Forbidden Tomes (Halloween edition): GHOST STORIES of M.R. JAMES

One of the most ancient, and perhaps overdone, horror subgenres is the ghost story. No matter how oversaturated the market becomes, we always look for truly spine-tingling and chilling tales of the supernatural. For the best offerings of this tradition, I argue that it’s best to go back to the roots – those creepy Victorians, and most wonderful of all are the GHOST STORIES OF M.R. JAMES.

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With his first two collections in particular, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories, James explores what happens when innocent explorers stumble on something from the other side. Usually the consequences are a fainting spell and a good shock, but sometimes the ghosts are more dangerous. Set in crumbling cathedrals, dreary manor homes and drafty seaside inns, his stories are full of the best sort of atmosphere. Their protagonists are hardly unique or memorable, but what happens to them in these spooky locales is always hard to forget, especially late at night.

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James is one of those authors who, if you haven’t actually read a story of his, you’ve seen them referenced or redone. If he’s not the inventor, he’s the popularizer of the white-sheeted, object-cursing, revenge-seeking spirit in popular culture. His stories are simple and often tongue-in-cheek, but there’s something about their subtlety and lack of grotesque flair that makes them far too easy to believe. James is blunt about his supernatural occurrences, which makes them all the more frightening.

MR James

By today’s standards his images are basic and silly – but he handles them in a way that makes the horror visceral and undeniable. It’s worth noting as well that James introduced some of our standard ghost tropes, too – evil dolls, man-hungry spiders, and child demons, amongst others. His almost sardonic treatment of these images is strikingly modern. He has a great sense of sadistic humour, torturing his audience with gossipy grotesqueries and blurted horrors. One can imagine him watching the reader from afar, smirking in delight as the goosebumps rise.

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His best stories – such as “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “A Warning to the Curious” – have sustained amazingly, still frightening after all these decades. Their wind-swept climes and shadowy twists are best navigated in the dark of an October night – they were traditionally read by James in pitch-black rooms as an after-dinner form of entertainment. And somehow, across the crawl of time, his autumnal voice still echoes.

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