Are there here and there sequestered places which some curious creatures still frequent, whom once on a time anybody could see and speak to as they went about on their daily occasions, whereas now only at rare intervals in a series of years does one cross their paths and become aware of them; and perhaps that is just as well for the peace of mind of simple people.
These lines, which appear at the end of “A Vignette,” the final story in this collection of ghost stories by M.R. James, could be said to sum up the stories as a whole. These are stories about places and things that link this world with another, unseen, and often malevolent world. Those who happen upon that other world, often without even meaning to, may not be simple people, but they still risk their peace of mind.
In these stories, those vague feelings of unease we all have, that sense that something isn’t quite right, is a sign that we are in the presence of the uncanny. In some cases, there’s no immediate danger, as when the collector in “The Mezzotint” observes a murder from the past being reenacted in a photograph or when the hotel visitor in “Number 13” observes that his room seems to change in size as the room next door appears and disappear. But often, the otherworldly entities choose to act on their rage, as in “Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad.” The problem is that the spirits are impossible to predict. You might be as lucky as the characters in “Rats” who discover that if you leave well enough alone, you’ll come to no harm. But how can you know? It’s the unexplained nature of the events that makes them unsettling.
Although most of James’s stories show the spirits as acting outside human laws and limitations, the title story, perhaps my favorite in the collection, shows people taking charge of the spirits. In “Casting the Runes,” a scholar uses magic to take revenge on those who’ve rejected his paper, and the secretary of the association that rejected his latest work has to figure out a way to evade his spells. Perhaps this appealed to me because I’ve written more than a few rejection letters to writers seeking publication. I wonder if I should brush up on my alchemy, just in case?
James relates these stories as if they were told to him by a friend or acquaintance who experienced them and came to him to share the tale. It gives them something of the feeling of an urban legend, those stories that always come from a friend of a friend. This approach lends the stories a feeling of verisimilitude. James isn’t a storyteller; he’s a reporter of other people’s tales.
But like the good sharer of an urban legend, James isn’t simply providing useful information or a word of warning. He deliberately and openly crafts the stories to maximize suspense. For example, he opens “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” with an intriguing obituary that draws the reader in, only to state immediately afterward that “perhaps I shall do better to keep back the remainder of the narrative until I have told the circumstances which led up to it.” Now, with the readers’ appetite whetted, he goes back and shares his research into the events leading up to the death.
Most of the time, James as narrator remains invisible after he sets the stage, letting his interlocutors share their stories freely. Once in a while, this approach fails him. In “A Warning to the Curious,” there’s a story inside a story inside a story, and I became almost hopelessly confused as to who the actual actors in the main story were.
The overall effect of the stories, however, is not confusion, but unease. When a dark and cold place gives me the creeps, I shrug it off. It’s dark. It’s cold. It’s creepy. The problem with that is in my head. But in these stories, those chills, that sense of being watched, has meaning, and shrugging it off could be the worst thing you could do (or the best—you just can’t be sure).