M.R. James: The Haunted Dolls’ House

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.


  1. I definitely agree with your review John, James is great fun, but fatigue sets in if you read too many in a row. Some are also the same story with slight changes of scenery, which if (as I do) you have the complete works can become a bit too apparent. The Haunted Doll’s House I seem to recall is one of those, there’s another tale with a daguerrotype which is basically the same story.

    But as you say, he works with the genre, he embraces it and he embraces the cliches, often nodding and winking to the reader. His small moments of discomfort are often more effective for that, it’s comfortable but with effective little shocks.

    He does too have an occasional wonderful eye for the disquieting description. In O Whistle, the sheet-thing blindly pursuing a man on a beach fluttering ever faster from side to side, feeling for its prey because it cannot see it. In Count Magnus, a tremendously predictable yet hugely fun story, with the details of the Count’s familiar and the sense of inescapable doom. He also has a nice eye for powerlessness, often the narrator is merely a witness who sees some terrible thing occur – skeletons crawling across a field towards men quite unaware of their presence – but is too distant to intervene and so is left impotent to stop the inevitable.

    I’m rather fond of James, he is the high point of the Victorian style ghost story, I wouldn’t call it horror in the sense that it is actually frightening but some stories do have a disturbing edge to them. As you say, they’re comfort reading, but there is I think a place for that and he does do it tremendously well.

  2. He also has a nice eye for powerlessness, often the narrator is merely a witness who sees some terrible thing occur – skeletons crawling across a field towards men quite unaware of their presence – but is too distant to intervene and so is left impotent to stop the inevitable.

    A good point, Max. I noticed how James would sometimes go beyond the natural span of the story, and continue recounting the ‘victim’s’ life as it suffered following the creepy goings-on. Often this would be with a dispassionate tone, almost relishing the inevitability of it, which again made for tremendous fun.

  3. I agree James is best read in small doses rather than one story after another, but he is great fun.I think Sheridan La Fanu, who James celebrated, is even better though- Mr Justice Harbottle, The Room in the Dragon Volant and Carmilla are particular favourites.

  4. Glad you’ve discovered M.R. James. I think between your review and the comments, everything I was going to say has already been said.

    Did you ever get around to Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House? If not, this might be a good time to try it, while the spooky iron is hot. It’s very different to M.R. James, of course, but it might complement it well.

  5. I remember last Halloween doing a post on McGrath’s Asylum and asking for some good ghostly recommendations. I think both Max and Rob recommended M.R. James. And I still haven’t got around to it yet! Thanks for the reminder. I like a good ghost story come fall. And now this Sheridan La Fanu to add thanks to adevotedreader!

  6. I remember there was a nice little joke in one the Star Trek films in which someone said that they’d studied the works of Harold Robbins and Sidney Sheldon. Mr Spock nodded solemnly and added ‘Ah yes, the classics’.

    I wish I could read people like Michael Crichton. I’m a very nervous flyer and would love to lose myself in a thriller. I’m eternally grateful to Ian Rankin for helping me reach Chile without breaking into a cold sweat. But as much as I love the film of The Andromeda Strain, I couldn’t read the novel.

    By the way, did you know that Michael Crichton was 7ft tall and believed in UFOs?

    I’ve never read M.R.James, but if I ever rent an isolated cottage in the middle of winter, he’ll be my first choice.

  7. The isolated cottage point is a good one, Steerforth. It’s almost self-evident, but the stories do work best when read in quiet and lonely surroundings. I read the first ones, which I considered the most effective, while doing the late shift feed, and the house was mostly dark and perfectly quiet except for the otherworldly pops and whistles of the baby monitor. The later stories I read at my desk in work over lunch, or in a busy cafe, and they got under my skin less.

    By the way, did you know that Michael Crichton was 7ft tall and believed in UFOs?

    Yes and no, respectively.

