Like humour, horror doesn’t always age well. What we find scary can change over time, largely because surprise is usually one of the main elements of horror. If something comes out of nowhere, and we don’t understand it and could never expect it, it’s scary. The first time we hear of a vampire, and read about them or see them, it’s a terrifying idea. But with repetition, it becomes known. We know what vampires do, know all the rules. So either you need to play around with people’s expectations about vampires, or you do something else.
You can this effect with lots of older ghost stories. I remember quite a few years ago buying an anthology of Victorian ghost stories, and giving up on it after a while. Some of the stories were interesting and undoubtedly well-written, but none of them was scary. Usually they involved someone staying at an old house reading about some old murder, or seeing someone they don’t recognise around the house. Then at the end they see a ghost and that’s it! Just featuring a ghost was novelty enough to shock readers, especially because most of the stories wouldn’t have been initially presented as ghost stories.
So when I picked up a cheap second-hand copy of M.R James’ Collected Ghost Stories, I wasn’t expecting too much from them. Mostly written in the first 25 years of the 20th century, I thought they would simply be far too polite and gentle to be scary. And beginning the first story, my assumption seemed to be confirmed. Most of his stories involved awkward academics puttering around quaint English villages, searching for old ecclesiastical manuscripts. And yet…
Once I got to the end of that first story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” I was left with a feeling of unease. There was no ghost, but something less-defined, less visible, but at the same time much more sinister and tangible. Most of the other stories made a similar impression. What is it that sets James’ stories apart from superficially similar but much tamer stories? Mainly it’s his realism.
The main expression of this is in the characters and settings. His protagonists are vulnerable and perfectly ordinary, entirely unequipped to deal with the horrors they encounter. And they inhabit perfectly ordinary places, often English seaside towns or country villages. Quaint, entirely pleasant little places which only make the horror more terrifying by contrast. It makes it more real too. You’d be disappointed if you went to a crumbling Wallachian castle and didn’t meet a vampire. But it’s hard to imagine oneself in such a situation, so there’s a distance between the reader and the horror in such a situation. But it’s a lot easier and a lot less comfortable to imagine some ancient horror slithering around a vicarage in an English village. Many of his stories see something from England’s ancient, pre Anglo-Saxon past re-emerge into the present, serving as an unsettling reminder of all the ancient bloodshed and horror under the surface of modern civilisation.
This sense of realism is also evident in the horrors themselves. I’ve deliberately avoided referring to ghosts, because really, James’ stories are mislabelled by being called ghost stories. Very few of them feature ghosts: instead, they feature… things. We actually don’t really see them, in most of the stories. We hear about them second-hand, or get fleeting glimpses of them. In one story we don’t see the horrible thing at all, but can imagine it by all the hints we’ve had about it throughout the story. And then at the end we read about someone horrifically killed by it, his body discovered on the beach in the morning. Putting that encounter together in our minds is so much more frightening than if James were to describe it in detail. Your imagination is always going to be the best creator of monsters. And I imagine if there were really were awful creatures haunting the English countryside, this is mainly how we’d know of them: dead broken bodies on the beach, and shapes crossing cemeteries in the dead of night, glimpsed from bedroom windows. When people do get close to the monsters, what really strikes me is how tangible are. When they’re briefly seen (or in a couple of awful moments, touched) they’re solid, slimy things, much more real and deadly than the spectre of a Victorian lady.
I haven’t picked out any particular stories, because I can’t think of any I didn’t like. But if I had to recommend only a few I’d suggest “The Mezzotint,” “‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,'” “A Warning to the Curious,” “The Ash Tree,” “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” and “An Episode of Cathedral History.”
James’ influence on horror has continued long after his death. His story “The Casting of the Runes,” provided the basic story for two very different but equally excellent horror films: Night of the Demon (1957), and Drag Me to Hell (2009). Many of his stories were also adapted by the BBC in the 1960s and 70s, usually for the annual A Ghost Story for Christmas (appropriately enough: James intended for his stories to be read round the fireplace at Christmas, and their sense of gentility and unknowable horror in the dark suit the situation perfectly). In recent years the BBC have revived this tradition, using some of James’ stories like “Number 13” and “The Tractate Middoth,” but someone they seem too glossy to be scary, unlike the older more barebones filmed-on-location episodes. The best-known is probably Whistle and I’ll Come to You (makes sense to shorten the title for TV listings), which really captures the tone of James’ stories.
As it’s Hallowe’en tomorrow, this is last Hallowe’en Reads post, but before I finish I’d like to share some honourable mentions that almost made the list:
Ghost Story (Peter Straub): an excellent, very scary novel. I think the only reason I didn’t include it is because it’s fairly traditional so I didn’t have too much of interest to say about it. I highly recommend it though.
Pet Sematary (Stephen King): a quite terrifying book, and while it does feature some very scary traditional horror elements, much of what makes it so disturbing is from its realistic elements. And they’re quite disturbing, and I’m not sure I fancied reminding myself about them.
“One of the Missing:” (Ambrose Bierce): Though Bierce is best known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” and The Devil’s Dictionary, this story stayed with me for its unusual style and narration (a Union soldier in the American Civil War is trapped under his debris with his gun primed and pointed at him, ready to go off at any moment), and features an ending which makes you look back at the story, with things still not quite adding up. Not really a horror story, but eerie and haunting.
If I haven’t included any of your favourite stories in this series, let me know about them in the comments!