And Speaking of Supernatural Fiction: M. R. James

Last night I picked up once again Ghost Stories of an Antiquary on of M. R. James's books dedicated to the stories written for and shared during various Christmas gatherings.  And once again, I was caught up in the hands of a master.  I do not usually review an individual story, but the first of the tales--"Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" reminds me of all the reasons why James is at the very top of my list for those writing supernatural fiction and ghost stories. 

Most of James's stories are unclassifiable.  Is "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" a ghost story?  Perhaps.  Is it a piece of supernatural fiction?  Undoubtedly, but that is almost as helpful a description as saying that it is a short story. Is it a "horror" story--undoubtedly it has its horrors, but in the class of Lovecraft and King, no.

"Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" traces the journey of a man interested in old churches and old manuscripts to a village somewhere in France.  At this village he meets with a "sacristan" of an old Church who has in his possession a remarkable scrapbook that contains all manner of interesting bits and pieces from Ancient Bibles and Christian writings and, well, something else. 

What is remarkable about the story is the almost sleight-of-hand ability James has to build atmosphere and to create an interesting and, yes, haunting story from the merest scraps of incident.  I came away from the story more "spooked" than I have been in many a year.  And the terror of the thing lingers with me--not in a look over your shoulder sort of way, but in a more subtle, chilling way--a way I would describe as delectable.

M.R. James did not make the transition to the big screen in any significant way.  However, except for the very ending, foisted on him by the studio, Jacques Tourneur's remarkable version of "Casting the Runes" is completely faithful to the story.  Do yourself a favor and see if you can find Night of the Demon (a.k.a. Curse of the Demon) for viewing sometime this month.  It nicely expresses in cinematic form what James does so remarkably well in writing.  And while you're at it, pick up Ghost Stories of an Antiquary or one of its sundry related books.  "The Mezzotint" will be familiar to anyone who recalls the old Night Gallery series, and both "Count Magnus" and "'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" are worth the price of admission.  Given that you can get these easily in e-book form all over the web--admission need not be pricey.


  1. Steven,

    Thanks for the information about the films. I wasn't aware that any had been made of MR James' stories.

    I've read both the "Canon" and "Whistle" and thought they were excellent, especially Whistle.


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