Hallowe’en Reads: M.R James – Collected Ghost Stories

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… Continue reading