Winter seems the perfect time of year for ghost stories. It’s grey and foggy out, and the natural world seems naked and bony and white. The drip of snow from the branches sounds like a footfall just behind you, giving you the eerie sense that something is looking at you from behind each bush… Wait, that’s just me? Oh. Never mind.
In any case, if you have the slightest inclination to read ghost stories at any time of year, M.R. James is the master of them. The Haunted Doll’s House and Other Ghost Stories is the second volume of James’s collected stories, edited by S.T. Joshi (I reviewed the first volume here), and it provides a wonderfully spooky companion for a winter’s night.
The first volume had more of James’s most famous stories, like “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and “Casting the Runes.” This second volume had more obscure stories, a few vignettes that didn’t seem fully fleshed-out, and a few curiosities: medieval ghost stories translated from the Latin, for instance, and some of James’s thoughts about the structure and substance of a good ghost story. At first, I thought I would find this volume duller than or inferior to the first, but in fact I enjoyed it just as much. Several of the stories were genuinely frightening in that wonderful Jamesian way. One hero, for instance, is in his armchair one evening, alternately reading and dozing, until
he bethought himself that his brown spaniel, that ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to reach down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. (“The Diary of Mr. Poynter”)
Other stories in this volume seemed more oblique, the way Robert Aickman’s stories are, and still others were mere bones of stories, that perhaps James might have given more detail to, given time and inclination. One of my favorites of these was “The Malice of Inanimate Objects,” which suggests that when the inanimate things of this world seem against us — we drop a plate, stub our toe, slam our finger in a door, cut ourselves — we ought to look to the reason…
These stories were tremendously enjoyable, and are true classics of the genre. Though they can be a bit monophonic (there are no women narrators, nor even any women main characters, for example — James’s world is almost exclusively masculine) they are far from monotonous. He gives the sense that in every cathedral, every village, every forest, there may be something best left alone. If, indeed, it is alone now… Enjoy at the peril of your night’s sleep, but do enjoy!