strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
More book reviews. At least we have made it into 2016 now.


1. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2005), M.R. James: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

M.R. James! I like him enough that he has his own tag (LJ / DW). I have been to live readings of his stories, I own the DVD box set of most of their TV adaptations, and I even went to a conference about him in 2016 (LJ / DW). However, until I acquired this Penguin two-volume collection of his ghost stories, I hadn't actually systematically read them all: only those in his first published collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and a few others at random in collected volumes or online. Reading the whole lot is of course a great pleasure, and these two volumes are good, with helpful introductions, suggestions for further reading (on James generally and on individual stories), and well-chosen appendices of related material: e.g. James' introductions to the various collected volumes of stories published during his lifetime and his rare (and brief!) published reflections on the genre of the ghost story. The only omission I regretted is his supernatural story for children, 'The Five Jars', but then again it is a) quite long and b) not really a ghost story in the same sense as the other material in these books, so I entirely understand why the editor left it out. (Anyway, writing this has prompted me to see if it's available for Kindle: it is, and for zero pence too, so now I have that lined up as a future pleasure.)

This first volume is basically his first two published collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories. That meant I'd read all of the first half and most of the second, but I re-read them anyway because a) they're great and b) it helped me to see how his style had evolved over time. Fairly unsurprisingly, all of the stories in this volume are extremely strong, and I knew most of the ones I hadn't read before from various dramatic adaptations. In fact, I think I'm right in saying the only two I didn't know were the last two: 'Martin's Close', in which the central motif of a wronged girl emerging out of a pond to avenge herself reminded me strongly of The Ring, and 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance', which I felt was a bit weaker but still made good use of the potential creepiness of 18th-century landscape gardens; topiary, mazes, funerary monuments and all. Best rediscoveries: 'Lost Hearts' (I don't usually get actually scared by tales of the supernatural, but the boy in the bath-tub does elicit a 'pleasing terror'), 'The Mezzotint' (some of the dialogue is absolutely hilarious, especially if you've been to Oxbridge), 'The Ash-Tree' ("something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten…"), 'Number 13' (really love the interplay between the supernatural goings-on and the protagonist's historical research) and 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' ("There is no kitchen cat"). I also don’t think I had realised before that the opening words of 'Count Magnus', which is essentially a vampire story (though James keeps the details subtle and ambiguous) operate as a direct intertext to Dracula:
Dracula: How these papers have been placed in sequence will be made manifest in the reading of them.
Count Magnus: By what means the papers out of which I have made a connected story came into my hands is the last point which the reader will learn from these pages.

Obviously James makes quite frequent use of the device of 'found papers' presented by an authorial voice, which must have worked particularly well for his original audience of fellow Kings College scholars. But I think the specific wording there, in a vampire story with the word 'Count' in the title, is close enough and obvious enough to be a nod we are invited to notice. As one of the speakers at the conference I went to (I'm 95% sure Ramsey Campbell) noted, 'Count Magnus' has since returned the favour, lending its motif of closed padlocks mysteriously falling from a coffin, whose lid then hinges upwards, to Hammer's The Brides of Dracula (1960).


2. S.T. Joshi, ed. (2006), M.R. James: The Hanted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories

This second volume basically contains everything else: the contents of two further volumes published during James' lifetime (A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious) and whatever further stories appeared in magazines etc. towards the end of his life or posthumously. Collectively and on average, they aren't quite on the same level as those in volume 1, but they are all still very much worth reading, and some are very strong: e.g. 'The Residence at Whitminster' (the one about the saw-flies), 'The Diary of Mr. Poynter' ("no feature was discernible, only hair") 'An Episode of Cathedral History' (another vampire story!), 'A View from a Hill' (necromantic binoculars), and of course 'A Warning to the Curious' (aka the Three Crowns). I was perhaps most fascinated by the very last entry, though, 'Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories', which aren't actually by James at all, but are collected in a manuscript originally written at Byland Abbey, Yorkshire. James' role was to notice their existence, transcribe them from the original manuscript, and publish them in The English Historical Review complete with a introduction and annotations. In other words, this is where his lives as a scholar used to working with medieval manuscripts and as an author of ghost stories of his own met. He didn't translate the Latin text himself, but others have since. A class of Latin students have put their translation online along with lots of contextual detail including a picture of the manuscript, and another is provided in this volume. The content of the stories is very different from James'. They are typically about unquiet spirits who appear to ordinary people in ordinary country settings, sometimes changing shape as they do so, and who need to be helped into the afterlife by being absolved of some past sin. James' ghosts are usually far less concrete but far more malevolent, and their appearances far more targeted: generally at people whose past crimes or indecent curiosity need punishing. But still the Yorkshire tales have a very distinct charm all of their own, especially when read in Leeds. I am very grateful to M. R. James for bringing them to the public attention.

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