These are some pretty good yarns. If, like me, you harbor an unspoken love for Victorian-era ghost stories, you must get to know Montague Rhodes James. Ever heard of him? Born in 1862, he became a respected medieval scholar as an adult. Nearly all his tales mirror his day job in some way, involving young scholars who run across strange artifacts and manifestations during the course of their research. You’d think it would get old as a formula, but I’m not tired of it yet. He sets up each yarn in a pedantic, matter-of-fact way, then proceeds to introduce the supernatural bits so subtly that it all seems quite plausible. Stephen King uses the same technique to great effect, but tends to tart his stuff up with gratuitous gore. I’d be willing to bet Steve has an M.R. James collection somewhere on his bookshelf.
Even if you’ve never read any of these stories, chances are you’ve seen a lot of stuff based on them. “The Mezzotint,” for example, features a mundane piece of artwork that appears to show a ghostly vengeance being played out one scene at a time. In “Casting the Runes,” a malevolent writer attempts to get even with the editor who rejected his work. In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” a rare and valuable manuscript comes with something terrible attached — possibly a demon. With M.R. James, you never know the precise nature of the supernatural menace. That’s probably one reason his stories work so well even today. Any fan of horror films knows that the fear factor diminishes greatly once the beast is fully revealed. When all you see is its shadow, metaphorically speaking, your imagination does the rest.
I paid $10 for this collection on my Nook, only to realize later that nearly all these classic stories are available free online. Doh! If you like this kind of thing, Google the name and see what comes up. Why not? Halloween is coming right up.