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M.R. James

My third book for the Halloween challenge I'm doing is The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, selected by Michael Cox and illustrated by Rosalind Caldecott.

I always try to remember when and where I buy books but this one totally eludes me. I know I've had it for quite a while and that on the inside cover is written '£6.00' in pencil, so I'm thinking it must have been a secondhand bookshop buy rather than a charity shop one. I also have the vague idea that I dithered over paying that much so it must have been a while ago. Now of course I'm thrilled to bits that I didn't leave it behind as an illustrated M.R. James is something I prize very highly indeed. The drawings are beautiful and I'll use a few of them in this post as I go along. (Click on the pic and you'll get a bigger version.)

The anthology includes some fifteen stories but starts off with a thirty page biography of the author, which I read after I'd read the stories and found fascinating. M.R. James was what you would call a scholar in the old-fashioned sense. Educated at Eton and then King's College, Cambridge he never married and dedicated his life to these two educational establishments as a teacher, but also to his writing.

And what writing. I first read most of M.R. James's ghost stories about fifteen years ago. I thought then that they were very readable but not necessarily as brilliant as people said and that there were other writers of the supernatural who were just as good. Now I'm not so sure. I read these fifteen stories and became utterly enthralled by the imagination displayed and the gorgeous writing that sweeps you away into a world of libraries, churches and stately homes where weird happenings are the order of the day.

The fifteen stories include such well known classics as Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad...

A Warning to the Curious, A View From a Hill and The Ash Tree. The last of these was probably my favourite in the book, a story of what happens when a lord of the manor betrays a witch, who is then hanged. He'd seen her collecting twigs from the ash tree that grew outside his bedroom window. What the witch does to this tree and the affect it has on future members of the lord's family is the subject of the story and its creepiness just blew me away. Another favourite was The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral...

... which tells what happens when a new archdeacon takes over from one who has let things slip, and how some rather weird statuettes on the end of the pews are involved in his downfall.

A Vignette was also a big favourite. It was the last ghost story James ever wrote and is apparently slightly autobiographical in that he used the rectory where he grew up as a setting. It tells the story of a young boy growing up in the vicarage who feels that something is very disturbing about the corner of the garden he can see from his bedroom window.

A gate leads into a plantation of trees and the boy has dreams about a being with a white hand opening the gate and coming up the path. One day he actually does see something and goes down to check...

Difficult to overstate how much I adored this anthology of weird stories. In the biographical bit it describes James's stories as a 'sub-genre of antiquarian ghost stories' and that's a perfect description in my opinion. James knew his world and used it time and again to great effect. I don't think 'stunning' understates the case. I was blown away by the quality of the writing and adored the supernatural bent to the tales. These weren't just stories about ghosts, there's all kinds of daemonic weirdness here and it was truly amazing to read. Add to that the lovely illustrations of Rosalind Caldecott and you have a beautiful volume of stories that I'm thrilled to bits to own.


The illustrations are perfect. I can't think of any other ghost story writer who makes me feel that I don't want to be alone after I've finished reading. So beautifully understated and creepy.
You're so right. And I love the unashamed antiquarian background to all the stories he wrote. You could just wallow in them quite frankly. Look at this wonderful Folio Society edition of James's Collected Ghost Stories:


Even though thirty quid is *expensive* and I already have a cheap paperback copy of this very book - I am still sorely tempted.
Those are beautiful illustrations but the price would make me pause. I have a Pan paperback with a very cool cover and an old hardback with no illustrations. I couldn't justify a third copy.

Your icon is quite perfect.
Yes, I'm going to resist temptation - the book is just too expensive. Have you seen this one on your travels?


Another expensive one and quite hard to find too, but looks interesting.

Oh and I got myself a nice *inexpensive* copy of Under the Fang. Looking forward to reading it.

The icon is by roxicons and snaggable if you want it.
I've heard of it but I haven't compared the contents with other ghost story books in my collection.

*snags icon*
Brrrrr! I just finished reading online one of M.R.James' most famous stories: "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad," and it's everything people have said. A lot of nineteenth-century writers wrote very dry, sort of creaky prose, and this story started out that way: fairly boring sentences at first, that made it difficult to keep from dozing off. But by the end of it I was very glad not to be in the house alone! What a creepy thing. He certainly was a master of the genre.

That book looks like a treasure. Congratulations on finding it!
Not sure where you found the story online but there are many more here:


Ghost Stories of an Antiquary has the stories that I'm most familiar with and most are very good.
Wow, that book looks like an excellent find - I'm sure those wonderful illustrations do a lot to help evoke the mood of an M.R. James story!

I agree with you that The Ash-Tree is just ultra-creepy, (if I'm thinking of the right story, I'm sure the details are a bit off, but), that moment near the end where they burn it, and some weird spider-type thing tries to crawl out...chilling.
That's the story! And not just one spider thing either, turns out there was a nest of them. Beautifully done.