Collected Ghost Stories

Friday, February 3rd, 2012

John Rateliff describes M. R. James’s “fantasy” classics, his Collected Ghost Stories:

“The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes
have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time
and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who,
when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark…”

— M. R. James

The lines between modern fantasy and its two literary cousins, the genres of science fiction and horror, have always been blurred. If science fiction is essentially concerned with presenting possibilities (however improbable) and fantasy with the impossible, it must nonetheless be admitted that many works considered science fiction by their authors (Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series) are read by their fans as fantasy, pure and simple. Similarly, fantasy and horror can both be divided into two main types, with considerable overlap between the two genres. In the case of fantasy, the division lies between Wordsworthian Fantasy, in which fantastic elements intrude into our own mundane world, and Coleridgean Fantasy, which are works set in some imaginary world like Tolkien’s Middle-earth or Eddison’s Zimiamvia or Dunsany’s Pegana. With horror, the break comes between stories where it is revealed that monsters walk among us (say, a certain Transylvanian Count) or where the threats break into our world from beyond (like a Great Old One or its mindless maleficent minions), and those where the “monsters,” while grotesque, are all too human, like Hannibal Lector or Norman Bates or Jack the Ripper. Naturally, between Wordsworthian fantasy and Lovecraftian horror there is a good deal of common ground, and often only tone and emphasis determine whether a work is fantasy (like Emma Bull’s The War for the Oaks) or horror (like King’s Salem’s Lot).

“… the merits… of a perfectly ordinary setting, a horrid catastrophe,
and a curiosity legitimately excited, and not satisfied, in the mind
of the reader.”

The quintessential case of some monster entering into our world with dire consequences is the ghost story. And when it comes to ghost stories, no one does them better than Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), who is universally hailed as The Master.

Unlike more prolific writers, James’s output was relatively small, primarily because he wrote only one story a year. [1] He would mull over various plots and ideas, eventually select the best one, and then write it up, reading the results aloud to friends on Christmas Eve. [2] When he had enough to make up a volume, he would publish a collection: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904, eight stories), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911, seven stories), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919, five stories), and finally A Warning to the Curious (1925, six stories), the whole collected along with four other tales and an essay (“Ghost Stories I Have Tried to Write”) into Collected Ghost Stories (1931). His work has never gone out of print in all the years since — a “classic” status very few books achieve. [3]

“[H]ow does he contrive to inspire horror? It is partly, I think, owing
to the very skillful use of crescendo, so to speak. The gradual removal
of one safeguard after another, the victim’s dim forebodings of what
is to happen gradually growing clearer…

– M. R. James on fellow writer J. Sheridan Le Fanu

James’s style and technique was diametrically opposed to the gore-besplattered serial killer/slasher direction taken by late twentieth century horror. Instead of the gross-out, he advocated reticence, preferring to let the reader work out for himself or herself exactly what happened. In some calm, everyday setting — a university library, a seaside hotel, the garden of a country house, an old church — his protagonist unwittingly comes into contact with the supernatural, often by unknowingly violating some prohibition or removing some barrier. This might take the form of clearing away an unsightly post in your rose garden that had kept a ghost pinned quiescent beneath it (“The Rose Garden”), damaging an old tomb while renovating a church (“An Episode in Cathedral History”), or deciding to reopen the old maze on the grounds of your new house, allowing something no longer human to slip out (“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”).

Unlike the ghosts of folklore, James’s ghosts are always malevolent, hungry, and vengeful things that are no longer human and that often take bestial or monstrous forms. To draw their attention is nothing short of disastrous, as the vacationing professor finds when he unwisely blows the curious whistle he finds in the ruins of an old medieval church by the sea in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. A similar lesson is learned, too late, by the gentleman who stands next to a tomb and whimsically expresses out loud a wish to meet its occupant (“Count Magnus”); we are told that seven members of the coroner’s jury fainted upon seeing the ultimate result. Only rarely are the warning signs obvious, except in retrospect, when, of course, it is far too late. Instead, we get little disquieting hints that all is not right, slowly building to a climax which, if he is lucky enough to survive at all, leaves the protagonist badly shaken and firmly determined never to meddle in such matters again.

Perhaps the most distinctive feature of a James ghost story is its deliberately limited range. The horrors in a typical Lovecraft story threaten the entire world, if not reality itself, with tiresome regularity. By contrast, the ghost in an M. R. James story seeks the destruction of the single victim that has exposed himself to its power. By keeping the focus on the personal rather than the cosmic, James brings home the horror in a way that a grander but more diffuse focus could not — in his own words, the reader should think “If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” (Preface to More Ghost Stories). He furthers this goal by describing events with nightmarish clarity; at least one of his tales was based on an actual nightmare, and they have certainly inspired many a nightmare among his readers. Consider, for example, such instances as reaching under your pillow at night and touching “a mouth, with teeth… not the mouth of a human being” (“Casting the Runes”), or seeing a hole in a piece of paper which grows larger and larger and out of which comes “a burnt human face… with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth… a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them” (“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”), or “see[ing] a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed” (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”).

To achieve the same goal of reader identification with the characters, James held that ghost stories should be set within the lifetime of their audience, although he often violated this rule in his own work — thus “The Mezzotint,” “A Warning to the Curious,” “The Uncommon Prayer-Book,” “Casting the Runes,” and others are set in or near the present-day (in other words, the 1890s through the 1920s), while “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” takes place as far back as 1837, “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” about 1810-1817, “Lost Hearts” in 1811, “An Evening’s Entertainment” sometime back in the early 18th century, and the bulk of “Martin’s Close” in the 1680s. This variety is actually one of James’s great strengths as an author: Since the events that lead to a haunting often took place long ago, he masterfully creates old documents telling of long-past events and inserts them in his stories, reconstructs dialogue to fit various eras, and generally brings to life a wide array of folk of grand or humble estate, each of whom has something to contribute to the evidence of what happened and why.

