the collection feels in any way repetitive. There is some assumed knowledge of the 19th century Anglican church in stories such as 'An Episode in Cathedral History', but this is not too much of a distraction.

Thirty-three stories are contained within this volume and there is a need to savour the work. Casual readers who seek to experience the thrills of a polished masterís craft will have thirty-three nights of chilling delight.

Some themes have been explored further by modern writers. 'The Diary of Mr Poynterís' key scene where the protagonist rests his hand on what he believes to be the head of his pet dog, but that turns out to be a man, covered in hair resonates with more modern werewolf stories, but it is the personal intimacy and mistaken identity that remain haunting to us, returning the creatures of darkness to the dark from whence they came.

Hair and spiders are a recurrent theme in Jamesí horror. The use of the sensorial pallet and the emphasis of unnatural qualities of those described is an important part of his delivery. This is much emulated in modern times, but there are few writers who prioritise the flow needed for an aural delivery. By necessity, many of the earlier Ghost Stories are meticulously crafted to perfect this and whilst the later pieces are more indulgent, the oratory requirement remains part of his style.

My particular favourite of Jamesí work is 'A Warning to the Curious'. The death of Paxton in mysterious circumstances is left to linger with the reader as James elects to pull away, leaving us to wonder just how many similar occurrences there may be all across the United Kingdom.

Allen Stroud

See also Peter's review.

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