I love good ghost stories. Wispy apparitions, scientific ghost-hunters, and mediums in their nightgowns don’t do much for me: give me a shock, a shiver, a creeping terror, a sense that you know what’s coming but can’t quite see it, a victim who doesn’t believe but can’t help believing, and I’ll follow you wherever you want to take me.
And that’s M.R. James, master of the ghost-story genre, in a nutshell. If you’ve ever read any horror stories, you’ve probably read one or two of his: “Casting the Runes” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” are probably (justly) his most famous. This collection, a Penguin Classic edited by S.T. Joshi, brings together all his stories in two volumes, of which this is the first, and I can still feel the hairs on the back of my neck pleasantly prickling.
James was the first author to write about ghosts who were not soft-voiced warnings from the Other Side, but evil, malevolent beings with an intent to harm. His ghosts don’t waft, they run:
Then, in the distance, a bobbing black object appeared; a moment more, and it was a man running, jumping, clambering over the groynes, and every few seconds looking eagerly back. The nearer he came the more obvious it was that he was not only anxious, but even terribly frightened, though his face was not to be distinguished. He was, moreover, almost at the end of his strength… So far no cause whatever for the fear of the runner had been shown; but now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-colored moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying. (“Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad”)
While James avoids the psychological analysis his followers enjoy (there is no Freud here), he does make us feel the loathsome quality of the other. His ghosts are missing links, not animals and not men, and Darwin is implied on every page. What could be more frightening than a beast following you at night? Something that is not quite a beast; something that is a parody of a man, or something you cannot quite make out. His most frightening lines are gruesome mockeries of human affection. One of James’s scholarly heroes is engaged in pulling what he believes to be a bag of treasure from its hiding place in an abandoned well:
I went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward onto my chest, and put its arms around my neck. (“The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”)
These stories are hugely enjoyable, genuinely frightening, fireside chats with scholars of the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. That is, if you don’t mind sitting so close to that chimney. I heard a very odd story about it once…