Nov 16, 2008

Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James

This volume collects M.R. James’ four collections of ghost stories, originally published between 1904 and 1924: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories. It collects all of James’ ghost stories except for three, published in magazines after 1924.

You know what’s funny? Even though I think of myself as a fan of Gothic fiction, I don’t remember hearing of M.R. James until earlier this year. I’m sure I must have come across his name before, but for some reason it didn’t register. But then Philip Pullman mentioned him, saying: “I don't believe in ghosts, but I'm frightened of them. They don't come any scarier than in these superb examples of the classic English ghost story.” After this, how could I resist?

In the introduction to this edition, David Stuart Davies says:
It is not James’s style to write long, gory, gruesome descriptive passages in order to achieve his aim of frightening the reader. Instead, he merely suggests the horror by a surprising or unnerving phrase, mentioning an unexpected or incongruous shadow or an eerie sound, and the reader’s imagination takes over, feeding on these hints in order to conjure up the full disturbing picture for himself. And our own individual constructions, personal to us, will be far more frightening than anything an author can create.
I really can’t think of a better way of summing up what happens in these stories. The horror is indeed in the details, in what remains unsaid, and that’s the main reason why they work so well. Of course, the wonderful writing and the late Victorian/Edwardian ambience were additional reasons why I found these stories so enjoyable. But more than any of this, what I found interesting about M.R. James’s ghost stories was how he contextualizes them, and how he makes use of knowledge and of time.

Let me explain: First of all, probably under the influence of this great post at Stella Matutina, I found myself paying special attention to context in these stories. More often than not, we have a first person narrator who addresses the reader directly. However, they are not the one who experiences the supernatural or eerie events. What they are doing is recording either a story they were told or a piece of information they came across somewhere, and they refrain from drawing conclusions about its sinister implications – it is the reader who is left to do so.

There are several reasons why this strategy works so well with these stories. Above all, this allows the stories to survive even though their main protagonist often doesn’t live past their encounter with the supernatural. And this brings me to knowledge – the point of M.R. James’ ghost stories is letting the reader know that the world is a little darker and a little stranger than we think it is, even in our moments of fear.

The stories often go like this: There was someone who messed with dark forces, and though they didn’t live to tell the tale, the tale is still being told. May it be a warning to us all. May it let us know that what lurks in the shadows is far worse than we dare imagine. In this sense, M.R. James reminds me of H.P. Lovecraft, whose stories are also often centred on this idea of knowledge of the strangeness of the world. (Though it would be the other way around, of course, as Lovecraft cited James as one of his influences. And I can see why.)

And then there’s time – what unleashes the horror is often a relic from the past, an old object, a manuscript, something found in a dusty library or among ruins or in a churchyard. This object was left undisturbed until some unknowingly arrogant person decided to lay claim to it. And inevitably they pay the price.

My one complaint is that these stories tend to follow a formula, which means it’s probably a better idea to dip into this book every now and again than to read it back to back. I know I wouldn’t have felt this way if I had read the individual volumes separately, though. And by this I don’t mean that the stories are all the same. I often feel the same with fairy tales: although I couldn’t love them more, after a while I need a break. This is the reason why most of my favourite stories (“Lost Hearts”, “The Ash Tree”, “A School Story”, and “A Warning to the Curious”, among others) are in the first half of the book.

So…although I couldn’t recommend M.R. James more highly, I think he's better enjoyed in small doses.

Other Blog Reviews:
Read Warbler
Stella Matutina ("Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad")
Stella Matutina (Collected Ghost Stories)

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. This does sound good, Nymeth! When I read what you wrote about the horror being in the details, "in what remains unsaid," I knew this was a book for me. Thank you for the great review!

  2. To my mind, M.R. James does creeping horror as well as (if not better than) H.P. Lovecraft. His shorts can be a little difficult to follow for modern readers, especially when they delve into the details of Anglican polity, but they're worth persevering through. Audible has some nice audio editions here, here and here.

  3. Ooh I love ghost stories (although I sometimes prefer reading the ones that claim to be real)! Don't think I've read anything by this author before though I may have seen one the TV adaptations based on his stories.

