Archive for mr james

Winter Traditions: Ghost Stories by the Fire

Posted in Dark Musings with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 13, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Our Western culture often associates December and its holidays with cheerfulness, light, and warmth. These are defenses against the long nights and cold winds that otherwise would haunt us. We forget, however, a tradition predominant in Victorian Europe, one that ran alongside the cheery tidings: winter ghost stories by the firelight.

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Evidence of this tradition exists throughout Victorian literature. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is arguably the most famous, and the lightest-hearted – but many authors contributed darker tales. M.R. James, for instance, was famous for writing out his chilling stories by hand and reading them in utter darkness to his holiday guests. Other authors, such as Sheridan LeFanu, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell, followed this tradition as well.

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These stories are far from cheery, designed to create dread and uncanny fear in the reader. Coming from these talented scribes, the effects are considerable. They spin for the fireside audience spectral evil, cursed objects, and decaying churches where wicked creatures hide. Sometimes the protagonists escape with only rattled nerves; other times the supernatural prevails. Rarely, however, do the stories end in upbeat morals, in the form of “A Christmas Carol.” They are purely written to frighten and make listeners question the existence of ghosts.

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Where does this tradition come from, then, and where has it gone? We have shirked ghost stories and shivers for sentiment and comedy. I think, though, that these opposite moods serve a similar purpose. They both present a distraction from that dreary dark outside. Whether laughing or shaking, the entertainment is harmless – these ghosts don’t haunt us as they do the characters. It is the momentary catharsis, the communal chills, that make the ghost story an important part of the Christmas tradition. Perhaps, one day, it will reinstate itself.

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Horror Stories for a Snowy Night

Posted in Best Of with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2015 by smuckyproductions

 

Yuletide is upon us! The nights grow dark, the air cold, and the wind carries voices of ice… the perfect time for a few fireside shivers. Here is a (partial) list of classic and contemporary stories that suit themselves for a cold night, when you tremble from something other than temperature.

  1. THE WENDIGO by ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

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Algernon Blackwood is the unchallenged master of the terrified awe that nature inspires – like an evil twin of the Romantics. “Wendigo” is my personal favorite of his famous tales. His ill-fated group of hunters who encounter the titular spirit in the winter woods are witnesses to a horror that we all understand: being at the mercy of the elements. It evokes a sense of ever-present dread, lurking over the treetops and blowing in on the snow – something that we can’t see, but it sure sees us.

  1. OH, WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU, MY LAD by M.R. JAMES

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No December reading list is complete without M.R. James – he is one of the best practitioners of the fireside ghost story. While many of his stories are worth reading, “Whistle” combines the best traits of them all: chilly seaside atmosphere, ancient relics, and slow-building uncanny events that blow up into shocking terror. All with a cheeky sense of humor. Suffice to say that James actually makes the ghost-in-a-sheet cliché frightening.

  1. THE COMPANY OF WOLVES by ANGELA CARTER

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As with the entirety of her collection, Angela Carter is phenomenal at paying tribute to fairy tales while also subverting them. Here, we find a deeply dark version of Red Riding Hood – a snow-shrouded village in Eastern Europe; a young girl with a vital task, and the boy who seduces her; the horrible, animal secret that might kill her. It’s both frightening and hideously erotic, realizing the full potential of the werewolf/sexual awakening metaphor.

  1. SILENT SNOW, SECRET SNOW by CONRAD AIKEN

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Cited by some as one of the first psychological thrillers in short American fiction, this story has a bizarrely simple premise: a boy becomes obsessed with snow. Somehow it manages to be weirder than it sounds. On one hand, it’s a deeply disturbing supernatural horror story; on the other, it’s an upending exploration of mental illness and obsession. All while having a supremely chilling atmosphere.

  1. MIRIAM by TRUMAN CAPOTE

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What would you do if a helpless little girl follows you home… and refuses to leave you alone? Set in a bitter, empty New York winter, this shivery tale reads like the purest of nightmares: surreal, impossible, but inescapable. It’s also a horrifying meditation on loneliness and manipulation. Capote knew how to scare readers with his true stories, but he also could craft fictional terror, all too well.

  1. THE YATTERING AND JACK by CLIVE BARKER

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No one in their right mind would call this scary. But it’s an absolute blast to read – a combination of demonic horror clichés and brilliant dark humor, often bordering on slapstick. And it all takes place during a traditional Suburban Christmas. Clive Barker has an imagination of dark gold, and it’s displayed beautifully in this tale of holiday Satanism, with a hefty dose of satire as well.

  1. SNOW, GLASS, APPLES by NEIL GAIMAN

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Only someone like Neil Gaiman could take such a classic, overdone story – Snow White, in this case – and completely invert it, so the original is unrecognizable. I won’t tell you how he does it, but the effect is astonishing and wholly terrifying. This wintry fairy tale is a bleak and brilliant nightmare. Its minute twists of the source material alter the reader’s perception so fully that they can never go back.

Forbidden Tomes (Halloween Edition): UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR

Posted in Forbidden Tomes, Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Children’s genre literature is often dismissed, and for good reason – most publishers don’t seem to recognise that kids can handle scary stuff. But, there are some serious exceptions to this rule. Some children’s horror is even scarier than what they give adults. My favorite example of this is Chris Priestley’s UNCLE MONTAGUE’S TALES OF TERROR.

