I believe there is no such thing as a substandard M.R. James ghost story and I even enjoy maligned tales such as “Two Doctors” or “An Evening’s Entertainment”. Indeed, the only story I’m not keen on is “Lost Hearts”, which Monty disparaged himself as one of his earliest efforts; both less developed and more graphic than his later work. My own list of favourites includes a couple of idiosyncratic choices such as “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” and “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, but by and large, it does not substantially diverge from popular opinion and many of these stories were rated highly in a poll conducted by “Ghosts & Scholars: The M.R. James Newsletter”.
1. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
A late but archetypal example of the M.R. James ghost story, in which an amateur archaeologist must pay for his blinkered rationalism, scholarly arrogance and personal greed when he disturbs ancient relics better left alone. The antiquarian Saxon milieu and coastal East Anglican landscape are richly evoked, whilst James draws on certain folkloric motifs and traditions which resonate throughout the British Isles.
2. COUNT MAGNUS
Lauded by H.P. Lovecraft as a “veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion,” this is also one of James’s bleakest tales in which his favourite trope of the supernatural pursuit is explored to a chilling extent. Whilst the protagonist Mr. Wraxall is guilty of “over-inquisitiveness”, the relentless persecution he is subsequently subjected to far outweighs his initial calumny. He becomes the most abject victim in the canon.
3. OH WHISTLE AND I’LL COME TO YOU MY LAD
A masterful subversion of the traditional image of the ghost as an incorporeal, shrouded thing bestowed with even greater effect by its manifestation in that place of refuge, the bedroom, ensuring it’s never possible to hide beneath the sheets again. Meanwhile, James is clearly in his antiquarian element and ready with lessons on the consequences of doctrinaire scepticism and overweening curiosity.
4. THE ASH TREE
Witches are a familiar motif in British folklore and whilst James piles on the authentic detail, he imbues his own creation, Mrs. Mothersole, with a quite unique and maleficent quality which is sure to send a shudder of revulsion through the reader. It’s also once of his most carefully constructed pieces, elliptical without being too obscure, expertly building towards the “nicely managed climax” which he so valued.
5. THE MEZZOTINT
Embodying another favourite Jamesian narrative, in which terrible historical events are re-enacted before a powerless and horrified protagonist, The Mezzotint portrays the supernatural on two levels; firstly in the titular print, whose mysterious and unique animation is without explanation or logic; and secondly in the vile, crawling revenant who plays a starring role in the tragedy that unfolds.
6. THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER
This is the story that disturbed me most when I was young and led to several sleepless nights. It features a perfect exemplar of H.P. Lovecraft’s observation that “The average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy – a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man – and usually touched before it is seen”. There is something about the dead man’s hair motif which is particularly grisly indeed.
7. CASTING THE RUNES
The sole example of an M.R. James story in which the victim of supernatural persecution decides to fight back and is actually successful. Meanwhile, the character of Karswell is a formidable antagonist. Like Count Magnus, he is the embodiment of scholarship perverted by desire for a hidden knowledge (an impulse James maybe felt himself and feared) but unlike Magnus, ultimately hoisted by his own petard.
8. THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE
A much underrated story which has sometimes been criticised for being too oblique for its own good. However, this opacity makes it a story which actually improves with successive readings, forever revealing more of its horrible implications. You also suspect this was a very personal story for James, invoking the sinister image of the Punch and Judy show which he confessed so terrified him as a young child.
9. A VIEW FROM A HILL
Unlike Machen or Blackwood, James was not primarily a landscape writer and whilst he never lacked skill in its description, A View From a Hill is the only instance where he explores what might now be dubbed the “psychogeographical” aspect. In a nice synchronicity, he uses the landscape of Herefordshire, which similarly inspired Alfred Watkins to write The Old Straight Track.
10. A SCHOOL STORY
Reggie Oliver, a talented writer of antiquarian ghost stories in his own right, has claimed that A School Story is underdeveloped, but I disagree. The fact that so much remains obscure renders the evocative Latin phrase “remember the well amongst the four yews” and the ultimate fate of Mr. Sampson even more ominous. As the writer Sacheverell Sitwell so rightly noted, “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation”.