Monday, November 2, 2020

The Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Complete Ghost StoriesComplete Ghost Stories by M.R. James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m no “completist” when it comes to reading. I like to dabble, dip my toes here and there, and move on to something new. So, it’s saying something that after reading Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, I still picked up the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James while at an Oxfam in Oxford on vacation in 2019. Mister James obviously made an impression on me the first time around.

Since the first several stories are collected in Antiquary, I shall forbear repeating myself. On to the rest.

"A School Story" is not bad, not great. James puts his own twist at the end - after any other writer might have considered the story done - that brings it up a notch. Three stars.

"The Rose Garden," while a weak ghost story, is a strong piece of of psychogeography, or perhaps a very strong example of the liminal spaces in-between. Four stars.

I took the story "The Tractate Middoth" and used it as the backbone for a Casting the Runes RPG adventure I ran on Halloween day. Such a clever story. The last line of this mystery made me laugh out loud, which I don't normally do when reading. But it's so. darned. good! James’ understated humor is commendable, and what do they say about humor and horror being complimentary? So very true. Five smiling stars.

"The Residence at Whitmnister" is an interesting tale of young men, now dead, dabbling where they ought not, then paying the price for eternity, and the effect on those left living in the wake of their uncovering of things that should have remained concealed from mortal eyes. The last bit is a "time bomb waiting to go off" ending, which I quite like. Four stars.

Maybe it's just my modern sensibilities or maybe I've read enough M.R. James that my expectations for his stories are unreasonably high, but I found "The Diary of Mister Poynter" to be fairly dull. This is mostly because there is not a compelling connection between the haunter and the haunted. It seems almost haphazard. Still a good story, good enough for three stars. But not among James' best.

"An Episode of Cathedral History" has its frisson, but it's a fairly stock story of what happens when you go about disturbing very old things. Just. Don't. Three stars.

Among James' "weirder" stories, "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" features one of my favorite horror tropes: a Punch and Judy show. The dream sequence in the story is particularly horrific, even by Jamesian standards, and weird in the extreme. The rest of the story is a bit predictable, but unique. Four stars and "that's the way we do it"!

Just as "The Two Doctors" starts to get interesting, the story ends. A bit too much preamble here. A decent enough story, but definitely a lower-tier story for James. Three stars.

Here, James actually apologizes to the reader that "The Haunted Dolls' House" might be construed as nothing but a variation on "The Mezzotint". With all due respect: apology rejected! I found this story every bit as compelling, if not as interesting. Five stars for another story that Rod Serling surely read before he set out to create The Twilight Zone.

Somehow, I will morph, mold, and beat "The Uncommon Prayer-Book" into my next horror RPG scenario. Something about ghosts and old books that just go hand in hand. Anyway, a good story, much to my tastes, that could have easily been a novella, rather than a short story. Hmm. That gives me an idea . . . Four stars.

"A Neighbour's Landmark" is a nice piece of pastoral folk horror that could be made into a compelling movie. I picture it as a really artsy piece, probably filmed in the Cotswolds. It would be a short movie, but the revelations about the screams heard on the hill, the historical context, etc. could provide for some good drama. Five stars.

Machen must have read James. "A View from a Hill" seems like a parallel story to Machen's "Hill of Dreams". I find it hard to believe that the similarities are coincidental. The story is possibly one of the earliest "weird tales" I've read. A ghost story, yes, but running thick with weirdness. I thoroughly enjoyed this piece and will likely return to it again and again. Five stars viewed from a hill on a clear night!

"A Warning to the Curious" is aptly titled. Some things, tempting as they are, are better left buried. Sacrilege carries consequence, and nothing can save those whose curiosity tumbles one into blasphemous transgressions. The dead care not for your motives, only your actions, and forgiveness is not on their agenda. Four stars.

It's difficult to pinpoint what I like so much about "An Evening's Entertainment". Even the framing story of the grandmother telling her grandchildren a ghost story is pleasurable, in a strange way. The strange companions and their hidden lives, the lord of flies, spooked horses, a frightened community . . . it all works together so well! Five stars to what should be a rather ordinary ghost story. Emblematic.

"There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" feels like a story that James wrote as a writing exercise, just something to keep in practice. You'd call it "phoning it in" if your favorite band performed at this level at a live concert. Still good, but only three stars worth of good.

"Rats" has little to do with its title, except by implication. This is a good thing, as the story is stronger than anything rodents might have generated. It's a genuinely scary story mainly because it is so forthright. The scariest moments happen in bright daylight, and the mystery is fully revealed by the owners of the inn. I thought this openness added a dimension that many ghost stories are missing. Demystifying the mystery, in this case, proved the most horrifying thing of all. Five bright stars

James seems to echo A.A. Milne's whimsical animal tales in "After Dark in the Playing Fields," but with a more sinister shadow. Most readers will ask "but is it a ghost story?" To which the answer is "yes," if you'll recall that the fair folk and ghosts were often conflated in that era (c.f. Machen's "The White People" for similar blurring of those lines). A darkly humorous tale by James. Five stars.

"Wailing Well" is a predictable story of a rebellious individual going exactly where he ought not and suffering the consequences. Predictable, but creepy, nonetheless. Another ghost story in the bright heat of day. Oh, and there are a troop of boy scouts. Well, minus one member. Three stars.

“Stories I have tried to write” is not a story at all. It’s a cataloging of ideas that James had that he just couldn’t quite make work. At least two of them are complete stories, but he couldn’t quite get the details to work to his satisfaction. An interesting window into his creative process and some of the things we was trying to do (and usually succeeded at doing) in his writing. Frankly, it’s quite encouraging to me, as a writer, to know that he walked down dead ends, as well, and probably wasted a deal of time on them. I feel your pain, Montague.

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  1. Excellent review, I don't think I've read all of these but these autumn evenings are perfect for a ghost story! My copy of 'Casting the Runes' RPG arrived this week, I'm looking forward to digging into it even though I'm not generally a fan of 'investigative horror' at the table!

    1. Thank you, Bruce! I'm anxiously awaiting my copy of CtR. The game I ran was a lot of fun, but then again, I really do like investigative horror (along with many other kinds of roleplaying)! By the way, are you thinking of making the trip to the states next year for Garycon? I don't know that I'm ready to attend in person cons yet. I'll probably wait for (a vaccine and) Gameholecon next fall.

    2. Sorry, only just spotted this (*must find out where the notifications are!) You've probably heard that in person gary con won't be happening next year but I agree it might be a little longer before we can game in public though I'm missing it more than anything right now! I'm wondering and hoping that maybe Gamehole Con might be a possibility for 2021!

    3. It looks like Gameholecon might be a real, in-person thing next year. I'm hoping so. I'm having withdrawals!