Halloween Fright Reads: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James

For our Halloween Fright month, I put out feelers for reviews of some classic creepy horror.  This guest post comes for Pat Woods, a Englishman who now lives in Taiwan.  He is a member of Taipei Writer's Group taipeiwritersgroup.wordpress.com

M.R. James (1862-1936) was a English scholar known for his ghost stories. James was an antiquarian with an interest and an expertise in all things medieval. Many of these stories were devised to tell his friends. In his own words, his aim was to "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'"  

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is classic horror, without blood, gore, monsters or dark forests; tales that disturb as well as frighten.  James’s characters are often scholars, churchmen, or well-to-do types, and subjects range ranging from haunted places or persons, devil-worship, witch trials, and mysterious items of arcane origin. They are set in late Victorian/early Edwardian era, or older periods of history. (“Martin’s Close,” involves a centuries-old trial.)  The stories seldom explain the horror, though some (“The Ash-Tree,” “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”) attempt this.

“Number 13,” in which circumstances progress from bizarre to terrifying at a great pace. 
“The Ash Tree” will make an arachnophobe’s skin crawl.
 “The Tractate Middoth,” has an ending that provides the biggest “shock” of the collections.

James had a tradition of reading these stories aloud at King’s College, Cambridge—and that’s the best way to introduce yourself.  I fortunately encountered James through BBC adaptations: Sir Christopher Lee reading sold me on how James’s stories should be presented.  If you like classic ghost stories, you’ll enjoy them—even better, get audiobook versions.

Find Pat's stories in these anthologies:

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