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The book is structured terrifically – a young boy listens to his spooky old uncle telling ghost stories, each of which increase in macabre nature. But as the house fills with noises and the uncle becomes distressed, the boy begins to wonder, what is Uncle Montague hiding?

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From the very start, Priestley’s word is full of the Gothic and the uncanny – a mist-shrouded path of gnarled trees, a dark house full of whispers, and a collection of tales all focused on children who meet horrific fates for their transgressions. He knows his horror, as evidenced simply by the uncle’s name, a reference to ghost story master M.R. James. It’s a deeply atmospheric book, liminal and chilly with a hefty dose of melancholy on top. This makes the overarching story just as compelling as the vignettes in between.

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Speaking of which, I was shocked the first time I read it by how dark they were willing to go. All of them center on child protagonists, who – usually because of mischief or disobedience – encounter the supernatural and suffer the consequences. From a demon bench-end that spouts murderous thoughts into the owner’s head, to an old woman who turns trespassers to trees, even a child-luring demon-cat, the tales are full of horrific protagonists. There is something gleefully classic about the stories, each set in the Victorian era and featuring a wicked twist. It’s a skilful throwback to the old masters like James and Poe. The illustrations, resembling the best of Edward Gorey, only make this homage more wonderful.

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As a young person’s introduction to horror, or just a seasoned fan’s autumn read, “Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror” impress and chill. It’s utterly perfect for reading aloud by the fire, to keep the shadows away.

Stories for HALLOWEEN That You Can Read Online

Posted in Halloween with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 1, 2015 by smuckyproductions

Happy 1st of October, horror fans!

As the chill wind blows and the spirits creep forth, it’s important to have an arsenal of spooky tales to spin by the fireside. For the first section of October recommendations, I’ve assembled a collection of short stories that ooze the autumn atmosphere and send shivers up the spine – all in the public domain, and easily accessible online. So cozy up by the fire, lock your doors, and settle in with these STORIES FOR HALLOWEEN.

  1. THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW

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You can’t go through October without indulging in Washington Irving’s lush, warm world of Tarrytown. This is a story for the senses – Irving describes the scent of the air, the texture of the autumn foods, and even the quality of light with relish. Combine that with a terrifically fun and creepy myth, and you’ve got the perfect (family-friendly) Halloween yarn. Purely for the sensory delights, this one is a must.

2. YOUNG GOODMAN BROWN

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What’s autumn without some late-night Sabbaths? Trauma from high school lit class aside, Nathaniel Hawthorne is worth celebrating for this richly atmospheric and disturbing story. This is one of my favorite depictions of the devil, and, like the best Hawthorne, it raises nasty concerns about Puritan values. Without spoiling the fantastic ending, I’ll just say this tale is the perfect witchy spookfest – and also makes us question what we know about our neighbors.

3. THE YELLOW WALLPAPER

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Got to have a good old Gothic breakdown on this list. Charlotte Perkins Gilman weaves a simple but utterly nightmarish world in which the female narrator, confined to a single room with hideous wallpaper by a husband who thinks she’s insane, becomes convinced that there are women in the walls, trying to escape. Psychologically and visually, this story is beyond disturbing. But its fabulous Grand Guignol house setting makes it a perfect tale for October.

4. THE MASQUE OF THE RED DEATH

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You can’t have a Halloween list without a bit of Poe. While there are many stories to choose from, this one has always been my favorite. It reads like an archaic fable, beautifully described and slowly mounting in tension, before a climax of shock and violence. This is a costume party gone horribly wrong. Hopefully that doesn’t happen to you this season, but regardless, this creepy morality tale is ideal at the stroke of midnight.

5. THE DUNWICH HORROR

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Again, an author often cited. But H.P. Lovecraft outdoes himself with this cosmically frightening story of netherworld beasts and their human servants. Like Washington Irving, Lovecraft evokes his town of Dunwich with perfect attention to atmosphere, and it serves as a flawless setting for the horrors that commence. Full of unhallowed rituals and nightmarish creatures, this story captures the sentiment of Halloween exquisitely. And, to boot, it’s terrifying.

6. COUNT MAGNUS

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Most of M.R. James’s stories were designed for dark winter nights, but I find this classic is better suited for October. Like all of James’s work, it begins with a benevolent protagonist who uncovers a hidden mystery – but the horrors extend beyond simple spectres, because the titular phantom is so malevolent. Graveyards, knotted woods, and dust-filled halls abound in this story; all lorded over by the presence of Count Magnus. Much darker than most of the stories on this list, this one will chill you long into the night.

7. THE YELLOW SIGN

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Robert Chambers has gotten a lot of attention after his works were cited as influencing “True Detective.” His Carcosa saga is definitely worth visiting, and this one is the best of them all. A deformed church employee, a forbidden book that drives people mad, a cosmic lord waiting to be born again – all of these elements, along with a tensely thick Gothic atmosphere, make this story perfect for October.

So, light your fire and don’t look out the window – these stories should keep you chilled this autumn. Stay tuned for a list of contemporary tales that evoke the same atmosphere.

(No photos/artwork used is my property – credit goes to the individual creators.)