  8. Really, don’t read Michael Crichton. It’s not worth it (as an aside, he bugs me for his conservatism, and not just politically–in his science-fiction, it’s all about putting some dangerous genie back in the bottle, when most good science-fiction breaks the bottle into fragments and really digs into the strange new world that results), except for his fun-but-daft early crime books as John Lange.

    Great stuff on James. And as adevotedreader says, go for Sheridan Le Fanu. ‘Carmilla’ is the only 18th-century lesbian vampire novella you’ll ever need. Though I’ve noticed (somewhat belatedly) that you don’t seem to do pre-1900. What’s that all about, then?

  9. Ahhh…there’s nowt like a good Gothic Tale to chill the bones and I’ve got admit getting a little psyched out by ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, but that may be because I’m just a wimp 🙂

    Anyway nice review James. Thanks for taking the time to post it!

  10. I read some Crichton years ago, Eaters of the Dead is worth reading if you’re an sf or fantasy fan but not otherwise (though it at least has the merit of brevity), there was nothing else I’d recommend to anyone much. A screenwriter more than a novelist.

    But, back then I did read a book of his which I thought was a novel, but was in fact his musings on life. That included his belief in UFOs, his encounter with the ghost of his grandfather (oddly, I recall he asked him nothing about the afterlife that the ghost presumably inhabited, were I to encounter a dead yet friendly relative I’d probably at least enquire) and many other new agey bits. It didn’t impress or convince, though I had the impression he believed it all himself.

    His fiction was very conservative, in the sense that he always seemed afraid of the future. For a man believing in aliens, spirits, all that sort of thing I’d have hoped he’d be a tad more optimistic, but JRSM’s dead on on him.

    On a more ghostly note (though there was a ghost in the above I’d note), anyone read any Algernon Black or any of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stuff? Hodgson is a precursor to authors such as HP Lovecraft, and his ghost stories are quite different – featuring elements of rather pulpy pseudoscience as part of the investigations and occasionally with the protagonist discovering the haunting is a total fake done to reduce property values or the like. If you’ve a fondness for this sort of literature, they’re worth checking out, perhaps not if you just like the occasional ghost story at Christmas though.

    Algernon Black is apparently excellent in a more traditional ghost vein, but although I have him at home (or, more accurately, a collection of his works) I’ve not read him yet.

  11. anyone read any Algernon Black or any of William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki stuff?

    No, but I do have Hodgson’s The House on the Borderland, which is part of the same Penguin Gothic Reds series as The Haunted Dolls’ House.

    And thanks for the thoughts on Crichton. Incidentally, the book of his I read was back in 1992, one I chose more or less at random from the bestseller shelves, a little known work titled Jurassic Park. Little did I know a film adaptation was on the way.

  12. The House on the Borderland is a warped gothic epic John, hugely flawed yet still with definite power. It was a huge influence on Lovecraft, I’ve not read it in years (I was an adolescent when I did, perhaps the best age) so I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.

    It is a classic, it deserves to be in any gothic collection, but classics can be such and still be strange, baroque and ever so slightly mad.

  13. Thanks Max. I wouldn’t hold your breath for my response to the Hodgson, though I will no doubt get around to it eventually. I don’t mind the odd baroque, mad classic anyway – though as to its influence on Lovecraft, well, he’s another missing board in my literary floor. A selection of his, The Dunwich Horror, is also available in this series.

    Though I’ve noticed (somewhat belatedly) that you don’t seem to do pre-1900. What’s that all about, then?

    A good question, JRSM, which I am at a loss to answer. I think it’s just ignorance, plus an obscure feeling that the further back I go, the more I will struggle with a book because of its language, cultural divide etc. I have enjoyed but never been hugely enthusiastic about the big English 19th century names I’ve read – Austen, Brontës (except Wuthering Heights which I actively hated), Collins, Dickens – but then have great gaps in my reading such as Eliot, Hardy, and pretty much everyone else. I do however rate some pre-1900 books among my best loved, including Moby-Dick, Gulliver’s Travels, Madame Bovary and The Death of Ivan Ilyich (which I choose to represent Tolstoy over Anna Karenina because I can never be sure I didn’t like it because one tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it) – and some Chekhov stories, though he straddles the centuries.

