Tag Archives: M.R. James

The Supernatural Charm of the English Countryside

It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved. 

In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.  

In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.  

For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Epona is also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.

Review: ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James

Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.   

Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.  

So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.   

As for my own offerings within this genre, well, they naturally pale in comparison, but his understated approach is something that I have sought to adhere to in the likes of At Fall of Night, The Ghost of Scarside Beck, and Old Crotchet.

Review: ‘Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance’ by M.R. James

Rocky Valley Labyrinth, Cornwall

This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.  

Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:  

‘The rich man in his castle,

the poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,

and ordered their estate’ 

I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader. 

This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.

Book Review: ‘Hauntings: Tales of the Supernatural,’ ed. Henry Mazzeo, 1968

An entertaining collection of supernatural tales, some by authors that I have previously read, and others that I have not. What united them for me personally was the fact that I came to them all as a fresh reader, for I had not thumbed my way through any of the stories in this volume before. Although a number of the authors included will doubtless be familiar to horror aficionados, some of them were new to me, even a figure so apparently well known as August Derleth.  

Personal tastes differ, so it is just as well that I persevered reading beyond the first story in the collection – Derleth’s ‘The Lonesome Place’ – which I found particularly grating, owing to the extreme repetition of the term ‘lonesome place’ which seemed to pop up in every other sentence throughout the text. I would suggest, therefore, that a more befitting title would be ‘The Tiresome Place.’ Perhaps it would be unfair to judge Derleth too harshly upon the basis of having read only one of his tales, but if this is stylistically in keeping with his oeuvre, then I shall be steering well clear of anything else that he penned. There was one other story in the collection that I thought to be dire, once again owing to its exceptional repetitiveness – far too many ‘whistlings’ and ‘hoonings’ for my taste – entitled ‘The Whistling Room,’ by William Hope Hodgson. It was thus with something of a sardonic chuckle, having compelled myself to read the story, that I learned that Derleth had been something of an admirer of Hodgson.  

Having gone on, at some length, about what I did not enjoy in this collection, please do not let this deter you from picking up and enjoying this volume, for it contains much that will reward the reader with an interest in the supernatural with many hours of satisfactory reading. Some of the highlights, for me, included ‘Lot No. 249,’ (the original mummy story, set at Cambridge University during the 1880s) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ‘The Open Door,’ by Margaret Oliphant; ‘The Ghostly Rental,’ by Henry James; ‘The Face,’ by E.F. Benson, and ‘The Grey Ones,’ by J.B. Priestley. The last of these contained a considerable amount of humour, which raised many a smile during its modest number of pages. I shall be looking out for more by Oliphant, Benson and Priestley, as well as by other familiar names in the traditional horror genre who contributed some enjoyable stories to this book, who include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft. If I’d have been in Mazzeo’s seat as editor, I would have dispensed with the contributions by Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan and Hodgson, substituting instead the ghostly tale shown below, although that may have been rather difficult in 1968, given that the author had yet to learn to speak, let alone write.

Old Crotchet is back, grumpier than ever.