A couple of weeks back, I was invited to review a piece of horror writing by a member of a Facebook Group of Writers I’m part of. Carla Sarett is an author who is featuring a set of horror story reviews on her blog throughout October. I’d just finished two sets of classic horror stories by M.R. James, so I decided to review those.
The link to her blog, which contains an edited version of my review is here:
Check it out, Carla has some other cool reviews and interesting posts about writing there as well.
I also thought I’d give the unabridged version here as well:
Review – M.R. James – Ghost Stories of an Antiquary / More Ghost Stories
I recently read two collections of short stories by M.R. (Montague Rhodes) James. I knew the name, and I’d already had some experience of his stories – more on which later. I came across them as free kindle downloads on Amazon when I was scouring its pages for free books. In total, the two downloads came to 15 short stories, all set in and around the late Victorian/early Edwardian era, though often referencing much older periods of history, and principally in England or western Europe.
The stories vary, with subjects ranging from haunted places or persons, devil-worship, witch trials, and mysterious items of arcane origin. One odd one, “Martin’s Close,” even records the incidents of a centuries-old trial. The stories seldom provide any explanation as to why the various incidents, tragedies, and horrors have come about, though some, such as “The Ash-Tree,” and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” present enough facts for clearer conclusions to be drawn. There are some classical references in there, plus passages of French and Latin that is usually (but not quite always) translated, so you might have to google a few things.
The stories are always enjoyable, and some genuinely creepy. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have read them back to back, as this tended to dilute the effect of each. It would have been better to dip into them whenever I felt like some classic horror.
For classic horror is what it is. There are no gruesome visuals of blood and gore, no monsters stalking victims through old houses or dark forests. The tales are sinister and disturbing rather than overtly frightening. The characters are often scholars, churchmen, or other well-to-do types, and the stories are generally set as recountings of incidents rather than incident as they happen. If a reader is suitably suggestible, they should experience a few odd dreams after some of these.
I would say my main reflection is that these stories should be told, not read. James had a tradition of reading these stories aloud to his friends and students at King’s College, Cambridge, particularly on Christmas Eve. I expect hearing them was far more spine-chilling than reading the words on a page. In fact, this was how I was introduced to James, as the BBC turned adapted a few of the stories so they could be read aloud and accompanied by visuals – not filmed segments, as much as short still images or brief blurs. The fact that these were read by Sir Christopher Lee certainly sold me on how James’s stories should be presented. I’ve since heard others by different actors, and I know there are many other radio and audiobook versions out there.
That would be my final piece of advice. Get the books by all means, and if you like classic creepy ghost stories, you’ll enjoy them. But get decent audiobook versions and you’ll find them much more powerful and evocative, as these will really bring out all the spookiness and atmosphere that M.R. James intended.