Thoughts on a few M.R. James ghost stories

Toby Frost

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This isn't going to be a full read-though or particularly detailed: I'll just read a few of them and post my vague, random thoughts. I've not read most of these for at least 10 years.

Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book

The gold standard, definitely one of the best.
The story isn't neatly explained at the end, as so many ghost stories are. We can piece together an explanation before Denistoun returns to his room and sees the monster. The explaining of the occult can really take the wind out of its sails (or animated bed-sheet).
The evil/forbidden book motif is well-used. The description of the picture of Solomon is great. ("It was drawn from life" reminds me strongly of Lovecraft.)
The story doesn't feel like a straight "villain gets punished" story like, say, "Lost Hearts". We don't know who Alberic asked his questions to, or what that involved, but his persecution by the creature - and the ruining of the sacristan's life - seem very harsh indeed. Maybe Alberic somehow allowed it to escape into our world, although it seems to have been after him ever since. The reassurance that the good will be spared isn't there, which makes it much more horrifying.

The Mezzotint

A pretty good story that never quite realises its very strong potential. The idea of a picture that bears witness to a supernatural murder story is very powerful, especially since the murder is carried out by (probably) some kind of undead monster. The characters are somewhat passive and slightly interchangeable (the recent BBC adaptation deals with this problem well). The ending, which gives an explanation, somehow weakens the horror for me. I like the fact that it's never explained why the picture activates when it does.

The Haunted Dolls' House

A weaker variant on "The Mezzotint", more-or-less admitted by James in a footnote. It suffers from the magical element being too obvious (the hero sees the dolls moving as if watching a TV), although the sudden appearance of a sort-of frog in the dolls' house is quite unnerving. Not one of the best.

There Was a Man Dwelt By a Churchyard

An odd story, apparently of the sort that would have been told by Mamillius, a child in The Winter's Tale, if he'd had the chance. It's simpler and sillier than a lot of James' stories and feels like an older version of a campfire story like "The Hook". There is a ghost, but it hardly feels as if James is trying to scare the reader. Strange, and rather peripheral.

Lost Hearts

This story has a slightly different feel, as the "hero" character is a small boy, and the only scholarly character is a villain. It's surprisingly grisly when you think about it, and there is actually (for James) a reasonable amount of gore depicted. There's a fair bit of exposition at the end. James has a habit of writing the dialogue of working-class characters phonetically (both Dickens and Orwell also did this, so I doubt it demonstrates contempt), which makes them slightly awkward to read. I wonder whether he put on voices when he read the stories out. It's not bad, but not top-tier.
 

Toby Frost

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A small point: Denistoun from "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is mentioned in "The Mezzotint". I don't remember any other overlapping characters but I might be wrong. Obviously James' work revolves around Oxbridge and academia, but I don't remember him trying to create a shared world for his stories, as Lovecraft did. We shall see.
 

Toby Frost

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A Vignette

I gather that this odd, eerie story was one of James' last works. Unusually, it's told in the first person, as a reminiscence of the writer. I don't know if this is a real memory (embellished or otherwise) but it's pretty convincing. It has a slightly surreal feel, where the world is reduced to a house, a gate and a forest. The ghost - if it is that - is a piece of white sheet and a very live-seeming face, with red skin and mad staring eyes.

I'm wary of over-analysis, but if I discovered that James had stumbled upon some sort of crime or secret liaison when he was young, I wouldn't be surprised at all. A bit like "The Shadow out of Time", it suggests a new direction: while Lovecraft seemed to be moving towards science fiction, James seems to be doing something a bit more experimental and perhaps personal. An intriguing story.


It's been pointed out that James' ghosts are often not pale people or floating sheets. They seem very 3D and somewhat bestial: claws and thick hair are common, and I've seen references to frogs and spiders. "Demons" or "revenants" might be a better description. I'm also interested by how many of the stories involve witnessing action through a window or in some kind of tableau: the helpless observer is a powerful concept.

Incidentally, here is a really good short film of "The Haunted Dolls' House", as recommended by the excellent "A Podcast to the Curious". The dolls are great, especially the mother. I like how the story has been condensed to its fundamental concepts.

 
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paranoid marvin

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Some great reviews here, thankyou for this.

Yes, the above version of 'Oh Whistle' is easily the best of his adaptations, but 'A Warning to the Curious', 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' and 'The Stalls of Barchester' are all 'classic' adaptations worth watching. Some of the more modern tv versions have been hit and miss (John Hurt's 'Oh Whistle' being particularly poor), but a story that has grown on me is 'A View From a Hill' is marvellously done, the story told at a sedate, easy pace - but with menace lurking just beneath the surface.

