‘Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories’ by M.R. James: Spooky Supernatural Stories From The Master?

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gamillos on Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) | Source

At night, in the dark, in the winter, at Christmastime… that’s the time for a ghost story, isn’t it?  Wrapped up in front of the fire, back to an open doorway, an old house creaking in ways that suggest visitations and hauntings (but more likely mean the cat’s discovered your new dress and is busy tearing it to bits in the bedroom).  If you love a ghost story, then you just love to be terrified in that way!

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And if you love a ghost story, then you’ve almost certainly already heard of M.R. James. (And if not, then you should have a treat in store). He is quite near universally acknowledged as the master of the genre, and in any genre that’s something that’s rare. Many of his stories have been adapted into films or television productions, some of which have also been highly acclaimed.

What is it about a typical M.R. James story that makes it so highly regarded for those who love a good haunting?  Perhaps it’s the overall atmosphere and detail, perhaps it’s the overt culture and classiness of the narrators and protagonists.  Maybe it’s the sense of Doom gradually building as events overtake any possibility of escape.

So, as M.R. James compilations go, what does this particular Penguin Classics volume have going for it?  It certainly contains a few of the all-time great celebrated M.R. James stories, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, and ‘Casting The Runes’ amongst them.   (As an aesthetic object it’s rather pleasing too, or my 2005 edition in any case: shiny and matte black, a rather pretty, and horrifying, James McBride illustration from the original edition on the cover.) 

In the end you either adore James or you don’t.  I enjoy many of his stories, but in the end I find something unsatisfactory about his lack of momentum, explication and resolution in almost all of them.  (And also find it rather strange that effusing critics never seem to want to comment on this.)  There’s just a randomness about his tales that might mirror life, but then, life is pretty unsatisfactory in itself.  That’s why we read fiction!  Put it this way, if M.R. James was Agatha Christie, the critics would have howled every time that insufficient clues were laid to solve the murder.

But hey.  If you’re in it for the super creepy atmosphere, the nasty ghostie monsters and the chills you can give yourself reading alone in an empty house on a dark night – James is the guy for you!

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