In many ways, M.R. James is an unlikely horror icon. He was an intellectual, a medievalist and a scholar, who was the provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Eton College. To a large extent, he led a cloistered existence, and he was writing at a time where a sense of unwritten moral censorship shaped English literature. And yet, James’s ghost stories are some of the best ever written, reshaping the form away from the Gothic towards more realistic settings. He is a master of using few words to convey so much, and making what is unsaid so very scary indeed.
My exposure to James came early, even if I didn’t realise it. I’ve mentioned on multiple occasions a book in my primary school library full of abridged versions of classic ghost stories (which I’d love to find again, if it sounds familiar) – one of them was James’s most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. And, every year, come the festive season, I would sit down for the BBC’s annual A Ghost Story for Christmas – with the exception of one episode, they were all James’s tales. I still remember the first time I saw the ending of ‘A Warning to the Curious’ – terrifying stuff.
James’s ghost stories are some of the best ever written, reshaping the form away from the Gothic towards more realistic settings
When I was maybe ten, I picked up a really old copy of an M.R. James anthology at the Astley Book Farm (a wonderful bookstore that’s local to the uni if you can drive). I was entranced – I read them all, one each night, and slept with haunting images hanging in my mind. I loved reading the stories I already knew from the TV, finding in them new complexities or turns of phrase, and discovering completely new ones. When A Ghost Story for Christmas resumed intermittently from 2005 onwards, it was a thrill to see how these stories that I knew were translated to the screen.
What makes James’s stories so good is that he excels at suggestion – his are stories that imply a lot, and let the reader fill in the blanks. He rarely turns to explicit violence, making those few occasions all the more upsetting. He understates a lot, and I can’t think of a story that resolves with an explanation of what has actually occurred. When we read ‘Casting the Runes’, we don’t know what caused the death of one of the characters – was it an accident, or something truly malicious and paranormal? We don’t know what led to a death by heart failure in ‘The Tractate Middoth’, nor the true secret of the mysterious room ‘Number 13’? James hints at the answers, but he never tells us, and that makes the resolutions to these stories all the more frightening – we, like the narrators, can only surmise what has happened.
If you’re yet to check out M.R. James, make sure to put that right – but maybe don’t do it before you sleep, or you’re guaranteed some sleepless nights
I’d like to quote James himself on how his stories work: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. … Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”
It’s true that, on a re-read, there are a lot of similarities between James’s stories. In a British seaside town or ancient town in Europe, a reserved professor-type finds an artefact that kick-starts the events of the story. If you blitz the James stories, you’ll see that he found a formula that worked and he ran with it, undoubtedly. But the idea of variations on a theme does James a big disservice – there is a reason that these stories have lived on, and that’s because they’re good, and they work.
Why am I writing this now? Sadly, the James book that I loved for more than 15 years is very near to the end of its life – the pages practically crumble away when you turn them – and so I had to replace it. But, with a new copy in my hands, I once again had to re-immerse myself in these classic tales, and I still love them to this day. If you’re yet to check out M.R. James, make sure to put that right – but maybe don’t do it before you sleep, or you’re guaranteed some sleepless nights.