Yes, a number of James' supernatural creatures were described in terms of hair and teeth (I think the description of the 'thing' under the pillow in 'Casting the Runes' is one of the most chiilling' , with many others left for the reader to decide if they are real or imagined. Canon Alberic's Scrapbook is right up there as one of the best, and I do enjoy coming back to this one.

Going back to 'Oh Whistle' the apparition described in James' story is more threatening than scary, whilst in the tv version it is the other way around. It's always made me nervous any time that I have slept in a room with a second, empty, bed.
 

Toby Frost

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Thanks!

The dream sequence from the 1960s "Oh Whistle" is one of the most dread-inducing things I've seen on film. The mobile phone footage from the excellent Australian ghost film Lake Mungo reminds me of it: both involve a pulsing background noise and something indistinct getting closer and closer, followed by a surprising cut. The mind thinks "What is that thing?" while knowing that it's not something you'd ever want up close. The TV version of "A View From A Hill" is pretty good, and quite unsettling. I watched Mark Gatiss' "The Tractate Middoth" recently, and felt that while it was quite good, it wasn't really scary.


A School Story

I liked this more than I thought I was going to, especially given the setting and the way that it's set up as a smoking-room anecdote. One interesting aspect is the set of urban (school) myths that one of the men mentions to the other near the start, referencing the famous Berkeley Square ghost.

The lack of explanation makes the story all the more mysterious and sinister. How is McLeod driven to write a strange message to Sampson? Why McLeod? Who was the person who came for Sampson? What did Sampson actually do to deserve all this? And why the heck is the ending set in Ireland? It's almost as stripped-down as a ghost story can get before it stops making sense, especially given the awkward (and perhaps unnecessary) tacked-on conclusion.


The Rose Garden

A weaker entry, with a lot of slightly stilted conversation between a married couple. There is something vaguely creepy about the dark end of the garden, where things are not quite right, and the disturbing dreams, which suggest a rigged court and a hanging. For me, the most interesting element is the appearance of a red, raw-looking face, which causes Mrs Anstruther to faint, which is much like the red face in "A Vignette". It also includes a hanging judge: judges do not come out well in James, IIRC, and come across much like witchfinders, roaming the countryside and killing people on trumped-up charges. Of course, to us, James' "modern day" (ie 1890-1930 or so) feels antiquated, so it's interesting to see what James himself considers old.
 

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The Uncommon Prayer Book

This story introduces an unusual element in the form of a seemingly foreign (German?) criminal, who steals eight old prayer books from a fairly typical Jamesian country church and is killed by their protector. The ending is weakened by one of those phonetically-written conversations between working folk, although the mental image of the vengeance is powerful. I would be interested to know what James' religious views were: he clearly worked with a lot of religious texts, but the divine retribution in his stories suggests the more vicious end of the Old Testament. Vengeances in James often feel brutal and random: twice I've seen a villain punished by the killing of his innocent children. An interesting twist on the usual format, but not one of the greats.


The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

Apparently and surprisingly, this is the only James story actually to be set at Christmas. It's epistolary: while these letter-stories can be awkward, it does help the narrative here. I like it when James finds a new object to imbue with evil intent: in this case, it's a sinister Punch and Judy show (assuming that a normal Punch and Judy show isn't sinister...). There's a lot of comedy rural speech, which is tedious, but the bits with Punch are really quite violent and creepy. The animators who made the film of "The Haunted Dolls House" above would be able to do a great job of this. It also contains a sinister wood, which seems to be a James motif.

I actually found it quite hard to piece together what was going on in this story. The rough gist isn't too hard to figure out, but a lot of the details seem odd, particularly regarding the dead bodies at the end. There are a lot of red herrings. Strong atmosphere, but weak narrative.


A Warning to the Curious

This is a really good story. Two men holidaying together encounter a younger, deeply worried man, who seems to have stolen a piece of occult treasure and is being haunted by its protector. The idea of helping a doomed man is great: seeing him gradually collapse is effective. The descriptions of the seaside town, with its mist, waves and (again!) sinister woodland is really evocative, and the story of the three crowns provides an unusual background.

