Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Rose Garden

‘You see, I couldn’t tell: it was the sort of shock that upsets you in a dream. You either wake up or else everything goes black.’

“The Rose Garden” is another one of M. R. James’ stories with a plain title. But the subject of this title throws mild-mannered couple into quite a story.

Mr. and Mrs. Anstruther requests their gardener to rearrange some things in their rose garden. While a seemingly inconsequential task, the gardener seems to have some reasons for not doing it.

At the crux of the story is a dream that more than one person has in which the dreamer is on trial and set to be executed. The telling of the dream and the connection made to other characters and ultimately to the historical link of the rose garden gives the story its suspense and enjoyment.

In this case, the terror contrasts nicely with the mellow older couple experiencing it.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: A School Story

Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days. ‘At our school,’ said A., ‘we had a ghost’s footmark on the staircase. What was it like? Oh, very unconvincing.

M. R. James’ “A School Story” comes across as a little more low key than some of his other stories. There are still ghosts, a history with some nefarious business, but it’s from the point of view of an adult man telling what happened to him as a younger boy at school.

In the case of this story, the title, as plain as it sounds, suits the story quite well. And there’s nothing negative in that – the story is enjoyable. It’s also one of the shorter James stories I’ve read so far at about six pages.

Even ghost stories can be good without being over the top. And of course if anyone is going to make “low key” come across as good it would be M. R. James.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Treasure of Abbott Thomas

They parted upon this, and if Mr. Gregory woke once or twice in the small hours and fancied he heard a fumbling about the lower part of his locked door, it was perhaps, no more than what a quiet man, suddenly plunged into a strange bed and the heart of a mystery, might reasonably expect. Certainly he thought, to the end of his days, that he had heard such a sound twice or three times between midnight and dawn.

M. R. James’ “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas” contains all of the fun elements of a story that reminds me of Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code or Walt Disney’s film National Treasure. I can’t go into all of the detailed clues our hero finds because it would ruin the story for those who haven’t read it before. I will say that it involves a stained glass window which James vividly describes and uses to great effect.

A difference might be that a supernatural guardian exists to ward off our heroes. In this case maybe the the story is more like Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Telling the story out of chronological order isn’t a surprise here but it also adds to the suspense – keeping the reader asking where the clues might lead.

It’s difficult to say that any M. R. James story isn’t entertaining but I found this one even more so. Go read it! It’ll be fun!

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Count Magnus

It was about nine o’clock on a moonlight August night when he neared the place. He was sitting forward, and looking out of the window at the fields and thickets – there was little else to be seen – racing past him. Suddenly he came to a cross-road. At the corner two figures were standing motionless; both were in dark cloaks; the taller one wore a hat, the shorter a hood.

The quotation above from M. R. James’ “Count Magus” actually comes toward the end of the story. The timeline, in addition to the varying narrations within narrations, gives the story an odd feel but that no longer comes as a surprise to me – James seems to always make it work.

Mr. Wraxall, the “he” from the quotation, has written an account that begins three hundred years prior with a “Black Pilgrimage”. It ends with his pursuit by the dark figures mentioned above. This account has been discovered by the purchaser of Mr. Wraxall’s house at least several decades after the account.

All kinds of coffins, bodies with skulls as faces, dark nights, dark figures, meetings at cross-roads, serve up a horror story above all others even though I could probably say that about any M. R. James story.

Interestingly, the ending provides a surprise twist but it’s after the terror has taken place. While not that terrifying, it’s not something I want to spoil for future readers.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Number 13

M. R. James’ story “Number 13” isn’t quite as scary as some of his other stories. There’s some screams that come from the title room of a hotel in Denmark but for the most part it’s just fun reading about the perplexity of the occupant of Number 12. He sometimes sees a Number 13 next to his room and sometimes it’s a Number 14. In case you wondered, when he sees Number 13, his room is smaller.

I don’t think any of the stories of James that I’ve read so far have been set in Denmark. Most if not all have been set in England. Comments pop up like “Such things rarely happen in Denmark…” that get a little humor out of the Danish twist. Maybe it’s more difficult to set scary stories in Denmark.

