I had not heard of M. R. (Montague Rhodes) James until earlier this year when I read a review of a collection of his ghost stories. Other ghost story enthusiasts around the blogoshpere gave him a hearty endorsement so I thought I’d give his work a try during the month of October.
I selected “After Dark In The Playing Fields” as my first story. Somehow, the title jumped out at me when I scanned the table of contents. I would not consider this story truly scary, but I’d call it intriguing. A talking owl confronts the narrator during a midnight stroll in the forest. The owl seems to be bothered not just by the narrator but by other “beings” in the forest that usually make themselves known around midnight. Theses “beings” like practical jokes and perhaps take them a little too far. While the reader gets to experience a few of these jokes from the owl’s perspective, they do not get to see what happens (if anything) to the narrator.
James’ writing is beautiful and the atmosphere of curiosity and intrigue he creates in just a few pages is remarkable. I think the talking owl brought the “scary” level down just a notch. However, the omission of details by the narrator bolster the sinister implications of these creatures roaming the forest at night. In my mind, the creatures appear to be fairies or imps of some sort and while they may have been described as playful, the owl does not seem to enjoy the playfulness.
Based on the narrator’s mention of certain geographical landmarks, the forest is near Eton College where James was employed. Walking around an English college campus at nighttime seems both inviting and perilous. Whatever danger the narrator encounters, he comes out of it alive but with the conclusion that he prefers not to roam around the countryside – at least not after midnight.
Next week, I think I’m going to read “The Haunted Dolls’ House”.