Montague Rhodes James was a superlative academic, extremely successful in his life in both scholastic and professional career. As if his academic success itself wasn’t enough, his labours saw fruits in some truly interesting areas.
In something of an almost archaeological and adventurist (dare I say Indiana Jones-leaning) vein he unearthed documentation during his researches which led to the discovery in the crypt of Bury St Edmund’s abbey of several twelfth century abbots whose resting place had been lost for hundreds of years. Talk about raising the dead.
Many of his academic works and translations are definitive and respected in academic circles to this day; not surprising for a man who in 1913 became Vice-Chancellor of Kings College, Cambridge. It would be easy to gush on further about the achievements of this great man, but the thing that tops it off, that thing I’m writing about with a gleeful smile as I recall a few of his works as I type this very sentence, is that the M. R. James wrote some of the best ghost stories ever known.
That’s a bold claim, right? But there are many out there who would agree, and he is rightfully known and respect for his ghostly tales, written and collected over the years. James would usually write the stories and then read them out to friends at Christmas Eve, in a ritual that became as popular as the tales themselves did when published to a wider audience.
The collection I am writing about was published by Penguin in 2000 (introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald). There are several similar collections, but I noticed a more recent currently published book with similar title lacks a number of key stories so didn’t want to write a review of a book that I feel is somewhat lacking. If you yourself know of other more complete versions in your area, then please don’t hesitate to let us know, otherwise this collection can be picked up with relative ease from most online used book repositories.
This book contains several definitive tales from James creative and spook-making mind. These include, The Mezzotint, Number 13, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, Casting the Runes, Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book and the eponymous The Haunted Dolls’ House. Now it’s quite hard to review short stories without giving the game away entirely, and as I like to stay as spoiler-free whilst retaining common sense I’d just like to add that I won’t really be going into any depth regarding the true state of any of these tales. However, I will say that each is delightful, chilling, and excitingly unique (despite similar themes recurring in a pair of his short stories – I won’t say which but leave it for you to uncover). There are twists, there are shocks, there is a mastery of the language clearly afforded by a man of James’ stature and above all these are often fun tales.
Horror author supreme H. P. Lovecraft praised James’ works as being definitive – and labelled him a modern master (though Lovecraft’s style in the essay was deemed quite offensive by James himself). Nonetheless, once you’ve read through these it is not difficult to see how M. R. James made a huge impact on the horror literary scene by delivery slowly and steadily in terror baited tales, numerous and bountiful riveting reads that serve the fans of the horror and supernatural genre to this day.
His scholarly background is injected most usefully and to great effect in many of the tails, building up an air of authenticity (especially in Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book) that I think sometimes sets the reader at ease before then setting them up for further shock, steeping the world of his tales with real authenticity before introducing the often fearful payload.