Monday, 12 January 2015

Collected Ghost Stories

M.R. James Collected Ghost Stories (1931)

I suppose I should have kept in mind that, despite the appreciation of H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James wrote ghost stories as something quite distinct from horror stories, or which have at least become something quite distinct from horror stories over the course of the last century. By certain criteria - pretty much anything upwards and inclusive of your average episode of Scooby Doo - James' accounts of bumps heard in the night appear quite tame. That said, I understand that a few of these began life as tales told to students on long winter evenings with everyone sat comfortably around the fire with their cocoa or something of the sort. So written word is here the secondary medium and is perhaps not the one by which these stories work best. It's not that they're badly written in any sense, just that the rhythm is often that of spoken narrative, and there's very little with power sufficient to tip you from your chair in its written form.

The first few tales seem to begin well, being reasonably atmospheric in compensation for nothing too astonishing turning up in time for the conclusion, usually just something on the level of a distantly seen figure which may or may not have been a ghost. After a hundred or so pages of this I began to find it difficult to concentrate on what was happening, to whom and why, culminating with Casting the Runes in which rambling discussion of some book about witchcraft becomes some bloke staring at an advertisement concealed beneath the glass floor of a tram, then something else happens without any of it seeming connected. I know it was probably just me, but I spent most of the story trying to work out whether trams really once featured advertising beneath glass walkways, because it sounds extremely unlikely and yet is described as a given.

Becoming increasingly bereft of enthusiasm each time I returned to this collection, I skipped to the end and started to read the remainder in reverse order, based on an assumption that the later ones may be more recent and therefore more accomplished. This roughly seemed to be the case as the last few tales demonstrated a sense of humour which appears absent from those which begin the collection, and the Cockney owl was particularly welcome. The last handful of stories seem more readable, but I suppose were probably still just a little too dry for my tastes.

In James' favour, he at least did well to avoid the formulaic, even suffixing The Haunted Doll's House with a note of apology for its premise resembling that of The Mezzotint. Although on the other hand, he did have a tendency to nest narratives within one another like Russian dolls - James' describes the letter from an acquaintance which in turn details the account of some other bloke who saw a scary looking tree or whatever. This aspect tended to muddy many of the tales for me, given my increasingly reduced attention span.

Oh well.

I feel I've probably done this guy something of a disservice here, as he clearly had something. Possibly my reading thirty of them more or less one after the other wasn't such a great idea.

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