Since I mentioned briefly in the last post the fantastic stories of M.R. James I thought that he was owed his own post. So here it is.
As I mentioned in that article I first found his book of ghost stories while browsing through a used bookstore in Belfast a few years ago. I had never before heard of him, but the title caught my eye since it included the word ‘Ghost’ and the price seemed more than fair, which was one pound, about two dollars. I bought it and quickly began reading that afternoon in mid september.
I instantly loved the stories and found that each one was better than the previous. I have read many collections of stories and often I find that by the end I want to be done so that I can read something else and walk away from the collection knowing that I had read that that there was to read. Not this book, not his stories. Each year, right about this time of the seasons, I reread many of his stories, which have held up over time.
What makes his stories so powerful is their atmosphere and their ability to turn a normal situation one of terror. He has a great ability to use his words to capture the atmosphere of the 19th century in foreign lands and bring them to our modern day eyes and imagination. His sense of details and how those details can and should be used is both fantastic and horrific. Please, if you have never read his work, buy or check out a collection of his stories and read them this Halloween and over the winter months.
From his collection of stories I say that his best are The Ash Tree, Number 13, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and my favorite among favorites, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.’ In each one of these stories we find the questions, ‘can ghosts really cause us harm?’ To which James’ characters answer, ‘yes, they can.’ His horror is more than a bump in the attic or the creak of a door, it is a hand that reaches out the door of a room that cannot always be found, reaching for the neck of an innocent. His stories teach us that when you visit and old town or structure, be careful what you might wake up.
Part of James’ ability to craft such stores comes from his education and his profession as a medieval scholar. He lived from 1862 – 1936 in England and was the Provost of King’s college from 1905 – 1918. If Bram Stoker is the father of the modern vampire, James is arguably the father of the modern day ghost story. There are stories that he used to have gatherings in his study at King’s College around Christmas and at these gatherings he would read his stories. Believe me when I say that many of them are frightening.
It seems like many great writers of the macabre come from this time period, the late nineteenth century or early twentieth century. It could be that they lived on the bridge from the world of candle light darkness as well as on the brink of the light bulb of the modern era. From where they stood, Stoker, James, Conan Doyle, Stevenson and even Le Fanu and Lovecraft all could see the world they came from and the future where they were heading.
Each of these writers focused on the old parts of this world what has survived, been forgotten and rediscovered by some scholar or explore of nature, science and history. From them come works that have survived for us to read at night by the light of our modern world. These stories remind us that there is still much that is unknown about our world and in that unknown you can find your own imagination.