The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James

Wordsworth Books – 20072015-04-29 20.24.35

I recently reviewed Hans Holzer’s Gothic Ghosts. It was an absolutely atrocious piece of garbage, but in retrospect, I think that one of the reasons that book seemed so shitty to me was the fact that I had been reading it on my commute into work each morning while simultaneously spending my evenings reading the ghost stories of M.R. James. Holzer is shit at best, but in comparison to James, he is the shit of a shit.

Ironically, James’s ghost stories, while hugely entertaining and infinitely better than Holzer’s tripe, are also quite formulaic. They’re nearly all about elderly, educated, asexual gentlemen who find some kind of ancient artifact whilst on a vacation in a rural town. This ancient whistle, book, photograph, map, key, dollhouse or manuscript will prove to be haunted, and terror will ensue. That might seem unenjoyably predictable, but it’s the atmosphere and sense of impending doom that make these stories so entertaining. You know from the start that something fucked is going to happen; it’s the build up that allows the ghouls to get right in under your skin. I found audiobook versions of some of the stories on youtube, and listened to them whilst lying in bed.  While doing so I took great precautions to avoid the icy grasp of any skeletal hands that may have been reaching up from underneath my bed. I kept my arms, legs and head safely under the blanket.

These stories are magnificent. The Tractate Middoth, A View from a Hill, A Warning to the Curious, and Wailing Well might be my favourites, but most of the stories in here are top notch. There are a few stinkers; Two Doctors is crap, and The Story of a Disappearance and Appearance, although it does contain a chilling nightmare sequence, is fairly disappointing. The book I am reviewing here is the Collected Ghost Stories, not the Complete Ghost Stories. James wrote 4 other ghost stories that are not included in this publication. They are:
The Experiment
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
A Vignette
The Fenstanton Witch
They’re not James’s best, but they’re all worth reading if you like the stories in this book. A quick google search will sort you out.

I don’t want to spend too much time discussing James or his tales, as there is an abundance of information on both him and his writing online. I really enjoyed the BBC documentary on his life, and the M.R. James Podcast is good for additional information on each of the tales.

I’ve already mentioned that the cover of this book is fairly shit, but the real disappointment with this edition is the lack of notes. James was an exceptionally well-read individual, and he makes reference to many peculiar characters, events and texts. It would be really nice if the book included short explanations of these obscure references. I’m not sure if other publisher’s editions have notes sections either, but I know that the Wordsworth Series are crap for this kind of thing. I read the Oxford edition of Le Fanu’s In a Glass Darkly, which had extensive helpful notes, but the Wordsworth edition that I bought has none. (Incidentally, M.R. James was a huge fan of Le Fanu.) Also, it bears repeating that this is not the complete collection of his ghost stories. I don’t know which is the best edition of James’s tales, but I know for sure that this isn’t it.

Either way, this gets an 8.5/10. It’s an extremely enjoyable read, and one that I will surely come back to in the future.

Obligatory Lovecraft Post

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Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories – Penguin – 2002
The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories – Penguin – 2001
Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories – Penguin – 2005
These are the only Lovecraft books that I own. I’m interested in buying more, but I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on a book if it only contains one story that isn’t included in these. I would love to hear from anyone who could recommend other collections that are worth buying for somebody who already has the penguin editions.

I’m not going to waste much time talking about how great the stories are. There’s not much I can say that hasn’t been said a million times before. These collections are nice though. I liked Joshi’s introductions and notes. Dreams in the Witch House and Other Weird Stories is definitely the weakest of the three, but I still really enjoyed it. That one contains more fantasy stories than the other two, and while the fantasy stories were pretty great, I definitely prefer the darker stuff.

Lovecraft is one of my favourite writers. I remember going to a LAN party when I was 16 years old, and one of the guys there shared a folder of .txt files that were stories by ‘a cool horror writer who influenced Metallica and Quake’. No further persuasion was necessary.

Apart from his wordiness (which I completely adore), the main complaint that people seem to have about Lovecraft is that he was a nasty racist. Well, I don’t want to to defend him; the fact that he lived in a different time and place doesn’t justify his shitty opinions. However, I don’t feel the need to disregard his entire body of work because it contains a few parts that I don’t agree with. In honesty, I thought some of the racist parts were pretty funny. To clarify: I don’t think racism is funny; I think Howard’s delusions of grandeur are funny. (He wasn’t exactly a fine specimen of humanity himself.) Anyways, I don’t really care if an author of fiction is an asshole in real life; I read lots of books by people who I would absolutely hate if I were to meet them. Lewis Carroll was a paedo, Dennis Wheatley was a loyalist, Montague Summers was a boy-toucher, and I certainly don’t read the Marquis De Sade because he was a nice bloke. It helps that these lads are all dead though. I wouldn’t buy something if I knew that my money would go to a shitty racist.

It’s a shame that I spent so much time discussing what it is only a minor point in Lovecraft’s writing. The positive aspects of his work more than make up for some of his unpleasant ideas. The atmospheres that he creates within these tales are unique and genuinely exhilarating. If you haven’t read Lovecraft before, I would recommend any of these three collections as an introduction. The worst of these stories are pretty good, and the best of them are the best stories that I have read. 9.5/10