Reviews

‘A marvellous entry in this excellent series, one of those books that¬† you have to keep reading but hate to finish. Highly recommended.’ [Stage Fright]

- MYSTERY WOMEN

A masterclass in suspense

Recently rereading one of my favourite M. R. James’s stories, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,’ I realised all over again what a master James is. The story is a lesson in suspense, but there is also so much to enjoy in the tone of the writing and the characterisation.

Dennistoun is a middle-aged don, rather fussy, sceptical, not all inclined to believe in the supernatural. He is exploring a church in the foothill of the Pyrenees and is at a loss to account for the behaviour of the sacristan who is showing him round ¬†– the fellow is unaccountably jumpy – not that Dennistoun tries very hard, engrossed as he is in photographing the architecture of the church. The afternoon wears on: ‘the short day was drawing in, and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises – the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day – seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.’ Though I have read it many times, this still gives me a frisson. We see things from Dennistoun’s point of view and yet we see more than he does, and are well aware that something very unpleasant is coming. As the story unfolds Denniston continues to view sinister events in a rational light, but eventually even he starts to feel uneasy, until back in his room in the inn, ‘his attention was caught by an object lying in the red cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain with their own incalculable quickness. A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black, A large spider? I trust to goodness not – no – ‘

I’ll stop right there, just in case you haven’t read it. I think it is one of the most perfect of the stories, but I also very much like ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ ‘Casting the Runes,’ and ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance.’ It’s one of the signs of a good writer that they are endlessly rereadable and M.R. James has that in spades.

 

11 Comments

  1. Margot Kinberg
    October 16, 2020

    What a great idea for an October post, Christine! There’s something so atmospheric about those sorts of eerie stories, isn’t there? And you shared some fine bits of writing.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      October 16, 2020

      Thanks, Margot! He really is such a good writer and I think that it’s the acid test, when you can go back to something again and again and enjoy it even when you know what is going to happen.

      Reply
  2. tracybham
    October 16, 2020

    My husband enjoys stories by M. R. James. I have always avoided ghost stories but I guess I should try a few of his stories.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      October 16, 2020

      They really are classics, Tracy. I’d be interested to know what you think.

      Reply
      • Todd Mason
        October 17, 2020

        Christine, I imagine you’ve tried such peers and heirs of James as Algernon Blackwood, the Bensons, Robert Aickman, Muriel Spark of course, Avram Davidson, Fritz Leiber, Lisa Tuttle? I noted your diverse citations last week…

        Reply
  3. diana mcdougall
    October 17, 2020

    I discovered wonderful audio versions of the best of the M R James tales. They are read by Michael Hordern , so so well read and atmospheric and freely available on youtube.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      October 18, 2020

      I can imagine that they’d be very good. Michael Horden played the main character in an acclaimed TV adaptation of ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ in the 1960s.

      Reply
  4. Todd Mason
    October 17, 2020

    Christine, I imagine you’ve tried such peers and heirs of James and Algernon Blackwood as the Bensons, Robert Aickman, Muriel Spark of course, Avram Davidson, Fritz Leiber, Lisa Tuttle? I noted your diverse citations last week…

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      October 18, 2020

      Yes, familiar with Aickman, the Bensons, and Spark, but not the last three that you mention. I must follow that up. Thanks!

      Reply
  5. Moira@Clothes in Books
    October 19, 2020

    I’ll have to get this one out and re-read it. I’d forgotten about Casting the Runes, too, which was then made into a marvellous film. I think I might have found a topic for another Friday Fright Night post!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      October 19, 2020

      It is so good in the way it builds up an atmosphere of creeping dread. Yes, a good film of Casting the Runes and an excellent TV adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle . . .’ starring Michael Hordes.

      Reply

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