There's a sense in James of the magical and deadly lingering just beneath the surface: the two heroes offering drinks and golf to the haunted young man actually makes the story feel more grounded in reality. Unlike Lovecraft, James is able to contrast the warm friendship of the men with the horror of the crown and its guardian.
 

paranoid marvin

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As I mentioned in another thread 'a warning to the curious' epitomises many of James' stories; learned man goes off poking his nose where it's not wanted and suffers the consequences. Ignorance or well-meaning sentiment is no excuse, and even trying to make concilitry reparation brings no forgiveness; things as old as time will never forget, and never forgive.
 

Toby Frost

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Ghosts! Treat Them Gently

In this essay, James sets out some of his thoughts on ghost stories, and what makes them work. Predictably, he rejects too much sex, violence and obviousness. It's quite interesting to realise that James was writing at least partly at the same time as the pulp tradition was being formed in America. James states that a ghost must be malevolent for his stories to work, and gives the impression of knowing the limitations of the genre. Interestingly, he suggests an overlap between ghost and detective stories, which I think is right.

Two Doctors

In this story, a villainous doctor seems to use witchcraft to kill a rival. I say "seems" as this is the weakest story so far, and it's a mess. Allusions are made to satyrs, telekinesis and angels who remained neutral in the Fall from Heaven, but it never comes together clearly. It feels as if James was making it up on the fly. Ultimately, it's a jumble. There is, however, one excellent image: a man dreams of finding either a huge chrysalis or a body in a shroud, which contains... himself. (The pink face again!) Apart from that paragraph, it's poor.


Anyway, in his biography of George Orwell, Michael Shelden tells an anecdote that sounds straight out of M.R. James:

For a while, Orwell was employed as the private tutor of a boy from a well-off family. One day, he went for a walk with the boy. As they were walking, they found a cardboard box under a tree. Orwell opened the box and found inside a carefully-made replica of a room in a house, complete with a tiny set of hand-made doll's clothes, including "female undergarments", and a note saying "This is not bad, isn't it?".

Orwell could occasionally be rather Freudian (it seems to have been fashionable back then), and concluded that there was some strange sexual purpose behind these objects, but the obvious ghost-story answer would be that they had some kind of occult power (I strongly expect the real reason was entirely innocent). He put the box back where he'd found it, and it was soon removed. I wonder how James would have continued the story?
 

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Mr Humphries and his Inheritance

This is a longer story, and includes some interesting elements: a maze, some odd carved blocks, and an ornamental temple, which the hero has inherited. The maze hints at the "wrong angles" concept used by Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson, but James never quite seems to make full use of this. There's a sinister globe, which provides subtle hints as to the villainy of one of his ancestors, and a very convenient sermon that the hero finds in the library, but it's quite difficult to piece together what the back-story is.

In a few stories, James has added variation by making a puzzle out of the back-story, so that it's hard to figure out what's been going on to cause the haunting. I don't think this helps, as it removes the focus from the frightening events (I'd say the same thing about the comedy yokels). This story doesn't pack enough punch for its length, and the lack of obvious clarity doesn't help. It's interesting and dense, but not scary.
 

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Ghosts! Treat Them Gently

In this essay, James sets out some of his thoughts on ghost stories, and what makes them work. Predictably, he rejects too much sex, violence and obviousness. It's quite interesting to realise that James was writing at least partly at the same time as the pulp tradition was being formed in America. James states that a ghost must be malevolent for his stories to work, and gives the impression of knowing the limitations of the genre. Interestingly, he suggests an overlap between ghost and detective stories, which I think is right.

Two Doctors

In this story, a villainous doctor seems to use witchcraft to kill a rival. I say "seems" as this is the weakest story so far, and it's a mess. Allusions are made to satyrs, telekinesis and angels who remained neutral in the Fall from Heaven, but it never comes together clearly. It feels as if James was making it up on the fly. Ultimately, it's a jumble. There is, however, one excellent image: a man dreams of finding either a huge chrysalis or a body in a shroud, which contains... himself. (The pink face again!) Apart from that paragraph, it's poor.


Anyway, in his biography of George Orwell, Michael Shelden tells an anecdote that sounds straight out of M.R. James:

For a while, Orwell was employed as the private tutor of a boy from a well-off family. One day, he went for a walk with the boy. As they were walking, they found a cardboard box under a tree. Orwell opened the box and found inside a carefully-made replica of a room in a house, complete with a tiny set of hand-made doll's clothes, including "female undergarments", and a note saying "This is not bad, isn't it?".

