I’ve never been much interested in bestsellers; the few times I’ve read something out of interest to see what’s agitating the charts (Thomas Harris and Michael Crichton spring to mind), I’ve always been disappointed. (Or perhaps that should be reassured: that I’m not missing anything.) Yet there must be something to be said for popular fiction which has withstood a century or more of fad and fashion, even if that something turns out to be, “Is that it?” It was when Penguin issued a set of Gothic titles in their stylish Red Classics line that I thought of looking further.
I’ve always thought there was something childish about ghost stories. That might, however, be a defence mechanism to cover my innate conservatism, which means I will never set myself up to be voluntarily frightened, whether by horror film or rollercoaster. Isn’t life terrifying enough? But still I know of M.R. James, the grandaddy of English ghost stories; and the imprimatur of Time – that much-vaunted judge – meant I couldn’t finally resist.
Or I thought I knew of M.R. James. As I began reading the stories in this volume – a sort of ‘best of’ – it seemed to me that he was setting the template for what we traditionally think of as ‘ghost stories’ – the rambling house in the English countryside, the mysterious artefact, the character concealing frightening knowledge from the new chap and so on. It’s such a well-known form that it’s been filleted, copied and spoofed endlessly (what I was most reminded of was the Ripping Yarns story, ‘The Curse of the Claw’). Only when I looked at the author details, and saw that James was writing relatively recently – he died in 1936 – did I realise that far from creating these templates, they were well-known and much-used when adopted by him for his stories.
Which is not to say that there is anything formulaic or half-hearted about them. James diverts the reader with playful narrative – pointing out that there’s no need to describe a character in detail because he plays no further part in the story (in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’), or having characters talk around a mysterious object without disclosing what it is (it “will be described when the time comes”), and then, when the time comes, saying “What it was, the title of this story will have told you” (‘The Haunted Dolls’ House’). However, these diversions are not an attempt to make the reader forget he is reading a ghost story, all the better to surprise him later. Rather, the contrary is true: James presents the ghost stories as such and with a full complement of apparently corny details on top of the aforementioned standard structures.
These – the ghost story clichés such as dark hints of sinister powers held by an object or place – are actually essential to the experience of reading. In much story-driven fiction, the reader should know as little as possible of what’s coming for maximum effect. In contrast, for a ghost story to ‘work’ properly, the reader must know what it is in advance, and be willing to observe the conventions, in particular the build up of sinister atmosphere via – otherwise crashingly obvious – hints. (James’s stories are full of people ‘in the know’ breaking off mid-sentence to avoid telling the protagonist about the dreadful death of his new home’s last inhabitant, and so on.) So the genre sustains its own effects by virtue of the reader’s expectations of predictability. It is comfort reading, comforting the reader with elegantly placed shocks. And James’s shocks are very effective. My favourite I think is in ‘Casting the Runes’, when the character
put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and not, he declares, the mouth of a human being.
This is the only explicit detail in the story, and mighty effective it is too, rather like the “figure in pale, fluttering draperies” in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, probably James’s most famous story. To note another convention which James observes: less is more.
The stories here are also – are primarily – great fun. I must admit I have found the later stories less effective, though that might be from the inevitable fatigue which sets in with any sustained reading of a collection of stories. The reader’s diminishing freshness can be mistaken for the book’s. This Penguin Red Classics edition, containing nine of James’s stories, is designed for style rather than scholarly insight, and so there is no critical apparatus nor, more disappointingly for me, any indication of when each of the stories was first published. But this is the only criticism I can make of a thoroughly entertaining – and effectively chilling – set of tales. Give it another hundred years and I’ll try Michael Crichton again too.