Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

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…

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6 Responses to Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

  1. Barb says:

    I love a good ghost story have you read “Elizabeth and Arthur”

  2. Jenny says:

    Barb — no, I haven’t! What is it, and who is it by?

  3. Lovely to see this covered, MR James really is excellent and his best stories are still very fresh (fear of the other never really goes out of style).

    I have a large and unwieldy hardback edition, I may replace it in due course with these.

    Nice write-up, I pretty much agree with everything you said.

  4. Jenny says:

    Max — the Penguin Classics are really very nice. I got them because they were edited by Joshi, who has also done very good work editing Algernon Blackwood and HP Lovecraft. It’s his area of expertise. You’re quite right that it’s hard to weary of James’s best stories: they don’t seem to fade!

  5. I just bought some back Algernon Blackwood, not sure which imprint actually, I’ll have to check. He’s one of the few of that crowd I don’t know well.

    I replaced my old copies of HPL with the Penguin editions, which are much nicer than the hideously garish covers my previous editions had – quite out of keeping with the actual work. My favourite remains however an old volume with which I first discovered him, long since lost sadly, which rather wonderfully I discovered at the back of a mouldering and decrepit second hand bookshop tucked among other more august volumes. I think HPL would have been delighted for his work to be discovered in such a thematic way.

    Who is Joshi? Apart from a person of immaculate taste in weird fiction obviously?

  6. Jenny says:

    Max — Joshi is an Indian-American literary critic whose main focus is, as you say, weird fiction. He’s done a couple of books comparing the “old” weird tale (Lovecraft, James, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Blackwood) with the “new”: Robert Aickman, TED Klein, Stephen King, and so forth. And of course there are his editions of James, Blackwood, Lovecraft, Machen, and Ambrose Bierce.

    Do you know Robert Aickman? I just finished a volume of his stories and am working on a review. Some very strange stuff there. Oh, and I like your story of the mouldering bookshop. The only thing better would have been for the bookseller to have been a grotesque horror from underground…

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