Thursday, January 13, 2005

M.R. James

M.R. James is an interesting writer. As far as fiction is concerned, he never wrote anything except short stories, and he only published 30 of them; yet on the strength of these he made a remarkable name for himself.

The stories originally appeared in four volumes, the first in 1904 and the last in 1925; and they were all, loosely speaking, ghost stories. In fact, the term 'ghost stories' does not seem to me to be quite suitable. Stories of the supernatural might be a better description. And some of them might be called horror stories, though none of them is just plain disgusting, as some modern horror stories are (to my taste, at least).

M.R. James died in 1936, but his work is still in print. The Wordsworth edition of the collected stories (Ghost Stories) is dead cheap, even in the hardcover version, and I suspect that the print is larger in the hardcover than in the paperback.

As for the quality of the stories.... Well, they all reflect the fact that the author was a distinguished scholar. Educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, he became director of the Fitzwilliam museum. He was later Provost of King's College and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University.

Not surprisingly, given this background, the stories nearly all involve bookish men; old churches, libraries and cathedrals feature heavily. The stories were written in an age when the class system was much more rigid than it is today, and several of the stories are set in earlier times still; so the servants and the country people who appear as extras, so to speak, all tend to speak in quaint accents and with the occasional malapropism.

Read as a sequence, from the first to the last, the stories have a certain sense of sameness. But it is as pointless to complain about this as it would be to complain that one episode of a soap opera is similar to another. I for one kept thinking that I would just read one more, until in fact I had read them all. The very last story in the collection, as one reader on Amazon points out, begins as a comedy and ends so blackly that few horror film-makers would care to tackle it as it stands.

Many of these stories, incidentally, were originally written for the entertainment of friends, and were read to small audiences, at around Christmas time, in a room lit only by candlelight. Such circumstances would no doubt make them creepier than ever.

Towards the end of his life, James was asked whether he really believed in ghosts. 'Depend upon it!' he said. 'Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules!'

As you would expect, given this author's fame, there is much on the web about him. The Ghosts and Scholars page provides a useful starting point if you wish to know more. There is also a web site authorised by the James estate.


a from l said...

M.R. James is a master of atmosphere - even the most innocuous items and incidents mentioned in his stories contribute to a pervading sense of menace.

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