46 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 15 February 2007
It's surprising how many of these 30 short stories of ghosts, demons and other infernal trouble-makers seem familiar. I recognised over a dozen of them. "Casting the Runes" was the biggest surprise. It's just 18 pages long and easily recognisable as the original story that one of my favourite films from childhood (which I've been trying to get hold of on DVD for ages - my old video copy of it having worn out) is based upon. The film is called "Night of the Demon" (1957). Several of these stories have been read on BBC Radio 4 and BBC Digital Radio 7 recently and others have been made into films for television. The film of "A View from a Hill" (a mere 7 pages long in this book) was shown on one of the BBC channels only a week or so ago. The films are all excellent, but they can't improve on James's writing. It's hard to put a finger on what is so terrifying about his spooks. Some of them crawl. Anyone opening a door or turning on a light and seeing some strange, cadaverous looking thing crawling down a corridor towards them should certainly scream or faint. Some are hairy with long finger nails. After living through the hairy 60s and 70s, hair holds no fear for me - but those finger nails are a different matter. Some are more along the lines of animated skeletons held together by scraps of mouldering flesh and others are toad-like. I wonder James didn't give himself nightmares -- perhaps he did. You really need to give your imagination free-rein to properly experience the delightful tingle of fear M R James was hoping to generate for his audience. These tales are almost entirely goreless. Readers who prefer the blood and guts sort of horror probably won't enjoy this book. There are no rabid psychos leaping about with veins and gizzards dripping from their teeth. This collection is far more subtle and interesting than that.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 5 July 2012
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) better known simply as M R James, was a noted British medieval scholar. He also served as provost of King's College, Cambridge (1905-1918) and of Eton College (1918-1936). He is best remembered, however, for his ghost stories which are widely regarded, by myself included, as among the finest in English literature.
There is nothing quite like lying in bed on a dark winters night and dipping into a tale of supernatural terrors. Of course, subsequently getting to sleep might be another matter!
The complete list of stories is:
Canon Alberic's Scrapbook
The Ash Tree
Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
A School Story
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance
The Residence at Whitminster
The Diary of Mr Poynter
An Episode of Cathedral History
The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
The Haunted Dolls' House
The Uncommon Prayer-Book
A Neighbour's Landmark
A View from a Hill
A Warning to the Curious
An Evening's Entertainment
There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard
After Dark in the Playing Fields
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
Also of interest may be Tales of Unease, a collection of spooky stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Complete Works of H.P. Lovecraft. Well worth a read.
24 of 25 people found the following review helpful
on 12 October 2011
There are classics that deserve no separate review apart from mere stating of the fact that these stories have been shaping the contours of horror fiction for the past century, and since 1931 (when these stories were brought out together, except 3 stories that were later collected) they have remained continuously in-print. However, this book was special in the sense that the stories often mention certain details that require gentle ministrations in the shape of annotations & explanations for Latin-challenged readers like us (who must be 99.9% of the total readers), and this book does it to some extent. Of course, its comparison with the gold-standard of annotated editions set by "A Pleasing Terror" published by the Ash Tree Press would be made, and the book would be found short on many grounds (esp. in terms of non-inclusion of certain non-fiction written by MRJ himself that have immense relevance in understanding the stories themselves) rather inevitably. Nevertheless, it is very reasonably priced, and deserves to be appreciated, esp. since the Penguin volumes (edited by S.T Joshi) are ridiculously overpriced, and since the Ash Tree Press is not coming out with their long-awaited 2nd edition of "A Pleasing Terror" (in 2 volumes!) any time soon. Recommended.
37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
on 23 November 2004
Mr James was born in 1862. He was the son of a clergyman. He became a biblical scholar and vice-chancellor of Cambridge University. So you might expect from his life and his writing style that his stories are sedate things that the Victorian reader could read without too much upset. They would be free of troubling undertones, macabre inages, they would be comforting.
You'd be dreadfully wrong. The first story in this collection is Lost Hearts, a brutal and twisted story of scholarly detatchment, unethical experiments and gory murder. Going through the book we discover other classics showing just how physically and mentally violent James' imagination could be. There's the desperate attempt to shake the curse in Casting the Runes, the deadening claustrophobia of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, and the final story, Wailing Well, stuns the reader by beginning as a comedy and ending so blackly that few Hollywood horror films, shall we say, would dare to film it as written.
This is not sedate. It has an undeniable power that lingers after the book has been shut. I would actually put it above Lovecraft. There are weak points, it must be said; several times stories don't seem to get going before they end, creating a sense of anticlimax. But this does not detract from the achievements made in the other stories, and it's not going to stop me giving the collection five stars.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Readers will understandably be divided on these stories: some will prefer the tight early pieces, others the wordier later ones. The reason is that they were written over a lifetime, and thereby chart the writer's growing abilities in the craft of writing, and his changing outlook.
The narrator of most stories is an antiquarian bachelor employed in academia or the church, which gives them a sense of social insularity. A number of James's tales are heavily immersed in the culture of Anglicanism in the late 19th century, assuming that the reader understands what disputes were current within the church. This can pose a problem for current readers. For example, the splendidly crafted "An Episode in Cathedral History" relies on a knowledge of the Gothic revival that swept through the Church of England in the mid-19th century, as well as the frictions between Evangelical and Anglo-Catholic churchmen.
