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?

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Review: The Fires

Written by Alan Cheuse
Published by The Santa Fe Writers Project, 2007, 113 pages

The pair of short novellas that together make up Alan Cheuse’s The Fires are excellently crafted and emotionally compelling works exploring themes of memory, love, loss, and renewal. As I read them I was often reminded of J.D. Salinger – almost as if we’d dropped back in on Franny and Zooey, now in their middle years with adult problems (and problem children) of their own. I’m not sure whether or not Cheuse would like to hear that, but for me it’s a great compliment.

In the first work (also titled “The Fires”), Gina Morgan, middle aged and menopausal, must travel to Uzbekistan to deal with the complications of retrieving her dead husband’s body after he’s killed in an auto accident. If that’s not bad enough, she also has the problem of carrying out his last wish – to be cremated – in a Muslim country where cremation isn’t practiced. In “The Exorcism,” Tom Swanson must deal with the aftermath of his daughter’s expulsion from college for setting fire to a grand piano in the college concert hall. Thus, the two instances of fire, another uniting element.

There was really only one part of the two novellas that I felt was something of a let down, and that was Cheuse’s use of the sudden, unexpected return of menstrual flow as a convenient metaphor for renewal and rebirth. (Didn’t Erica Jong use this, too? Maybe I’m not remembering exactly – it’s been a lot of years since I read about Isadora Wing and her high-flying zipless sexual escapades.) Anyway, it bothered me, and it was the only part of the story that seemed a bit forced. And I also kept worrying about when the poor woman was going to find a pharmacy in the midst of all her other problems.

I enjoyed The Fires so much I immediately sat down and read it over a second time – something I rarely do, even with short works. And I think it will stand up to many re-readings. These are very fine stories by a gifted and insightful writer.

Review: My Fantoms

Written by Théophile Gautier
Translated by Richard Holmes
Published by New York Review Books, 2008, 194 pages
This review refers to an uncorrected advance proof of the book

In these seven examples of the short Gothic work by 19th Century French writer Théophile Gautier, tapestries, statues, and corpses come to life, and young men are seduced and ruined by other-worldly visitors – labeled “fantoms” by translator Richard Holmes.

In “The Adolescent,” a young man has nightly encounters with a beautiful goddess woven into a tapestry in his uncle’s summer-house. In “The Priest,” an aging cleric looks back on his youthful infatuation with a lovely but just slightly undead courtesan who used his blood to keep herself young and beautiful. “The Painter” is the tale of an artist who may have been possessed by a demon, or possibly just “driven mad by cause or causes unknown.” The narrator of “The Opium Smoker” describes his erotic hallucination involving a dead opera singer. The young performer in “The Actor” learns that no one can portray the Devil like the Devil himself. And in “The Tourist,” a visitor to the ruins in Pompeii becomes obsessed with a “lump of molten lava” which has solidified around one of the victims of Vesuvius, and left a perfect impression of her body.

The last piece in the book, “The Poet,” is actually a character sketch of Gautier’s friend, Gérard de Nerval, who committed suicide in 1855 by hanging himself from a window grating. It was through Nerval that Gautier met Victor Hugo. And it was Hugo who inspired the young Gautier to abandon his aspirations to be a painter, and take up writing instead.

The stories, especially “The Adolescent,” have a very Edgar Allan Poe feel about them, but are much more overtly erotic than Poe’s work. As Holmes says in his Introduction, Gautier’s fantomsare all seductresses, ravishing mischief-makers, soft-hearted vampires, generous courtesans, fatal temptresses, or simply ardent thousand year-old muses. What they have in common is that all of them come back from the dead, seeking human lovers.”

Gautier’s work also has a witty and, at times, almost whimsical quality that you would not expect to find in Poe’s tales. This doesn’t mean the stories aren’t creepy – they most definitely are that. Holmes says that “catching the exact pitch and tone of Gautier’s stories, with their high decorative finish, and their various deflections of wit and lubricity, was not easy.” But he seems to have done a laudable job.

Holmes also provides quite a lot of background information on Gautier and his times, and the history of his own involvement with Gautier’s works. I would definitely recommend reading all of this (especially his Postscript) before undertaking the stories themselves.