Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Father of the ghost story: M. R. James

Last year I forgot it was Halloween  until kids came to my door and I had nothing to give them.  So this year I'm hiding at my local bookstore sipping a pumpkin spice latte and writing a review about a very scary writer.  That's my trick to the kids and my treat to you. 

(Of course if I return home to find my house covered in toilet paper the trick will be on me.)

When we think of Victorian ghost writers we may think of Mary Shelly or Bram Stoker.  Last week I introduced you to a lesser known writer of the supernatural, Sheridan Le Fanu (for the review go here).  Today's post is about someone who was inspired by Le Fanu.

   Montague Rhodes James was considered the greatest scholar of medieval manuscripts of the English speaking world. He is known for his contributions to the study of Christian art and archeology.  He also is the father of what has come to be known as the ghost story.  As an avid antiquarian, his ghost stories  can trace their roots to medieval sources. For those of us who love reading medieval literature and culture this makes his stories especially enjoyable.

    I know there are less sensitives souls out there but I must confess that getting half way through James' Complete Ghost Stories I began having nightmares and threw the book away.  His stories are not filled with graphic violence or anything that defines the modern horror story.  They are simply the scariest tales I've ever read.

     There's the story of an evil man who has the ability to cast spells over people. The spell attaches a familiar spirit to that person.  In a weird turn around, other people can see the creature walking alongside the victim while the poor person on whom the runes have been cast, cannot.  (Casting the Runes)

    Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad is one of the more famous.  A man finds a tin whistle out on some sand dunes.  He takes it back to his hotel room and innocently blows on it.  He soon finds by doing so he has beckoned an unwelcome visitor.

    Other stories are about vampires walled up in church alters, evil monks that have achieved some kind of perverse immortality through the architectural design of their abby, or mezzotints (old prints made of sepia) that reenact supernatural crimes as the observer looks on. (Actually, the mezzotint is more frightening than that- every time the observer returns to the painting, the figures are in a different position.)

James even uses Greek mythology in a story about a man who inherits a country estate with a garden maze.  He soon discovers that the maze is designed in such a way-not to keep people from finding their way back out, but to keep other things within the maze from escaping.

I recommend his books not just because they give you a good scare, but because they are so well written.  His stories have lasted for over a hundred years because his caliber of writing is on the same level as any Victorian writer.  I think that anyone could enjoy a good scare at the hands of M.R. James'  but I think those of us who love antiquarian history stemming from a Christian heritage will especially appreciate James' use of the history and culture of the European dark ages.

M.R. James (1862-1956)
And if you're wondering why I'm recommending a book I threw away, I retrieved the stories by downloading them on my Kindle.  I feel safer knowing that they're out there in Cyberspace rather than in my house.  Hey,  I told you I was sensitive.



Man of la Book said...

I'm not much for being scared, don't enjoy it. Sounds like the author did a great job though.

Sharon Wilfong said...

He's the best. I admit that being scared (not grossed out) is a guilty pleasure of mine.

CuteRimi said...

wow! M.R. James, what a wonderful creation! and this simple post works much better with m.r. james than when they dramatise the whole thing - i still haven't recovered fully from my disappointment when i saw "a view from a hill". thank you very much for sharing this treat! I love his Ghost Stories so much!

Sharon Wilfong said...

"A view from a hill"- is that a movie based on a story from MR James? I know what you mean about disappointment. Sometimes things don't successfully translated from the written word to visual images. Take care!