M. R. James’s ghost stories are the perfect example of quality counting over quantity. Although he produced these stories over the course of forty years (1894-1935), his complete tally of spectral fiction is only thirty-three stories, twenty-six of which had appeared in four previous collections. Four more were added to make up The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. Although this volume excludes three later stories, they are only minor pieces, and their exclusion does not detract from the completeness of the collected works. The volume has the added benefit of James’s essay “Stories I Have Tried to Write.”
Almost all of James’s stories have a common approach and content. As the title of his first book suggests, they are related by an antiquarian, meaning that the incidents are linked to the study of old documents or buildings. They develop the theme of “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” as the antiquarians in his stories always suffer from delving a little too far into things best left alone. This theme is common to almost all of James’s stories, which therefore can be explored by reference to two in detail.
James’s first published tale was “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” (National Review, March, 1895), which opens the volume and shows his technique to good effect. An Englishman named Dennistoun is touring southern France and spends a day taking notes and photographs at the church of St....
(The entire section is 600 words.)