Review: Collected Ghost Stories / Author: M.R. James / Publisher: Oxford University Press / Release Date: Out Now
When one sits down to read a story called 'Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad' and the protagonist briefly dwells on a strange whistle that he finds at the beach, the reader will immediately think ‘well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out how it’s going to go’. So it’s a great testament to James’ ability that he still manages to surprise the reader in this collection of highly interesting ghost stories. (Bonus points for the fact that the monster of the story retains the power to creep you the hell out after so many years.)
For those unfamiliar with the stories, it’s recommended that you treat the introduction as an afterword and it’s difficult to argue with this. If, like us, you feel that these kinds of introductions can read a little too much into their subjects, you can always just skip it and still be happy with the wealth of material on display here. (And if you love such things you’ll be in geek heaven.)
As for the stories themselves, while they may not necessarily be the work of ‘the most terrifying writer in English’ (that’s a matter of personal preference, really), it’s clear that James’ strong point was creating an atmosphere of dread rather than going for full-on gore and bloodshed. Our favourites were ‘The Ash Tree’, ‘Number 13’ and ‘The Treasure Of Abbot Thomas’. Of these, ‘Number 13’ is the best due to the fact that even in 1904 he recognises a skeleton under the floor was very clichéd. So he addresses it and basically says ‘nope, not happening’.
One has to remember that these stories, before ever being published, were read out loud to select gatherings of his friends. When the stories are read now, they conjure up not just the atmosphere of the stories themselves, but of rooms lit by log fires as an ageing academic reads out his latest story with his friends hanging on his every word.
But then maybe we’re reading too much into it.