I have written about M.R.James in one of my previous posts, when I talked about Night of the Demon movie. Like I have mentioned before, I found his short stories exceptionally good, and would recommend them to anybody looking for a good classic horror. I have to say though, that M.R.James’s stories are very different from those of famous gothic writers like Poe, for example. James’s characters are usually scholars of some sort, or at least lovers of antiquary. His monsters come from ancient scripts and black magic books, or hide in abandoned monasteries and collapsed crypts. James also builds up the tension through careful narrative, outlining many details that make up his settings. The moment when the monster actually steps on the scene is very brief, and its appearance is vague. They say that man fears the unknown, and James utilizes this element by not fully revealing the dark creatures of his imagination. I found many of his stories truly terrifying. Below I would like to outline a few of my favorites with the key elements that appealed to me.
Lost Hearts: The story is so good, I had to read it again right after I finished it for the first time. I even retold the story to my boyfriend, because I had to share my amazement. The story deals with a young boy Stephen, who is taken into the house of his relative. Upon the inquiry about his new caretaker, Stephen finds out that Mr. Abney is a generous man who in his time gave home to two other homeless children. However, the kids never stayed too long, running away due to their wild nature. Meanwhile, Stephen is bothered by strange dreams where he sees dead children with their heart ripped out, until one day he is invited to Mr. Abney’s study in the middle of the night.
The Ash-Tree: This one also spooked the socks off me. The story follows Sir Richard, who inherits an estate once belonged to his grandfather, who in the tradition of horror stories died mysteriously in his bedroom. Richard is skeptical about the servants’ superstitions, and moves into the dead man’s room, the window of which is graced by a tall ash-tree – the favorite of witches. Soon starts hearing strange noises at night, as if the branches of the tree are scratching at his window.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas: The notes in the back of the book state that the story might have been partially inspired by Poe’s “The Gold Bug”, which made me practically squeal of joy. This one is about the narrator’s attempt to find the buried treasure by following Abbot Thomas’s clues and cyphers. The final clue, however, tells of a horrible guardian that was left to keep the treasure safe from the intruders. The narrator descends into an ancient well to find out for himself that ancient curses do exist.
Casting the Runes: This is the only story by James that was made into a movie. I have already talked about it, so I will not bore you with repetitions.
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral: This is the diary of the new Archdeacon who gains his post after the previous holder falls from the stares to his death. A first we see the Archdeacon happy with his duties, but after a while the entries of his journal grow more disturbed. Soon the isolation from others and the emptiness of the mansion he lives in begins playing tricks with his mind. He starts seeing his furniture moving, and a strange cat appearing on the stairwell.
Rating: 4/5 – great book for those who love old horror tales, many memorable stories
Source: Published by Penguin [ISBN-13: 014-3039393], which contains first two books by James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Stories of an Antiquary (1911).