I’ve always thought that short stories were an excellent medium for the horror genre. Often things are creepier when they’re more mysterious and in these stories, M. R. James follows this philosophy perfectly. Each one gives you just enough information that you know something spooky is happening and you have clues laying around to put together and come to conclusions of your own, but a lot of things remain shrouded in mystery. Some of the following stories are rather frightening, while one or two fall a bit flat. Interestingly, there’s a dark sense of humour which seems to run through a few of them too. Anyway, here are my thoughts on each of his stories:
Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook
The first story in the anthology gets things off to a good start. A man called Dennistoun (a pseudonym) comes to study an old church in a small French town. The people he meets are all very nervous about something and he soon finds a creepy old scrapbook. I felt uneasy throughout – a great ghost story.
A young orphan named Stephen Elliott is adopted by his eccentric cousin Mr. Abney and lives with him in his secluded country home. Befriending the housekeeper Mrs. Bunch, he discovers that he’s actually the third child to be adopted by Abney, with the other two having gone missing. Things get very sinister in this one towards the end. A dark tale indeed.
A man comes into possession of a print of a house. At first it doesn’t seem too interesting – though later he looks at it and realises that there’s a person in the picture too. Later he looks again and they’re in a different position. Not quite as creepy as the previous two, I didn’t think, but an interesting and mysterious tale nonetheless.
The Ash Tree
In the past, a woman is executed for being a witch – a dreadful occasion. Later, the man who condemned her dies mysteriously. Did she somehow kill him from beyond the grave? Things get fairly creepy towards the end, but I was somewhat torn about how I felt with James’ depiction of the witch trials and their victims. It felt a touch insensitive.
This was a really good one. A man stays in a hotel and sees that they don’t have a listing for room 13, but instead go from 12 to 14. But then, despite its apparent non-existence, he finds it in the corridor and hears strange sounds coming from within. Very clever and a real spine tingler!
A man visits a small town in Sweden in order to write a travel guide to the area. While there, he finds information about a mysterious and ruthless man, Count Magnus, who used to live there. I can’t really tell you anything without spoiling it and ruining the tension, but I found this one the most disturbing so far, in my journey through the book.
‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
A rational man who does not believe in ghosts agrees to check out an old ruin by the sea for someone while on holiday. As I’m sure you can guess, he has experiences which cause him to doubt his disbelief in ghosts! This one is more of a slow build than the others and the finale is pretty darn scary.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
This is one which I wouldn’t say is necessarily creepy and tense all the way through, but has a nice sense of mystery about it. A man named Mr. Somerton starts searching for the supposed lost treasure of the long dead Abbot Thomas. I really like it’s ending and thought it was appropriately spooky.
A School Story
This one was noticeably more simple than the ones which went before it and I suppose it did feel a bit weaker because of it – nonetheless, it is still a pretty scary story and I felt it was quite a bit darker than the other stories in that it focused on school boys, rather than adults.
The Rose Garden
A couple who have recently purchased a new property are keen to put a rose garden in place in certain spot in the grounds. Unfortunately, treading into that area results in people suffering from horrible nightmares. A dark history surrounding the patch of ground is soon discovered. Not quite as scary as the others, but still pretty good.
The Tractate Middoth
This was a bit of a weird one, I thought. It starts with a creepy encounter in a library with a mysterious figure taking the book somebody is looking for, but then disappearing without trace. It then ties into a bizarre family history, which involved a comically bitter old man. It certainly wasn’t a boring read, but not exactly the frightening tale some of the others were.
Casting the Runes
After a string of stories which I felt weren’t quite as good as the rest, I was really pleased with this one. A man submits a paper on witchcraft and it is dismissed by an expert from the British Museum. It soon becomes apparent that the author of the paper is tracking down the man who dismissed it. This one was a bit longer, but it had the perfect amount of mysterious and unnerving goings on. One of the best.
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
This one didn’t stand out to me particularly. It involves some mysterious deaths with suggested supernatural involvement and, admittedly, it is a bit creepy at times, but overall, despite being one of the longer ones in the collection, it was also one of the least memorable.
I really enjoyed this one. It’s very different in that it is mostly told as a transcript from a trial held hundreds of years ago, in which a man (George Martin) is accused of murdering a young woman (Ann Clark). What sets this apart from the others, is that I was much more invested in the characters and felt that they were developed to a greater extent than those in the other stories, who felt more like they were just there to experience something ghostly.
Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance
Mr Humphreys inherits a country estate from his recently deceased uncle. This estate includes a large, neglected hedge maze with a dark history. As someone who quite likes hedge mazes and appreciates their capacity to be quite creepy, I really enjoyed this one.
The Residence at Whitminster
This story tells of two creepy instances happening in the lives of people living in an estate at Whitminster at two different points in history. Unfortunately, this was another which failed to leave very much of an impression on me.
The Diary of Mr Poynter
A man named James Denton comes into possession of an old diary which, of course, once belonged to a man named Mr Poynter. Inside, there’s a piece of paper with a very weird design on it. What I liked about this particular story was that it was more mysterious than some of the others and what happens in the end is really bizarre and suitably frightening.
An Episode of Cathedral History
M. R. James hated it when people modernised or changed ancient churches and cathedrals. This comes across heavily in all of the stories. This one is almost darkly comical in the way that he punishes characters for the sin of a modernised refurbishment.
The story tells the tale of two doctors – one interested in the occult, one against it. One of them dies and the other is implicated in their murder. Unfortunately, this was another which fell short for me. I felt that Martin’s Close was a much better story centred around a murder.
The Haunted Dolls’ House
Endearingly, this story ends with an apology from James, saying that it’s basically the same idea as The Mezzotint – I disagree with that. In it, somebody comes into possession of a creepy dolls house… the dolls within seem to enact a very distressing story. A short one, but a good one. I may even consider it better than The Mezzotint.
The Uncommon Prayer-Book
A man named Davidson finds out a set of antique prayer-books which are very atypical and potentially highly valuable… but they seem to have a dark history behind them. I was pretty satisfied with how this one played out.
A Neighbour’s Landmark
A fairly straight forward ghost story about a haunted wood, with the ghostly activity the result of an injustice in the past. It works pretty well and I enjoyed it, with some fairly frightening moments.
A View from a Hill
This is more of an unusual one and I appreciated it for its originality. A young man looks through an old pair of binoculars and sees things on the horizon which don’t align with what he can see without them and what others know of the landscape. He soon finds that those binoculars have a strange history attached to them…
A Warning to the Curious
This was one of my favourite in the collection. It’s about a legend surrounding three crowns hidden around a coastal area which supposedly keep the country safe from foreign invaders. Naturally, a young academic ends up investigating this and looking for the crowns. I can’t really talk about it without spoiling anything, but it had a lot of very creepy moments which worked well.
An Evening’s Entertainment
This story takes a somewhat unusual format: it’s essentially a transcript of people telling stories around the fire place late at night. I enjoyed this quite a lot. The story it tells is a tragic one and features what has been speculated to be a romantic/sexual relationship between two men. It certainly makes sense to read the characters like that and I thought it made for an interesting read.
There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard
This story rather cleverly ties into The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare in that James completes a ghost story which begins to be told within the play and is never finished. Though the story is a relatively basic one, I did enjoy the concept behind it and it’s short enough to not outstay its welcome.
This was one of the slightly shorter stories, but it did a good job of packing a nice spooking punch. A man goes to stay in an isolated inn and finds something very strange in one of the rooms – perhaps rats scurrying under the sheet of a bed? I quite liked its conclusion.
After Dark in the Playing Fields
This was a strange one, certainly the most absurd in the collection. A man encounters a talking owl while out on a night walk. They bicker with one another and it’s pretty funny… though the very ending may just send a chill down your spine.
The last story in the collection is one of my favourites, so it’s nice that ends with a bang, so to speak. This is another of the darkly comic ones, with the main character being a trouble making school boy who wants to investigate an old haunted well (even though everyone tells him not to). The ‘ghost’ of this story is definitely the creepiest one and it’s ending is really dark.
After the last story, James also talks a little about some story ideas he had, but couldn’t ever finish, which are interesting to read. Overall, there are some fantastic stories in this collection. Having read them all, a few thoughts I have on his work on the whole are that he never really features women in his stories (they have tiny roles, if they’re in it at all) and practically all of his main characters feel like exactly the same person (a naïve academic looking to investigate historic mysteries or curiosities) and when I read them all consecutively, I did somewhat wish there was more variety, though in isolation it’s not a problem with any individual story. It is also noticeable to me that his longer stories (the ones around 20 pages long) tend to drag a bit and he’s at his best when he sticks to 10 pages or less. Nonetheless there are exceptions to all of these points and, on the whole, I consider this a collection of some high quality short stories and I can recommend it to any fans of horror!