    I am of course open to commands and directions as to which pre-1900 titles I really need to read without delay.

  14. Dostoyevsky, John! Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, but also Notes from the Underground and his first novel – written as an exchange of letters Poor People. And Gogol’s short stories – The Nose, The Overcoat – and his novel Dead Souls.

    If, like me, you love Madame Bovary, then I’d recommend A Sentimental Education. Another book by a French writer I really enjoyed was Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos le Laclos.

    From over the pond, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has, to my mind, an excellent claim to be The Great American Novel.

    Going further back, Don Quixote and, further still, The Iliad, simply because after five years of on and off reading I finally got through them both and don’t see any reason why everyone shouldn’t have to go through the same pain.

    But, yes, if we’re going pre-1900, then I feel you have to turn to Russia (I, too, can seem to leave most of the English novelistic canon in this regard, (though not its poetry)): (in order of my own personal reckoning) Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev, Pushkin, Leskov. And also the often-overlooked Saltykov-Shchedrin and his novel The Golovlyov Family – for that great great book alone I’d put the writer somewhere between Leo and Nikolai.

    And then there’s Shakespeare.

  15. Dangerous Liasons is one of the finest novels out there, tremendously well written, concise and quite wonderfully poisonous.

    Candide, by Voltaire, is hugely funny.

  16. Ack, forgot to say, the Illiad is no pain, a wonderful work and although difficult in places (mostly due to differing cultural assumptions about the nature of narrative importance) overall it’s hugely rewarding.

  17. I’d certainly agree that comparisons between Dangerous Liaisons and Madame Bovary are fair. And Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (a personal favorite) misses by only a year.

    I’m also a George Eliot fan, just to put an English name into the mix.

  18. Thanks everyone. I am such a philistine. Sam, I read somewhere that most people find they much prefer one of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky over the other, and if that’s true, I’m a Count Lev man. I have never to my knowledge successfully made it through a Dost book – neither The Devils nor Crime and Punishment (both 10-15 years ago, admittedly), nor even Notes from Underground more recently. However on your recommendation I have today invested in a fresh copy of C&P, the Everyman edition of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation. I have a collection of Gogol stories which I will look out, and will seek Dangerous Liaisons (in paperback, not DVD) soon.

    I also found myself unaccountably browsing the Prousts in my local bookstore at the same time. Now that’s what I call hubris.

  19. Oh and Sam, I’ve never even heard of Leskov. Who he?

    Another Russian I’d like to read is Isaac Babel. Not pre-1900, but seems to come up in reference again and again by other writers, so I’d love to know what they’re talking about.

    1. Me too. I’ve just bought his collected stories (that doesn’t mean I’m going to actually read them anytime in the next year or so!) as I had also suffered the alarming current ubiquity of his name being dropped by various writers and thus resolved to fill in that particular gap. I did read a story of his in one of the endless collections out there but cannot remember anything about it.

  20. I forgot one, Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of our Time, one of the first of the superflous man genre of Russian novels, a fine piece of literature and also rather a fun adventure story to boot.

    The protagonist is one Pechorin, given I named my blog after him I really should have remembered to mention it sooner.

  21. Ah, I’ve always wondered that, Max! Thanks for the info.

    In town today I picked up the Oxford edition of Les Liaisons Dangereuses (tr. Douglas Parmée, but more importantly, much slimmer than the Penguin) and Lydia Davis’s translation of Proust’s The Way by Swann’s (sic) in Penguin Classics. Now keep a record of how long it takes before I read either of them.

