Review: Collected Ghost Stories by M R James

This book took me a long time to read, about two months, although I read others in between. From that, you can deduce that it didn’t set me on fire – and certainly didn’t scare me – but, like Magnus Magnussen, I started so I finished. M R James’s Ghost Stories are regarded as a classic in their genre, a genre in which I myself aspire to write.

The version I read (Penguin Popular Classics, Penguin, 1994) comprised 31 longer short stories and the book itself consisted of 361 pages printed in a small font. I had managed less than a third of it before I purchased the same version on Kindle, where I could increase the font size. The Collection was published first in 1931 and the stories themselves written between 1904 and 1933. (Presumably the later ones were added in subsequent editions.) Although many of them had historical settings, they all belonged to the age in which they were written – characters, setting and dialogue and with descriptions of people and settings Victorian in quantity. All women, servants and people from lower orders had supporting roles. A typical protagonist would be a male Oxbridge academic or a clergyman, unmarried and without family, visiting another of his kind. Whilst he was there, he would discover something unusual – a strange feeling, coldness, something which appeared and then disappeared – about which he would display enormous curiosity and investigate with a vigour which sometimes seemed disproportionate. Sometimes characters became emotionally disturbed by the ghosts, but never placed in any danger. Milder fiction for a milder age!

The author’s style was also of its time and grated upon me, although I’m one who usually enjoys older styles. His narrative was often portentous, as in ‘It is with great regret for the enjoyment I am losing, and for a reason which you will deplore equally…’ and ‘It is no part of my plan to repeat the whole conversation which ensued between the two.’ He used double-negatives: ‘We left that curious room not unwillingly, I think.’

…And he changed pov mid-story – grrr!

Dialogue was written in continuous prose, with no new paragraphs for separate speakers. This was confusing. All the ‘common’ people spoke with the same ‘country’ accent, like this: ‘“Oh! but you haven’t an idear of it, George. Why, it went right through my head,” she says, “and I came over all bewildered-like, and as if I didn’t know where I was.”‘ idear (spelled thus) appeared repeatedly.

So do I recommend this? Yes, I suppose so. Writing standards were different a hundred years ago. I’d be interested to hear from anyone else who has read M R James’s Ghost Stories recently.

2 thoughts on “Review: Collected Ghost Stories by M R James

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  1. I’ve never found MR James scary and while I’ve enjoyed some of his stories, I’ve never really understood why he has such a stellar reputation. He’s not a patch on some of the other horror story writers of his era or before, in my opinion. I find his main characters are rarely put in peril, which kind of eliminates the scariness before it even begins!

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