Where did the British tradition of ghost stories at Christmas come from? Dickens’s hero Ebenezer Scrooge being hounded by his deceased colleague on the night of Christmas Eve? Or does it go further back than that?
One of our most successful and memorable horror writers is MR James (1862-1936) whose creepy supernatural tales of tormented spirits and paranormal happenings continue to excite and enthral us. Ghost Stories is a collection of some of his finest short stories, assembled and beautifully packaged by The Folio Society. There’s more than enough in here to have the hairs on your neck standing on end and leave you jumping at shadows on the walls…
James’s stories remain effective for two reasons – one is that they are superbly well-crafted, and another is that James is skilful at tapping into our primal fears and bringing them to the surface. Simple devices such as mostly narrating in the first person are effectively used. Being told the story directly not only draws in readers, but somehow makes the fantastical events seem more credible.
There are yarns aplenty here to spook – but which will be the one that sends chills down your spine? In total there are 16 short stories, comprising the original tales from two volumes: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), plus a final short story from 1925 (more on that one later…) What creeps you out? Gothic old cathedrals? Alchemists? Remote country houses? Ghosts of children with their hearts missing? Things discovered or dug up that were best left undisturbed? Latin inscriptions that shouldn’t be translated? Curses? Mysterious deaths? Take your pick – you’ll hit the jackpot with this collection.
What did we find the most unsettling? This reviewer was disturbed by the Mezzotint in which a painting, when unobserved, keeps changing, subtly. A figure appears – but what is he up to? And is he benevolent? Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to you, My Lad, contains one of the iconic illustrations of the protagonist recoiling in terror from twisting animated bedsheets.
But for a true adrenaline rush of fear, the best is saved until last. It’s perhaps the final story, A Warning to the Curious, which is the best-known and also the most terrifying (the two are connected). This reviewer made the mistake of taking the book downstairs to read when woken during the night, in the hope of being lulled back into sleep. It was a foolish mistake. Who is the young man who bursts in on two strangers at the club, desperate to impart his story? Who or what has been following him since he dug up a crown buried on the English coast? Will returning the item be enough to save him? The story lures you in and maintains an uneasy sense of foreboding and creeping menace – with good reason. Similar tropes have been used to good effect in modern horror movies such as Ring and The Grudge. Needless to say, I was compelled to read to the end, after which I was far less amenable to sleep than I had been when I started…
If you wish to scare yourself and your loved ones witless this Christmas, the well-crafted tales from MR James are just the ticket. Perhaps, as the author originally intended, you will share them aloud, on a dark and preferably stormy night where the branches of the trees are tapping against the window…
This edition showcases illustrations from James’s early work by his friend James McBryde – who sadly died very suddenly having completed only some. A final illustration – unfinished and no more than a sketch at the time of McBryde’s death, may be found at the back of the book. It is a fine tribute to both writer and artist.
Ghost Stories by MR James is available from The Folio Society.
Publisher: The Folio Society Release Date: November 2017