The British love their countryman M. R. James (1862-1936), the Medieval scholar who is today most remembered for his supernatural tales, which he wrote and published over a period of twenty-five years; Fortean Times, a reputable magazine dedicated to "the world of strange phenomena," recently dedicated a cover story to the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of James' birth.
James is held in considerably higher esteem than Englishman Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) or the Welsh Arthur Machen (1863-1947), both of whom also wrote numerous relatively well-regarded 'literary' stories of the paranormal.
James' standing as an academic and as provost of King's College, Cambridge probably has a lot to do with his fairly lofty literary reputation in comparison to Blackwood and Machen, both of whom who lived externally ordinary lives and suffered through multiple periods of hardship and poverty. Which is to say that the British class system has certainly played a role in maintaining James' reputation over the decades.
But Blackwood's and Machen's stories were also romances which arose directly out of the Romantic tradition inaugurated by William Blake (1757-1827) and the work of later, less important writers of the fantastic, like Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905).
Blackwood loved nature, and many of his supernatural agents, whether literal 'snow maidens,' werewolves, wendigos, trouble-making fairies, ambulatory trees, or 'cat people,' seemed to spring directly from it, while Machen seemed deeply distrustful of all aspects of living: time, space, history, science, race, and nature were all troublesome for him: for example, his 'fairies' are revealed in several stories not to be supernatural creatures at all, but one or more races of extremely primitive cannibal 'dwarves' surviving in wilderness areas throughout the British Isles.
Due to Blackwood's engagement with life, his tales usually reveal a corresponding sense of awe and wonder, no matter how dire the climax, while Machen's stories often leave their readers with a sense of grim revulsion (especially his most notorious tale, 'The Great God Pan' of 1890, in which a woman is corrupted and possessed by the spirit of the ancient Greek god, which erupts from within her during intimate moments and rapes unsuspecting male suitors, which in turn leads them to commit suicide).
Despite the presence of middle-aged antiquarian proto-protagonists, ancient manuscripts, and isolated, mouldering estates, ruins, and castles, the stories of M. R. James found in 'Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories' (2005) and 'The Haunted Doll's House and Other Ghost Stories' (2006) are definitely not romances.
James' stories are dry, clipped, rational, workaday, and far more like standard late-Victorian detective stories or reportage than the terror tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Blackwood, or Machen. Something of namesake Henry James' style predominates, though M. R. James' style is flatter and far less ornate all around. There is little if any attempt at mood or tonal foreshadowing; the only foreshadowing comes from the 'practical' facts of the narrative as presented.
Thus, it is no wonder that many readers do not find James' stories frightening, engrossing, or awe-inspiring, despite their lofty reputation.
Most of his fiction includes a purposefully-banal accumulation of 'facts,' a sliver-thin hint of a threat, a broad mystery of some kind, and then what today might be called 'the reveal' (or 'the big reveal'), in which a 'hideous' image is usually thrust forward at the protagonist and the reader and then just as quickly withdrawn.
In 'The Rose Garden,' for example, a mature woman resting in the garden of her large estate (where several very minor 'unusual' events have been reported) notices what she first believes to be a mask protruding from the shrubbery: "It was not a mask. It was a face--large, smooth, and pink...minute drops of perspiration were starting from its forehead...the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut...the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip...as she looked the face receded into the darkness of the bush."
In 'Count Magnus,' the 'reveal' serves up two hooded figures stalking the protagonist, one tall and the other short, the shorter eventually accidentally revealing the tentacles it hides beneath its cloak. The reader never learns anything more about the creature than that; the larger figure is the title character, risen from his grave.
In 'Casting the Runes,' probably the most famous of James' stories (and the basis for the 1957 Jacques Tourneur classic, 'Night of the Demon,' known as 'Curse of the Demon' in America), the apparition in question is a squat, toad-like creature conjured up by a demonologist's spell; one of the characters finds it under a pillow in his home after the lights have inexplicably gone out.
Since the monster is at least as big as a child, what the monster is doing under "a pillow" is anyone's guess (there is no mention of a bed or a sofa), but such 'blankly dropped into the narrative' incidents are common in James, who seems to have enjoyed offering his audience puzzles with important pieces missing.
Whether readers will find James' exceedingly reductive stories frightening, intriguing, or absorbing on any level will depend on the individual in question. Those who do not should seek out Blackwood and Machen for work they will probably find to be more satisfying fair.
James chose to write 'fantastic' stories, but didn't seem to enjoy his own imagination. Few writers, at any time or of any period, seemed to adhere to the 'less is more' credo as strictly as M. R. James did.