Fiction Reviews

M. R. James: Collected Ghost Stories

(2011/2013) Darryl Jones (ed), Oxford University Press,
£8.99, pbk, xxxvi + 468pp, ISBN 978-0-199-67489-3


So there we were, climbing through suburban London streets on a chill, autumn afternoon. We were making our way to Nunhead cemetery, a Victorian resting place close to Peckham and Dulwich. We were going there for what might seem a strange reason – our daughter and son-in-law were due to shortly have a baby, and they were looking for names. As we walked through the gates, it was like entering another world, where time had stood still sometime in the past – but there was a beauty in the place, alongside the decay.

And then the opportunity came to review a collection of M. R. James ghost stories! The more I thought about it, I felt the scene, and the occasion, would be one that James would have taken and run with. This then is the late 2013 paperback edition of the 2011 hardback and part of OUP's Oxford World’s Classics book series.

James is the doyen of Victorian and particularly Edwardian ghost writers, although having read through this collection, they are not all what most would regard as ghost stories. The word that came to mind was 'dread' – not as severe as 'terror', although some have elements of that, and certainly not 'spooky' as in Scooby Doo. But there is an overwhelming sense of dread which pervades the stories.

It has been said by someone much wiser than me that 'the Victorians did death, but didn't do sex, whilst we in the 21st century do sex, but don't do death'. Death in these stories is accepted as part of life; it is the consequences, and circumstances of these deaths which create the drama.

One of the things about the stories is that are very photogenic, and many will have accessed the stories through the BBC dramatisations from the late 1960's and early 1970's, and which were revived by Mark Gatiss on Christmas Day 2013. Some of these have begun well-known, as with 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll come to You, my Lad.' But it is the less-well known (or they were to me, at least) which I liked best. 'The Mezzotint', with a print purchased through an auction house, where the scene depicted changes as a tragedy unfolds.

'Number 13', where a room in a hotel appears & disappears. 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance', which after reading you will never enjoy mazes in the same way again.

I could go on, but I would not want to spoil your enjoyment of this volume.

The collection has an introduction by Darryl Jones, which carries the suggestion that if you have not read any of the stories before, you read it as an afterword instead. I would endorse this, as there a number of spoilers, together with the offering of several themes which can be found in some of the stories which can shape your reading. For anyone who saw the Mark Gatiss introduction to the works of James, which was shown the same evening as his dramatisation of 'The Tractate Middoth' (another excellent story), some of the same concepts are repeated here.

The volume closes with a chapter of prefaces, introductions and articles by James himself, and which seek to explain the why, the how and the what of what he had written.

James, who spent virtually all his life at either Eton or Cambridge, expected the reader (and listener, as many were read aloud by him at gatherings of the Chitchat Society, or at King's College) to have a fairly good working knowledge of Latin, and of the Anglican church. Thankfully, there are extensive notes to help those without this, and other, seemingly obscure details. There is also a short bibliography, together with a chronology which places the stories within the span of world history.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and look forward to reading these stories again and again. As for the baby's name…

Peter Young

See also Allen's review.

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