Orwell could occasionally be rather Freudian (it seems to have been fashionable back then), and concluded that there was some strange sexual purpose behind these objects, but the obvious ghost-story answer would be that they had some kind of occult power (I strongly expect the real reason was entirely innocent). He put the box back where he'd found it, and it was soon removed. I wonder how James would have continued the story?
Here are some notes on "Two Doctors," which is regarded by Jamesians as "difficult" and even as "weak." As regards "difficulty," I'm reminded of a similar charge about Kipling's "Mrs. Bathurst."

 

Toby Frost

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Casting the Runes

Definitely one of the better stories, although its peculiarities show the limits of what James could do well. There are several moments of potential suspense and action involved with the activity of putting the runes onto the sorcerer that another author could have fleshed out very effectively (see the film Night of the Demon). The strange creature that Dunning finds under his pillow - another of James' hairy monsters - is pretty nasty. There's an interesting interpretation that sees the villain, Karswell, as a coarse upstart to be ejected from the refined upper-class world of academia, and it's been suggested that Karswell reflects Aleister Crowley, the real-life occultist.

It reminds me slightly of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", because it takes the standard formula in a slightly unusual direction. There's one very powerful moment where an official thinks that another man has got onto a boat with the doomed Karswell (presumably it's some kind of vengeful spirit). It's a good story, pretty well executed.
 

paranoid marvin

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Casting the Runes

Definitely one of the better stories, although its peculiarities show the limits of what James could do well. There are several moments of potential suspense and action involved with the activity of putting the runes onto the sorcerer that another author could have fleshed out very effectively (see the film Night of the Demon). The strange creature that Dunning finds under his pillow - another of James' hairy monsters - is pretty nasty. There's an interesting interpretation that sees the villain, Karswell, as a coarse upstart to be ejected from the refined upper-class world of academia, and it's been suggested that Karswell reflects Aleister Crowley, the real-life occultist.

It reminds me slightly of Lovecraft's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", because it takes the standard formula in a slightly unusual direction. There's one very powerful moment where an official thinks that another man has got onto a boat with the doomed Karswell (presumably it's some kind of vengeful spirit). It's a good story, pretty well executed.


I think that CTR is a very good story, but perhaps a little 'un-Jamesian' in that it takes place over several locations and a considerable amount of time. I do really like it as a story, but it definitely feels different to many of his other ghostly tales. It also feels more 'modern' and (I think) is set in a later period to many of his stories (eg the letters are dated 190- and there is an electric tram mentioned). It's also a case that whilst many stories are about an innocent (ish) antiquarian being set upon by an evil spirit, this time it's the antiquarian who is unleashing the spirit on others.

I agree that the description of the 'thing' under his pillow is definitely the stuff of nightmares, and with its 'mouth, teeth, hair... and not the mouth of a human being' epitomises James' monstrous creations.
 

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I'm putting this here because I don't think it merits its own thread, but did anyone see the recent BBC adaptation of Count Magnus? Was it a fair reflection of James's tale? I wasn't that impressed with it as a story. There wasn't anything very interesting or unusual about it compared with Whistle or Scrapbook or even The Mezzotint; it just seemed cobbled together from a collection of time-worn tropes, which even at the time of writing couldn't have been very fresh. Nicely acted and produced though.
 

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HB, your criticisms are of the television adaptation, I take it.

James's story is intriguing with its description of the locale, the dropping locks like something from folklore, the allusion to the Black Pilgrimage, and so on. For me it is one of the rare James stories that perhaps went a little too far in suggesting physical horror.
 

paranoid marvin

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Hi, I reviewed this over on the 'what was the last tv programme you watched' thread. I prefer James' when his stores are understated and suggestive. Which this story is not. For me it's an abridged 'Dracula' without the love interest, and whilst (as with all good horror stories) it can be told in one sitting, it isn't anywhere near as good as Bram Stoker's tale.

On the whole, I'm not a great fan of the more modern interpretations of James' stories, although I did think that 'A View From a Hill' and 'Martin's Close' were done very well. Having said that, all of his best stories have already been done by the BBC so the material they have to wok with isn't up to the standard of some of his other stories. The glaring omission (imho) is 'An Episode of Cathedral History', and is one of his best stories.
 

paranoid marvin

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I would suggest watching the Christmas special of 'Inside No 9' which in many respects is more of a Jamesean story than Count Magnus. As always there is lots of humour as well as chills in this story, and is definitely worth a watch. By far the best highlight of the festive television programmes for me, and I hope the chaps who write and perform in this series go on to do a regular Christmas edition.

Incidentally for anyone interested in this series, they do an excellent podcast on each episode called 'Inside Inside No. 9' which is definitely worth checking out.
 

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