For James often does not give us the whole story — only such fragments as his narrator is able to piece together. In “Martin’s Close,” for instance, the local who knew all about the haunting has died before the narrator ever appears on the scene, and the latter must reconstruct the long-past events from old court records and the like. Judicious research and the lucky discovery of pertinent documents can cast some light, but some questions are always left unanswered — what exactly was the “Black Pilgrimage” that Count Magnus is said to have undertaken? And what manner of creature exactly was the familiar he brought back with him, described only as “a strange form… for the most part muffled in a hooded garment that swept the ground. The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm… [but a] tentacle”? What was the “secret” the creator of the maze boasted of in “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” or the goal of the secret worship undertaken by the two cultists in “An Evening’s Entertainment”? These answers died with the characters, but the gaps in the readers’ knowledge actually adds to the verisimilitude of the stories — after all, in the real world we always have to make do with partial information yet can form conclusions from what we do know; James’s technique makes his stories more believable (and hence more disturbing) than the neater, more pat efforts of lesser imitators.

In the end, of course, there is no substitute for simply reading the stories, savoring the prose, and risking a few nightmares. Those who merely want a taste should start with three of his very best: “Casting the Runes” (tracing the course of a very unpleasant curse on a hapless victim) “The Tractate Middoth” (a masterpiece about a ghost-haunted book), and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” Those with a little more time should add “The Mezzotint” (a sinister little picture whose scene keeps changing), “Count Magnus,” “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (about the fate that befalls a pious murderer) “Martin’s Close,” “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” “A Neighbour’s Landmark” (“That which walks in Betton Wood/Knows [not] why it walks or why it cries”), “A View from a Hill” (e.g., a gallows hill, and the danger in looking through a dead man’s eyes), “A Warning to the Curious” (“Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes”), and “Rats” (“Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on their shoulders?… Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor…”), rounded out with the plots described in “Stories I Have Tried to Write” (“There is a touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours, full of anticipation of the warm room and bright fire, and when you pull up, startled, what face or no-face do you see?”). Those who like what they read should devour all thirty stories; even James’ lesser tales have vivid images, interesting concepts, and striking lines compared with run-of-the-mill authors.

Readers who like James may also want to check out the work of John Bellairs, who was heavily influenced by James and uses many of his motifs to good effect, creating the same nightmarish feel in The Face in the Frost (1969) and his later young adult horror books; his series has since been carried on by Brian Strickland in such works as The Doom of the Haunted Opera. “Casting the Runes,” arguably James’s best story, has also inspired some film adaptations: the old black and white movie Curse of the Demon (which makes the mistake of actually showing the monster at the end), a scene in Cast a Deadly Spell, and the more recent Japanese film The Ring. His influence is heavy on both the ghost story and horror gaming such as Call of Cthulhu. His stories have transcended their own time and become classics of the genre, much imitated but never equaled.

“Do I believe in ghosts?…
I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.”

— M. R. James

M. R. James and Your Game

Essentially, any M. R. James story is a top-notch ready-made Call of Cthulhu scenario focusing on conventional horrors rather than the Mythos (thereby confounding those who see a Great Old One behind every mystery). His bestial ghosts (who only rarely maintain their human form and cunning) and demonic familiars could complicate the life of any horror RPG character and quite possibly bring it to an abrupt end. The method of cursing a character described in “Casting the Runes” presents an interesting dilemma of passing along the curse before the time limit runs out. James himself would make an interesting NPC in a Gaslight (1890s) or 1920s Call of Cthulhu campaign set in England — after all, he has access to every library in the United Kingdom and presents himself over and over in his stories as the sort of person to whom others confide their odd or occult experiences. The writings left behind by such Jamesian villains as Mr. Abney (“Lost Hearts”) and Karswell (“Casting the Runes”) could easily be transformed into minor Mythos tomes. But above all, James’s technique of gradually building suspense as the barriers separating the ghost from the protagonist’s world fall one by one serves as a model for any Keeper or DM on how to well and truly creep out your players.

[1] James’s literary output was small because he devoted most of his time to other pursuits; a librarian and museum director at Cambridge and later a senior official at Eton, he was famous for organizing and cataloguing collections of manuscripts throughout England and for his interest in Biblical apocrypha. Among his publications are a catalogue of Dr. John Dee’s library and an edition and translation of noncanonical books of the Bible. His scholarly activities exercised a strong influence on his ghost stories, and the tradition of an erudite scholar discovering horrors while conducting his research in Call of Cthulhu derives directly from his work (as well as the importance of researching a haunting before trying to confront it).

[2] The English have a tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmastime, not Halloween (which is more of an American holiday). This may derive ultimately from the old belief that ghosts did not appear at Christmas, perhaps making it safer to discuss them on that day. At least one modern writer followed James’ example, the Canadian Robertson Davies, whose High Spirits (1982) collects his own once-a-year ghost stories, which are all of a humorous bent.

[3] For true James enthusiasts, the definitive collection is A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings (Ash Tree Press, 2001), which includes all his published stories plus uncompleted fragments of stories, a few uncollected tales, some medieval ghost stories James found in a 14th century manuscript, essays (mostly on the work of Sheridan Le Fanu, James’ favorite ghost story writer), his only novel (a short children’s fantasy called The Five Jars, 1922), a critique of Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature, and various other odds and ends. For more on James, see Ghosts & Scholars, a literary journal devoted to his work that recently transformed itself into a website.


  1. Doctor Pat says:

    There is one more type of horror story, where the monster is natural, but not human.

    Jaws is the canonical example.

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