Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

I love to read spooky old-fashioned ghost stories.  For me they have to have an antique atmosphere, such as in medieval manor houses, castles, old libraries full of dusty tomes, ancient cathedrals, etc... I simply cannot, but rarely, get into the right mode with a modern setting, and also like the genteel quality of the old stories, where one doesn't usually tend to encounter anything so distasteful as great cruelty and violence, gore or obscenity;  these old stories use an unsettling atmosphere to gently guide the reader into a sense of forboding and fright, an implied danger lurking in the shadows.   For me, no one did this better than M.R. James, who has rightfully been called the best writer of English ghost stories. 

Many of his tales involve the settings mentioned above, and the main character is often an antiquary, professor, or collector, someone who is preoccupied with history and past times; and usually a quiet and more solitary and sensitive soul.

This Wordsworth Classics edition of the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James is the one I have, although my secondhand copy is a bit scruffier than this picture.  I started reading in it quite some time ago, but as I like the stories so much, have rationed them, only reading one here and there.  The other day I did feel a need to read something, and decided that it would be a good idea to finish this collection of stories before the year is out, so started back on this one and don't have much left to finish.  There's something about Autumn and Winter that make one drawn to tales of this kind.  I highly recommend M.R. James to everyone who hasn't read his wonderfully descriptive and spooky stories yet.

Here is an excerpt from 'An Episode Of Cathedral History', where renovations  to the Cathedral unearthed something foul from a tomb and many of the residents of the town had fallen ill or died: "Gradually there formulated itself a suspicion -which grew into a conviction-that the alterations in the Cathedral had something to say in the matter.  The widow of a former old verger, a pensioner of the Chapter of Southminster, was visited by dreams, which she retailed to her friends, of a shape that slipped out of the little door of the south transept as the dark fell in, and flitted-taking a fresh direction every night-about the Close, disappearing for a while in house after house, and finally emerging again when the night sky was paling.  She could see nothing of it, she said, but that it was a moving form:  only she had an impression that when it returned to the church, as it seemed to do in the end of the dream, it turned it's head:  and then, she could not tell why, but she thought it had red eyes..." 

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