Review: The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Ghost Stories by M.R. James

Published by Penguin Books, 1984; 360+ pages

I read this book back in October, for the R.I.P. III Challenge and the Ghostly Challenge, so you can see I’m very late in getting a review up. For some reason, my reviewing activity has dwindled to a standstill lately – there are at least four books I read this past summer that I have yet to blog about. Not that the world is out there waiting on the edge of its seat or anything. But if I don’t put something on paper soon (well, virtual paper anyway), I’ll forget all about what I’ve read! So I should get a move on, right?

Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent, England in 1862 and died in 1936. An antiquarian and medievalist, James was an undergraduate at King’s College, Cambridge, and went on to become a don and finally a provost at that same college. His many scholarly writings were well-known and respected in his day, but today he’s best remembered for his ghost stories. His first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, appeared in 1904; and several others followed until the first all-inclusive edition was issued in 1931.

James said he wrote the stories intending to “put the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ ” And in that, I believe he was successful. These are all classic ghost tales – formulaic, to be sure (the settings and characters and basic plots can seem a bit repetitive when you read them all together like this), but still disturbing enough to make you squirm a bit in your comfy chair.

James also claimed not to have any use for “amiable” spirits. His ghosts are malevolent and vindictive and frightening. They are frequently amorphous, monstrous creations – seemingly conjured from ashes or leaves or dust, with few human characteristics about them. They have more in common with Lovecraft’s “nameless horrors” than they do with the ethereal or attractive spirits in some folk tales or modern gothic romances.

This Penguin edition combines all four volumes of M.R. James’s ghost stories. Of all the thirty-one stories, I knew I had read at least one before I started this book – “Casting the Runes.” It was one of the stories included in a book called The Haunted Looking-Glass, a collection of spooky stories chosen and illustrated by Edward Gorey.

Gorey’s book was one of my childhood favorites, and “Casting the Runes” was one of the scariest stories in it – so naturally I loved it. After I got started on this volume, I realized I’d read several more of the stories over the years. In fact, some of my favorite ghost tales are included here – I’d just forgotten they were written by M.R. James. And I was pleased to find that even after all these years “Casting the Runes” remains deliciously creepy, and was once again one of the stories I enjoyed most. It contains a passage that, once read, haunted the bedtimes of my youth for many months afterward:

. . . the electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.

Just a minute – let me turn on a few more lights.

Other favorites from the collection:

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” – A tourist in an English cathedral town buys a manuscript put together centuries ago by one Canon Albéric de Mauléon, who apparently cut up volumes from the cathedral’s library to fashion his book. The buyer soon discovers that the long-dead Canon Albéric may still be trying to keep an eye on the manuscript he created, and on its new owner.

“The Mezzotint” – Has a similar storyline to “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” and actually refers to that tale. In this one, a museum curator acquires a rather nondescript picture of a manor house, which soon proves itself to have some very unique features. Well, as they say, every picture tells a story – and the story this picture tells is a very disturbing one indeed.

“The Haunted Doll’s House” – I guess this would naturally appeal to me, since I’m a doll collector. But I don’t have any doll houses; and after reading this story, I’m really kind of glad of that. In it, a collector of antiques buys an elaborate doll’s house that comes complete with furnishings and miniature occupants. And a rather ghastly tale of its own to tell.

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” – An academic enjoying a vacation at the seaside finds an ancient bronze whistle, and makes the mistake of blowing into it to hear the sound it makes. (He must not read many ghost stories!) Soon he’s being followed by mysterious shapes and plagued by unpredictable breezes. This story has one of my favorite lines from all the ghost stories I’ve read (you should know that our protagonist is staying alone in a double-bedded room):

. . . the reader will hardly, perhaps, imagine how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed.

Makes me shiver as I type.

I’ve already mentioned the Edward Gorey collection that introduced me to M.R. James. James’s work really cries out to be illustrated, and Edward Gorey was indeed the perfect choice for the job. This Penguin edition is good in that it contains all the stories; but it could definitely use some pictures. There’s a British edition of M.R James’s work, edited by Michael Cox and illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott, that I’d love to have (insert hint to hubby here). Maybe it’s just a hankering to recapture childhood pleasures, but I really think spooky stories go better with spooky pictures, don’t you?

Review: The Grand Complication

Written by Allen Kurzweil
Published by Hyperion, 2001, 360 pages

The search began with a library call slip and the gracious query of an elegant man.
“I beg your pardon,” said the man, bowing ever so slightly, “Might I steal a moment of your time?”

So begins Allen Kurzweil’s The Grand Complication. The book’s narrator and protagonist, Alexander Short, is a reference librarian at a Manhattan library, very much like (wink, wink) the New York Public. Through his job, Alexander meets and is, in effect, seduced by the impressively named and impressively wealthy Henry James Jesson III, who wants the young librarian to help him “with a case.” The “case” turns out to be an actual box – an incomplete cabinet of curiosities put together by a mysterious 18th-century inventor. Alexander resists the offer at first, but eventually gives in, and the rest of the novel involves his search for the cabinet’s one missing object – a magnificent timepiece supposedly made for Marie Antoinette.

The Grand Complication is a mystery tale and, as in any good mystery tale, along the way we learn that many things are not exactly what they seem. Mr. Jesson’s story, the legendary timepiece, and Mr. Jesson himself turn out to be much more complicated than at first we might have suspected – well, at least more complicated than Alexander suspected. So we end up unraveling more than just the secret of the queen’s magnificent pocket watch.

This book has drawn mixed reviews, and I have to admit Kurzweil doesn’t produce the most sparkling prose. But I enjoyed it very much – it’s a fast-paced read, with a lot of humor and many surprises sprinkled throughout. There’s also a nice love story included – the courtship and rocky marriage of Alexander and his French wife, Nic.

Then there’s all the library arcana – my favorite part of the book – and Alexander’s fascination with “objects of enclosure” and with the Dewey system of classification:

The system lets the well-trained librarian synthesize a hierarchy of people, places, and things, of ideas and phenomena. What’s more, it encourages that hierarchy both to grow and to be remembered. Familiarity with classes, divisions, and sections means this: that if a reader walks up and requests, say, The Study of Arab Women: A Bibliography of Bibliographies, a librarian who knows the system can direct the inquirer with confidence to 016.016305488927. [Chapter 55, p. 319]

Ultimately, I suppose I was attracted to Alexander because he’s such a meticulous list-maker. At one point, he admits to Nic that his ambition is “to compose lists,” prompting her to ask if he wants to set them to music. He collects library call slips – his own and those of other library patrons. He even goes so far as to wear a journal (hand made by Nic) fastened to his clothing, for making lists and notes – in imitation of the “girdle books” employed by medieval monks. Now that’s a man after my own heart.