Sunday, 14 September 2008

M.R. James

My third book for Carl's RIP III challenge is The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, selected by Michael Cox and illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott.



I always try to remember when and where I buy books but this one totally eludes me. I know I've had it for quite a while and that on the inside cover is written '£6.00' in pencil, so I'm thinking it must have been a secondhand bookshop buy rather than a charity shop one. I also have the vague idea that I dithered over paying that much so it must have been a while ago. Now of course I'm thrilled to bits that I didn't leave it behind as an illustrated M.R. James is something I prize very highly indeed. The drawings are beautiful and I'll use a few of them in this post as I go along. (Click on the pic and you'll get a bigger version.)

The anthology includes some fifteen stories but starts off with a thirty page biography of the author, which I read after I'd read the stories and found fascinating. M.R. James was what you would call a scholar in the old-fashioned sense. Educated at Eton and then King's College, Cambridge he never married and dedicated his life to these two educational establishments as a teacher, but also to his writing.

And what writing. I first read most of M.R. James's ghost stories about fifteen years ago. I thought then that they were very readable but not necessarily as brilliant as people said and that there were other writers of the supernatural who were just as good. Now I'm not so sure. I read these fifteen stories and became utterly enthralled by the imagination displayed and the gorgeous writing that sweeps you away into a world of libraries, churches and stately homes where weird happenings are the order of the day.

The fifteen stories include such well known classics as Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad...



A Warning to the Curious, A View From a Hill and The Ash Tree. The last of these was probably my favourite in the book, a story of what happens when a lord of the manor betrays a witch, who is then hanged. He'd seen her collecting twigs from the ash tree that grew outside his bedroom window. What the witch does to this tree and the affect it has on future members of the lord's family is the subject of the story and its creepiness just blew me away. Another favourite was The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral...



... which tells what happens when a new archdeacon takes over from one who has let things slip, and how some rather weird statuettes on the end of the pews are involved in his downfall.



A Vignette was also a big favourite. It was the last ghost story James ever wrote and is apparently slightly autobiographical in that he used the rectory where he grew up as a setting. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in the vicarage who feels that something is very disturbing about the corner of the garden he can see from his bedroom window.



A gate leads into a plantation of trees and the boy has dreams about a being with a white hand opening the gate and coming up the path. One day he actually does see something and goes down to check...

Difficult to overstate how much I adored this anthology of weird stories. In the biographical bit it describes James's stories as a 'sub-genre of antiquarian ghost stories' and that's a perfect description in my opinion. James knew his world and used it time and again to great effect. I don't think 'stunning' understates the case. I was blown away by the quality of the writing and adored the supernatural bent to the tales. These weren't just stories about ghosts, there's all kinds of daemonic weirdness here and it was truly amazing to read. Add to that the lovely illustrations of Rosalind Caldecott and you have a beautiful volume of stories that I'm thrilled to bits to own.

9 comments:

DesLily said...

hi Cath: well I'm not one into short stories but you sure seemed to have enjoyed this book full ! The drawings are great!

Nymeth said...

First Philip Pullman and now you. I have never read any M.R. James, but it sounds like I'll have to amend that. And the illustrated edition sounds lovely!

Sarah said...

This looks like a lovely edition. I've been meaning to read some James since I read Sheridan la Fanu, but got sidetracked (so many books, so little time!)

I'll try and read it soon after hearing how good these stories are though.

Cath said...

It's a shame you don't like short stories, Pat, as there are some fantastic anthologies around. If you ever feel like trying one of James's superb stories you can get them for free here:

http://www.gutenberg.org/browse/authors/j#a2768

Nymeth: I'm certain you would love M.R. James's ghost writing! He was an absolute master of his craft and many famous writers were big fans - Lovecraft for instance, Stephen King, Ramsay Campbell, John Betjeman and yes, Philip Pullman. You can get some of James's stories for free at the above URL.

Sarah: Apparently, James was a big fan of Le Fanu's writing. I've read some in various anthologies but need to buy a proper volume of his works if one exists.

Robin said...

The illustrations are wonderful!! I've never heard of M.R. James, but I'm going to have to add this book to my list.

Darla D said...

It's on my list now, too - thanks for the great review! And I love the evocative illustrations. I hope I can find that same edition.

Cath said...

Robin, you can try the writings of M.R. James for free on the Gutenberg site. The URL is in one of my above comments. He has that wonderful early 1900s writing style that I love, but it's not for everyone.

Glad you enjoyed my ramblings about this book, Darla. James's writing is the kind to curl up on a stormy autumn night with... :-)

Adrian Drew said...

There is a new play about M R James showcasing at The Fan Museum on Greenwich at the end of October this year!

Cath said...

Adrian: Thanks for the info. Sadly I'm too far from London to be able to get to it.