The occupant of Number 12 happens to be an historian (which by now is no surprise) who is interested in the early years of the Protestant Reformation. Through sheer genius, James gets some humor out the Protestant/Catholic conflict, too.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Ash-Tree

It is known to most of us that a cat can cry; but few of us have heard, I hope, such a yell as came out of the trunk of the great ash.

I’ve established numerous times on this blog that I think a reader can see something coming a mile away and a great writer will make the reader still want to go there. In the course of all these M. R. James stories, I’ve also established that I think he is a great writer. In his story “The Ash-Tree”, we get a terrifying tale of witch trials and revenge from the grave. Then, two generations later, we see what’s going to happen (again). But it’s just as terrifying -and satisfying- as previously.

Perhaps it’s beneficial that after the repeated events, we get a fiery ending that is even more terrifying – and helpfully ties together the separate generations.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Mezzotint

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

As best as I can tell, a mezzotint is like a painting only it’s engraved. In M. R. James’ story “Mezzotint”, the specific art work is of a manor in the English countryside.

A few art appreciators begin studying it and realize it changes upon subsequent looks and supernaturally reveals a kidnapping from about a hundred years prior. This story is more fun than scary and I couldn’t help but think we have something similar in today’s day and age called a security camera.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Lost Hearts

Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound.

“Lost Hearts”. It sounds like a sad romance.

It’s not.

It’s an M. R. James story so the title is much more literal.

Twelve year old orphan Stephen Elliot is dropped off by horse and carriage at his elderly cousin’s home to live. The scene seems kind of sweet for about two paragraphs.

Then we discover that the elderly cousin is an expert in pagan religions and philosophy – and rituals. And we might call in to question why the cousin is way too interested in how old Stephen is.

I’m learning that M. R. James isn’t afraid to use humor in the midst of the scariest plot – and is able to use it well.

We come to understand some of the history of what has happened to other children when they have come to stay with the elderly gentleman via the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch. While she is telling Stephen about the disappearance of two other children in past years in such an innocent and naive (and funny) manner, we realize everything is not as it seems to Mrs. Bunch.

This story eventually has a happy ending in that we realize Stephen does become an adult.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book

All this time a growing feeling of discomfort had been creeping over him-nervous reaction, perhaps, after the delight of his discovery. Whatever it was, it resulted in a conviction that there was someone behind him, and that he was far more comfortable with his back to the wall.

Today, I’m starting the second collection of M. R. James’ ghost stories. It’s actually considered volume 1 but I read volume 2 first because it was available first at the library. “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” is the first story and it has many of the same situations as his other stories but each one, including this one, still manages to stand on its own.

Dennistoun finds an old scrapbook with a painting of King Solomon facing something demonic. The church caretaker in possession of this scrapbook is more than willing to let it go. And Dennistoun soon learns why.

Before reading James’ stories, I hadn’t put together that ghost stories and history go hand in hand. At least in James’ stories, those looking for history find ghosts. Or ghosts bring history to the present. Either way, it’s quite frightening.

Posted in Short Stories

M. R. James: The Fenstanton Witch

…the instinct which prompts men to seek intercourse with the unseen peoples of the air is one that may come to the surface in any civilisation and in any century. Many have a sneaking idea that the intercourse has been sometimes gained, but that is little to the point.

“The Fenstanton Witch” by M. R. James brings details to the attempts of two men making contact with another world – the world “beyond”. The two men are students at King’s College and their interests lie in contrast with the science being taught around them.

But getting back to the details, this is the second story of James I’ve read (the first being “The Experiment”) where actual spells are spoken and actual symbols are drawn. For me, this puts it on a slightly different level of creepiness. It’s one thing to encounter the “beyond” without trying – its another to go and seek it out.

This finishes out Volume 2 of M. R. James’ ghost stories. I mentioned previously that I read Volume 2 first because it was in at the library. I have since obtained Volume 1 and will continue with it.