Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Walking in the woods with M. R. James

{Photo by rocketlass.}

The new Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James that Oxford published last year is full of the usual James pleasures, but it also includes a number of stories that I'd not previously encountered. My favorite thus far is a very brief, decidedly minor story, "A Vignette," which was the last that James ever wrote. He sent it just before his death in response to a request for from the London Mercury, and he described himself as "ill-satisfied" with it. It's true that the story is far from one of James's best--it's much more a sketch than a fully fleshed out story--but its straightforward, relatively unbaroque relation of some vaguely spooky sightings on the edge of the forest around James's boyhood home is nonetheless effective. Much more than the typical James tale, which generates a pleasant, if unconvincing atmosphere of veracity from its superstructure of references and second-hand accounts, "A Vignette" feels remembered, as if, as Michael Cox writes, in M. R. James: An Informal Portrait, it is
the memory of something that seemed real to him at the time and that shaped his subsequent attitude towards the supernatural.
The ultimate fright in the story I won't quote, since that seems unfair--but I will share these lines, which are nicely chilling in their noting of a common truth and the way they then apply it to a very frightening specific:
To be sure, it is difficult, in anything like a grove, to be quite certain that nobody is making a screen out of a tree and keeping it between you and him as he moves round it and you walk on. All I can say is if such a one was there he was no neighbour or acquaintance of mine, and there was some indication about him of being cloaked or hooded.
The delicacy of James's description here brings to mind that other, more famous James, and a description I've quoted before, from an anecdote told by E. F. Benson, another writer known for his ghost stories:
He described a call he paid at dusk on some neighbours at Rye, how he rang the bell and nothing happened, how he rang again and again waited, how at the end there came steps in the passage and the door was slowly opened, and there appeared in advance on the threshold, "something black, something canine."
Even when he wasn't writing ghost stories, Henry James was writing ghost stories.

It also calls to mind Kenneth Patchen's deliciously frightening "Come now, my child":
Come now, my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest?
That could be the very voice of October.


  1. Thanks for posting this - I have been a fan of M. R. James for decades and did not know there was a new edition out.

  2. I've admired M.R. James ever since coming across "O Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad" in an old anthology forty years ago. If you like ghost stories, a very different but equally distinctive contemporary of his, Algernon Blackwood, is worth a look.

  3. ToB--the introduction to this volume I also thought was good. It does a nice quick job of summarizing James's life, deals delicately but sensibly with the inescapable Freudian and sexual interpretations of his tales, and doesn't give too much away for new readers. Oh, and there's a ribbon!

    Rand, I've actually only read a bit of Blackwood, but I've loved all of it. He's on my list to pick up either this October or next, depending on when I can track down a nice volume of his stories.

  4. Gambrinus Glubbe12:30 AM

    Blackwood's "The Empty House" is my favorite story of his, very chilling in parts.