  4. I hadn't heard of him until now either, thanks for spreading the word! Sounds good and will bear your advice in mind.

  5. Wendy, that's my favourite kind of horror. Hope you enjoy the book :)

    Loren: I think I actually found James creepier! I love Lovecraft too, of course, but more for the whole mythology behind his stories. And surprisingly enough, I thought that the stories very readable. More than I expected, anyway. Thanks for the links!

    Ladytink: I've heard about those adaptations. I wonder how good they are. It's hard to imagine adapting James to TV or cinema, because so much of what makes the story work depends on how he words things.

    Rhinoa: I'm glad I'm not the only one! It turns out that a lot of authors cite him as an influence, including cool people like China Mieville (I've just finished King Rat, btw, and it was great!) His stories seem to be half-forgotten classics.

  6. Excellent review, Nymeth. Glad you're another convert. I plan to read more M.R. James over Christmas... picking and choosing a bit as you suggest. But James is perfect Christmas reading.

  7. I've never heard of this author either but I do love most ghost stories. I love the cover art for this book though-it's awesome.

  8. Oh, I love ghost stories! And this one sounds great! I love what Philip Pullman said about ghosts... and I sure know what you mean about not being able to resist the book because I know I won't with a line like that! ;)

  9. Hi Nymeth! I'm not a big fan of ghost stories but this one does sound good. I might give it a try and like you mentioned, best to take it in small doses...

  10. I've seen this collection many times and have seen it mentioned many times in various texts by Lovecraft and Bierce - Your review makes me think it's about time I gave it a go.

    I like stories that don't actually come right out with the scares, but instead leave it up to the reader.

    Recently I came across a few shorts by W. Somerset Maugham that were written just that way.

  11. This is the kind of scary that makes me want to cry. I will definitely be picking this up.

  12. I think there's a book by this James at the library I just volunteered at. (it's been fun to see new authors as wells as recognize favorites...)

  13. Ohhhh, his stories sounds perfectly delicious! I don't think I've ever read anything of his, but I do know I have "Lost Hearts" in a horror anthology somewhere. I'm definitely going to have to seek it out!

  14. Cath, I absolutely agree! Perfect stories for this time of year.

    Dar: I love it too! I love all the covers of these Wordswords Classics editions.

    Melody: Me too...he completely sold me.

    Alice: I actually used to thing I wasn't a big fan of ghost stories, but I've been enjoying them more and more these days. A lot of James' stories are available online for free, so you could always give him a try that way :)

    Book Zombie: I hope you enjoy it! I like stories like that too. I think they're much creepier than the ones that are too obvious.

    Raych, hope you enjoy it!

    Care: How cool that you're volunteering at the library! I just love browsing at libraries...all those books, and I can read any of them! Part of me still thinks that's too cool to be true :P

    Debi: Lost Hearts was one of my favourites, and one of the most disturbing ones too. I can't wait to see what you think of it.

  15. Nymeth, so glad you enjoyed these, I've been a James fan for over 30 years, supported by some wonderful 1970s BBC adaptations traditionally produced around Christmas or the New Year. The TV version of Lost Hearts is particularly gruesome (in a good way) if a bit old-fashioned. And hurrah for the BBC, they've begun to produce some new ones over the last year or two.

  16. This sounds right up my alley, great review!
    I like it when the writer suggests something scary, then leaves the rest to the readers imagination.

  17. Brideofthebookgod: I'm very curious about those adaptations! It seems so difficult to recreate the ambience of the stories without James's actual words. But if well done the result must be impressive!

    Naida: Yes, I think that works much, much better.

  18. Great review! I especially enjoyed your comments about the role context plays in the stories. Many, many ghost story authors use similar framing devices, and I think you've made a good point as to why the approach works so well.

  19. Thanks, Nymeth! I'll try to look them up on the Internet. :D

  20. LOL--I don't know if I could handle these. :) and I'm not sure my husband would let me sleep with the lights on. After reading a few of them, did they get to be predictable?

  21. Alice, happy reading!

    Trish: I have to confess that they did. That didn't actually make them less creepy (it's mostly the atmosphere), but the second half of the book felt less fresh than the first one.

  22. This book has been on my shelf for years, but I haven't read it yet. I think I'll do what you recommend, read one here and there. Great review!

    Diary of an Eccentric


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