The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James Essay - Critical Essays

M. R. James


James’s ghost stories are usually regarded as the most accomplished of their kind. They are not traditional ghost stories in the formal sense; James shied away from the shrouded wraith or the gothic chain rattler. His ghosts are of the monstrous kind, often hairy and with teeth, and they are always malicious. James’s framework for the ghost story was set down in an introduction he wrote for Ghosts and Marvels (1924), edited by Vere H. Collins, and it admirably establishes James’s approach. He refers to two key ingredients: the atmosphere and a “nicely managed” crescendo. He also believed that “a slight haze of distance is desirable.” He usually created that effect through the study of old documents or buildings, or through a tale retold. The atmosphere involved characters going about their normal business before “the ominous thing” begins to intrude, “unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” This approach is the trademark of all of James’s ghost stories.

One less apparent trait is the humor that pervades his stories. James traditionally read his stories at Christmas to students at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was dean and later provost. Because James was a capable mimic, his deliberate mocking of local characters would come through in the narration. This helped provide a commonplace setting into which the ominous could intrude.

Using his techniques, James remodeled the ghost story, establishing a form that became acceptable to the literary establishment. To many, including Michael Sadleir, who wrote the dustwrapper notes for this volume, James was “the best ghost-story writer England has ever produced,” and his reputation has not diminished with the years. His works have been imitated by many, including other antiquarians, of whom R. H. Malden, A. N. L. Munby, and L. T. C. Rolt are among the most accomplished. His techniques have also been utilized by others, especially Fritz Leiber and Ramsey Campbell. Despite such imitations, James’s works remain supreme in their field.

A recent selection of twenty-one of James’s best stories, including the three not included in the Collected Ghost Stories and also featuring all of James’s essays about ghost stories, is Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (1987), edited and with an introduction by Michael Cox.