The Ghost Stories of M.R. James – Review

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By Karl Hornsey

As the long winter nights continue and with the summer months seemingly an age away, there can be few more pleasurable pastimes than getting lost in a good book and to while away the hours. And, what better than a classic ghost story? Well, how about 11 of them. That’s what you get with this collection released by the British Library of The Ghost Stories of MR James, edited by Roger Luckhurst and featuring suitably atmospheric cover art by Sinem Erkas. Such tales are certainly best read at this time of year and, despite the author’s justified reputation in the genre, I’ve never been anything like as spooked reading his tales in the middle of summer as in the depths of winter.

ghost stories of mr james book review coverThere’s something unique about James’s style of writing, playing on the nerves of rather buttoned-up characters, gradually developing their sense of unease about a seemingly innocent situation, until they invariably end up scared witless and scarred for life. There’s also something about how James develops his stories in such a matter of fact way, not inserting anything for unnecessary dramatic license, but adding layer upon layer of lingering dread that makes them that bit more believable.

“Resurgence of interest”

The sense of unease tends to build slowly, even in such short stories, and that they invariably then end quite suddenly, tends to leave me as the reader more likely to have to sit and think about what I’ve just read, which I happen to think is a very good thing indeed.

This collection consists of 11 of the writer’s tales, many of which will need no introduction to his fans, including ‘Number 13’, ‘The Tractate Middoth’, ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. There seems to have been a resurgence of interest in ghostly tales and psychological horror in recent times, after many years of the genre laying dormant, and James’s works have gradually come to greater prominence of late, especially thanks to BBC4 adaptations around Halloween and Christmas.

While it’s not easy to choose a favourite, if pushed I could quite happily read ‘Number 13’ over and over again. It’s a typical M.R. James yarn, originally published in 1904, focusing on a college professor who travels to Denmark to research the history of the Church, and on checking in at an inn is told by the landlord that room number 13 doesn’t exist, for the usual superstitious reasons. Without revealing the plot for those unfamiliar with the story, the landlord’s claims don’t quite prove to be true, leading to a genuinely unnerving experience for both the professor and the reader, as the secret behind the room gradually unfolds.

‘The Ghost Stories of M.R. James’ is published by the British Library, £14.99 hardback


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