DeFlip Side #15: AYSBRBPA: M.R. James


Welcome everyone. This is DeFlip Side.

And it’s time for a new installment of my semi-regular feature, “Authors You Should Be Reading But Probably Aren’t.” To help you pass these lengthening autumn nights and gear up for the arrival of Halloween, I’m devoting this segment to an author who is widely considered the father of the modern ghost story. I speak of M.R. James.

Who, you ask?

You’re not alone. While the popular canon of supernatural literature is dominated by the likes of Poe, Bierce, Lovecraft and Henry James, the works of M.R. James have languished in relative obscurity—which is odd, considering his seminal role in the creation of the form. His ghost stories haven’t been out of print since they were first presented to the public in 1904. Yet in all my years of literature classes as an English major, I never once heard his name mentioned. Instead I stumbled across Montague Rhodes James by sheer accident.

My wife and I are book hounds, and have an almost compulsory urge to go into every bookstore we see. One day we came across one of those traveling discount book wholesalers—you know, that kind that mysteriously appear in vacant strip malls and just as mysteriously disappear a week or so later. I was looking over an Oxford hardcover edition of The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes when my eyes wandered onto a neighboring book, its cover dominated by a painting of a tumbledown English country estate, lurking menacingly behind some unhealthy looking hedges, silhouetted against a pale gold sky. I forgot all about Sherlock and picked up The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James. I was instantly enthralled, and $4.99 later I embarked on one of my most satisfying literary odysseys to date.

For fans of the supernatural, the macabre, the horrifying and the downright creepy, you won’t find a better writer than M.R. James. And the menaces he conjures up are far nastier than the wishy-washy apparitions usually featured in turn of the century Gothic fiction. His horrors are more often felt than seen.

Imagine: Hairy, demonic creatures intent on drawing blood;

Imagine: Corpses draw out of their graves and coming for you;

Imagine: Sliding your hand under your pillow and running it across something that feels like a mouth, filled with sharp teeth;

Imagine: The very pattern on your curtains reaching off the fabric, and winding itself around your throat.

These are James’ apparitions, not so much interested in scaring you as they are in killing you.

James possesses the rare talent to pull you firmly into his stories from the first sentence and keeps you transfixed as the horror unfolds. It’s a world steeped in detail and practically dripping with antiquity. Many of his stories take place in long-deserted abbeys, or the neglected corners of old libraries, where forgotten bits of lore or relics are exhumed, reawakening the ancient menaces that lie hidden beneath the prosaic backdrop of daily life. The prelude to the horror unfolds by such gradual turns, that by the time the characters realize they’ve followed their curiosity too far, it’s too late.

James’ profession made him especially adept at creating his atmospheric historical settings. He was a distinguished antiquarian, linguist, translator, medieval scholar and cathedral historian, who rose to the position of Vice Chancellor of Kings College in Cambridge. But he was drawn to the supernatural and began writing ghost stories. He started a tradition of reading his new stories aloud, by candlelight, to his students and friends at Christmastime gatherings. His first collection, entitled “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” was published in London in 1904. That was followed by other collections, which chronicled a body of work that grew to about forty stories in all. And most of them have been in print, in one collection or another, ever since.

So then why haven’t most of us heard of him? I have two theories: first James’ stories are mainly devoid of the loftier social themes contained in the more celebrated literary works—and I say celebrated with quotation marks implied. With James, what you see is what you get. He tells scary stories in a straight-forward manner. This lack of ambiguity in his style makes it hard for so-called literary critics to debate the higher meanings contained in his work. I doubt he ever had any higher meanings in mind, besides maybe producing a good scare, which leads us to the ironic situation in which perhaps the most scholarly horror writer of the bunch remains largely ignored by scholars today. But trust me, as someone who has slogged through “The Turn of the Screw,” and countless other works like it, M.R. James’ stories are much better, and remain far more readable to the modern audience.

The second reason I think most of us aren’t familiar with James is that he has remained largely ignored by Hollywood. Only one of his stories, “The Casting of the Runes,” was made into a movie called The Curse of the Demon. Frankly, I’m not surprised at the snub from tinsel town. I think it would be just about impossible to capture the nuance and atmosphere that makes James’ prose jump off the page. The main reason his writing works so well is because it reaches into your imagination and draws out the worst images you’re capable of. Because of that, his stories are just too personal and cerebral to translate well into a visual medium that has to appeal to everyone. Kubrick may have been able to pull it off. Other than that, I have my doubts.

The good news is, you don’t have to wait for the unlikely movie. Though M.R. James has somehow eluded mainstream appeal, he still has legions of followers. Just plug his name into your favorite Internet search engine and you’ll find many sites devoted to his work. And many of his stories are online as well—with permission from his estate, so piracy isn’t an issue.  So you can try him out at no risk to anyone.

For those of you who want to buy an actual book, it may be an iffy proposition. As it turns out, the book that I found is one of the most complete collections of his ghost stories that has been published recently, containing all but one. I’m glad I picked it up when I did, because I haven’t seen it since. So you can search through remainder bins and hope to get lucky. You might also find a smaller Penguin collection in the horror section of one of the big chain bookstores. But most likely you’ll have to special order it. I say forget Amazon and visit your local independent book seller. They can probably find you a better edition and have it for you within a week.

But however you get your hands on his stuff, it’s best read at night, by candlelight, in the creepiest room you can find, with the wind whistling in the eaves and strange shadows shifting on the walls. It’ll put you in just the right mood for Halloween.

Now let’s put the fictional horrors on hold for a second and shine the spotlight on a real-life horror that happens year round. Every day, books are being challenged and taken out of schools and local libraries, thanks to fringe groups that feel somehow threatened by the open exchange of ideas. Don’t let these small-minded bigots determine what you can and can’t think. Don’t allow them undermine the primary freedoms on which America was built. Banned Books Week 2002 just passed. Help commemorate it by celebrating your right to read. Go out and buy a banned book today.