  22. You have created a bit of a problem for yourself by opting for the Penguin, multi-translator version of Proust, because once you have finished those six volumes you’ll also have to read the Enright-Moncrieff translation so you can comment on which is better. I have read all six volumes in that version but don’t feel up to joining the controversy — here’s a link to an NYRB review of it that is enough for me: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/article-preview?article_id=18563. I’d start with Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

  23. An interesting link, Kevin. I did agonise between the Enright-Moncrieff and the Penguin, though I must admit that at least part of that agonising came down to the fact that the former had nicer covers while the latter were slimmer volumes. I did however have my doubts about the title changes, as suggested by my sic above. Then again, Scott Moncrieff changed the title of the whole novel/series to Remembrance of Things Past (from Shakespeare, a little known poet whom Sam mentioned above) which doesn’t particularly make sense when the literal translation of In Search of Lost Time is both more accurate and more poetic.

  24. Whoops — I put the wrong link in that last post. The link to the review of the Davis volume one is: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18526?email

    The link to the review of James Grieve’s translation of volume two is: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18563?email

    I include both because of the interesting discussions of translations that sometimes come up here — I found these two articles a thorough, but not too long, exploration of the issue.

    The review of volume one also starts with an explanation that shows why some prefer Tolstoy (he’s a swallow) while others opt for Dostoevsky (he’s a snail). The extension of this logic would suggest that since you prefer Tolstoy the swallow on that front, you probably won’t like Proust, the snail, on this one. Not to discourage you from reading, by any means.

  25. Sorry, our last two messages crossed. As the second NYRB article notes, it was Enright who revised Moncrieff’s Shakespearean title back to a far more fitting translation. One of the things that I found intriguing about the whole discussion in the two articles was the contrast between a generally admired translation (Moncrieff) with a probably more admired revision (Enright) compared to a whole new set involving several translators. I’m not as up on translator issues as many are — these pieces showed me what some of the intriguing issues are.

  26. I’ve read a few of Leskov’s stories and saw an opera of his performed at university (the first and last time I’ve ever been to an opera – I really don’t see the point), but his prose is so playful and full of vernacular. The story of his that sticks with me most is probably his most famous: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Wikipedia tells me that it raises comparisons with Madame Bovalry (what with that nineteenth-century male-author perennial: the adulterous wife) but I can’t see it. Emma just kills herself, whereas the heroine of Leskov’s story bumps off *goes to check his copy* her husband, father-in-law, and sister-in-law’s son. She’s an adultress with far more strings to her bow.

    I know people that find Dosto difficult who say they found The Brothers Karamazov the least difficult. I think they like working up to the chapter on The Grand Inquisitor. And, anyway, who can fail to be engaged by Alyosha?

    Ack, forgot to say, the Illiad is no pain

    Depends where it’s applied, Max… boom-tisch!… eyethangyou… I recommend the veal…

  27. Yes, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk is a wonderful book–and short, too (about 100p?). Leskov is really under-rated. And I’ve been on a bit of a Turgenev binge lately, too, since he’s just fantastic. Start with Fathers and Sons if you’re at all interested in him.

  28. The story of [Leskov’s] that sticks with me most is probably his most famous: Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Wikipedia tells me that it raises comparisons with Madame Bovary (what with that nineteenth-century male-author perennial: the adulterous wife) but I can’t see it. Emma just kills herself, whereas the heroine of Leskov’s story bumps off *goes to check his copy* her husband, father-in-law, and sister-in-law’s son. She’s an adultress with far more strings to her bow.

    Strange that Bovary is the comparison, especially when the Lady Macbeth part sort of speaks for itself. Anyway, I read Lady Macbeth Of Mtsensk last year, in the Hesperus edition, because I felt like reading a Russian classic and this one was thin – very thin – and had an introduction by Gilbert Adair. I didn’t think it all that much, considering it more so-so than bad, and didn’t really have anything to say about it and subsequently never did.

    For a new translation it still felt dated. Not a bad thing per se, as it was recapturing Leskov’s 19th Century prose, but the narrative bounded along in a way I never warmed to. I remember the ending, though, and vividly, and may consider giving it a reread over the summer.

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