on 26 May 2007
There is a powerful case for arguing that the best way to access the ghost stories of M.R. James [1862-1936] is via an audio recording. After all, James originally composed the tales for reading aloud on Christmas Eve, first (allegedly) to the chorister school, and later to his immediate circle of college friends. And although there have been many impressive celluloid adaptations of James' work - Jonathan Miller's Oh Whistle & I'll Come To You, Jacques Tourneur's Night Of The Demon and Lawrence Gordon Clark's Lost Hearts and A Warning To The Curious being the pick of the bunch - nothing quite beats the thrill of listening to the stories read aloud.
Craftsman Audio Books have undertaken the not undaunting task of recording all of James' published ghost stories. In addition, the reading of one unpublished tale (The Fenstanton Witch) in its original state is planned for a later volume. These thus faithful and unabridged collected readings are to be released in two volumes. Each volume comes in a handsome, sturdy box-set which is composed of several discs (carefully bound in so as to minimise damage). The cover design features a suitably atmospheric montage comprising old books, a gold crown, a skull and the sinister puppet Mr Punch (the latter my personal favourite in the disturbing stakes).
Volume one features fourteen stories over 8 discs with a running time of 8 ½ hours. With a seemingly intimidating retail price of circa £45 that actually equates to a little over £5 per hour, which is perfectly in line with both previous James' readings and indeed contemporary releases by other publishers. After all, you're getting the equivalent of three double-cassette box-sets here, not to mention original incidental music and carefully researched readings. And brilliant though James is, his work is still relatively obscure compared to many mainstream novelists: we should count ourselves very lucky to have a complete unabridged recording at all. Not even James' literary idol J.S. Le Fanu has been awarded that honour.
The reader David Collings is enjoying a quietly illustrious career which has included many forays into the byways of mystery and the supernatural. In 1970 he appeared in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club for ITV's `Mystery & Imagination' series; this was followed by appearances in Blake's Seven and Dr Who. However, although this represents a mere fraction of his work, for me his most memorable performances in the genre occurred in Sapphire & Steel, where Collings played Silver, a colleague of Joanna Lumley and David MacCullum. Impeccably turned-out and well-mannered, Silver provided a wonderful contrast to Steel's brusque, often rude approach to life.
Collings' readings are gently beguiling. He reads with unaffected modesty, and is adept at both switching and keeping in character[s]. His narrational reading voice is low, comforting, mellow, and possessed of a slight roll or burr on the letter `r'. Many of his characters are given a slightly higher-pitched, querulous voice, which suits the often highly-strung Jamesian `hero'. He also appears at ease when wading through dead languages and obscure place names, which is no doubt a reflection upon the studious attention to research for this project. All in all, Collings' readings are an auditory tour-de-force, sweeping aside the lesser efforts of Nigel Lambert, Robin Bailey, Andrew Sachs et al, with one insurmountable exception: the readings of the late Michael Hordern. In my opinion, Hordern's readings cannot be bettered. Horden's readings for Argo are surely the benchmark by which all others should be judged, just as James' ghost stories are the benchmark by which all other ghost stories have come to be judged. However, given the detail to attention in Collings' readings, coupled with the completeness of the project, his efforts are nevertheless on a par with those of Hordern. Indeed, had he beaten Hordern to James, then he might have even had the advantage.
The incidental music by East Anglian composer Leigh Odlin is suitably eerie and discordant. It would appear to fuse classical simplicity with an homage to the soundtracks of vintage ghostly dramas from the television e.g. The Omega Man, Tomorrows People, Sapphire & Steel. There is a creepy electrical zingyness to some of the music which harmonises well with the melancholy piano.
An accompanying CD disc details the useful `chapter' breaks in the recording. This alone makes the box-set more practical than its predecessor tape versions. Rather than mess about with fast-forwarding and rewinding - all of which damages audio tape anyway - you can now quickly access a convenient chapter point in a split second. Also included is an informative introduction by Reggie Oliver, himself the author of several highly regarded Jamesian tales, and now surely the pre-eminent expert on M.R. James. Although Oliver is too modest to mention the fact, he attended Eton on the very same scholarship as M.R. James, and thus enjoys a uniquely valuable insight into James' world which has not been accorded to any other scholar of the supernatural (with the possible exception of H.R. Wakefield, who also won the very same scholarship).
Oliver side-steps individual story dissection except where biographical, as well as eschewing the controversies surrounding psychological interpretations of James' ghost stories, to present us with a comprehensive overview of `James the man'. The article is however simply the first of a two-parter, the conclusion to appear in the next instalment of The Complete Ghost Stories Of M.R. James. There can be little doubt that if anyone is to author a definitive study of both James' ghost stories and his life as a scholar, it must be Oliver. No genre expert comes even close to rivaling his knowledge of James' work and the curious world James lived in; Oliver moves in deeper, more scholarly waters, having been grounded in a similar classical education.
In conclusion, the Craftsman Audio Books publication of The Complete Ghost Stories Of M.R. James is an important new addition to the M R James canon, just as a DVD box-set release of the BBC's Ghost Stories For Christmas would be. There are two very compelling reasons for buying it: first, because you simply have to have it; secondly, because you know you want it. It's either that or go without, and then have to pay astronomical sums for a second-hand copy on Ebay in years to come.
on 11 July 2011
This is an excellent collection of M R James ghost stories, imaginative and beautifully read by David Collings who reproduces various dialects, strange names and accents seemingly without effort. Churches, libraries and old archives feature in many of the stories along with death, either long past, imminent or both. The general focus is the nebulous area between imagination and perceived reality. M R James has a way of combining the tangible with the intangible which stirs the imagination of the reader, or in this case, the listener. The stories are unlikely to induce apopletic paroxysms of uncontrollable panic in any but the most sensitive of souls, but as an exercise in short story writing, scene description and the unexplained, these stories are hard to beat.
It is interesting to compare the story "Casting the Runes" with the British film based on this story, "Night of the Demon". The latter may well cause a few bad dreams and well illustrates the power of imagination.