Also James was clearly a fan of Anthony Trollope, whose "Barchester Chronicles" novels (eg. Barchester Towers) have left an impression on some of the later stories with their colourful casts of eccentric clergymen and cathedral staff. One odd tale is actually titled "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral". There are extremely convincing and well rendered portrayals of character types that hold up so well against Trollope, Charles Dickens and George Gissing - this is good writing.
Having said that, as stories of ghosts and supernatural events go there are some real gems in this volume: including "The Mezzotint", "The Ash Tree", "Whistle and I'll Come to You Lad", "The Treasure of Abbott Thomas", "The Haunted Doll's House'", "An Uncommon Prayer Book" and the gruesome "A View from a Hill".
29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
on 10 March 2005
Having seen the short season of MR James classics on television at Christmas, I decided to keep the tradition of ghostly readings on Christmas Eve, I decided to buy this book and was not dissapointed,scared more likely.
It has to be said that out of the 30 or stories that are included, I was left a trifle dissapointed with perhaps about ten, but overall the content of the other stories were chilling and disturbing.
Reading these short tales whilst alone with just the sound of a ticking clock really takes you back to the time when most of the stories are told (1850's). Three stand out tales are 'Two Hearts,Whistle and I'll come to you and the atmospheric A Warning to the curious' are not for the faint hearted. In summary, I would decribe most of these stories as 'chilling classics from a bygone age' Enjoy
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 1 November 2011
The tradition on Christmas Eve in King's College, Cambridge, a century ago was for the provost to read out one of his handwritten ghost stories to a select group of friends and colleagues. The provost was Montague Rhodes James, one of the most distinguished scholars of his day, and the unlikely author of some of the most terrifying ghost stories in English literature, usually set in some deserted country house or remote village inn where ill-advised meddling unleashes supernatural forces intent on dire retribution. These tales, first read aloud in that candle-lit Cambridge study, have lost none of their power to unsettle and disturb.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Good evening, I notice you are selecting your bedside book. Perhaps you were expecting to find a collection of gentle Victorian ghost stories? But this volume you have chosen is the work of the Master, Montague Rhodes James, and his - acquaintances - are altogether "more formidable visitants".
Surely the greatest ghost-story writer of all time, he is a timeless weaver of atmosphere and a vanished Victorian and Edwardian world of gentlemen antiquaries, college rooms and libraries, country houses, quiet hotels, books, manuscripts and ancient artefacts. James' friendly voice makes us all honorary members of `the club', invited to hear him recount the latest of his chilling tales and, in our imaginations, join his ill-fated heroes as they encounter our worst nightmares ... listen ...
There was, for example, the case of Canon Alberic, who combined a magnificent (but I fear illicit) scrapbook of priceless religious manuscripts with unfortunate experiments in dark magic and the raising of demons; most unfortunate, in that he enjoyed complete success. Or the traveller in Sweden who spoke, whimsically, three times to the long-entombed Count Magnus; poor man, such an unpleasant way to depart. And that wretched young fellow who made the archaeological discovery of several lifetimes - an Anglo-Saxon crown! It was the final discovery of his lifetime and a severe warning to the curious, that much is certain.
Too unsettling for late-night reading? I think there is milder fare on offer; the story of a quiet golfing holiday on the east coast perhaps? If only the Professor had not actually blown that whistle he discovered; still, at least he survived to tell the tale, although he is understandably nervous now around scarecrows and the like. What about this one - a diligent Archdeacon, hard at work in his cathedral close, nothing untoward there surely? Oh, no, perhaps not - the newspaper reports were distressing; strange, he kept no cat, and yet something with claws must have ...
This story will be safer - a report on a college purchase of an engraving, a mezzotint I believe, just a depiction of an attractive country house seen under moonlight. A figure on the lawn? Carrying - oh, dear me how horrible. Ah, now I have it, just the thing, guaranteed not to disturb your sleep. A description of an attractive old hotel here in Viborg; why yes, it IS the one in which we are staying, an interesting account but not, I think, too alarming as the gentleman evidently lived to publish his work. Yes, he was staying in room number 12, exactly like you. My room? Number 13 of course ...
... a wonderful collection of undying classics to read again and again. Do remember to put the light out - pleasant dreams.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 12 August 2013
7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Ruth Rendell once remarked that she wished she had never read M.R. James so that she might have the pleasure of reading him for the first time, and I for one understand exactly what she meant. If you have not yet come across his work either in a complete edition or in anthologies then indeed a treat awaits you. The secret of James success lies not in the portrayal of apparitions but in the consequences of an invasion of the supernatural into the cosy, cloistered academic worlds of his dons and squires who exist very happily in their erudite comfort until that moment when their neat assumptions about the world are shattered by the appearance of the irrational. Although James can create monsters as shocking as anyone, they are always implicit rather than explicit, glimpsed for a fleeting moment as much in the brain as in the eye, the consequences of their presence far more powerful than the manifestation itself. The effect of two different dimensions colliding is all the more powerful here for James was steeped in the ideas and traditions of a nineteenth century scholar's world, and spent his whole life in the kind of parsonages, churches and collegiate institutions that provide the atmospheric setting for so many of these stories. Then there is the writer's flair for evoking character in a few short lines and the humour which emerges from a pen that might seem altogether too weighty to indulge in such levity. Everyone has their own favourite M.R James stories: for excitement my pick would be Casting the Runes, others argue the merits of A Warning to the Curious or Lost Hearts but then again I have a soft spot for An Episode of Cathedral History, as it is the epitome of the virtues listed above. Television has made a number of creditable attempts to adapt these stories but nothing beats the original texts. A pleasure not to be missed.