IF THE test of a good ghost story is that, in a well-lit, centrally heated room, it can send a shiver up the reader’s spine, then M R James’s small, odd collection of stories continues to pass the test.
It is more than 100 years since Montague Rhodes James began to gather a select group of friends and scholars in the Provost’s Room of King’s College, Cambridge, at Christmas and read ghost stories to them. The stories themselves were set some time before that. In the closest he came to articulating his method, he wrote: “For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago,’ ‘Not long before the war,’ are very proper openings.”
In that hazy, near past, James creates a fictional world as narrow as it is distinctive. All-male institutions, especially schools and colleges, feature largely. Antiquarian books are sources of both pleasure and threat. Boarding houses and seaside hotels threaten the equilibrium of visiting scholars who will find themselves threatened by disturbed bedsheets.
The first collection of James’s ghost stories appeared five years after the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation Of Dreams, but before its techniques had been fully absorbed into the culture. Only a pre-Freudian innocence could allow James to write tales like A School Story, in which two schoolboys spy a figure crouched on the windowsill of their classics master’s bedroom, “beckoning”. The teacher disappears that night, but 30 years later, a disused well on the grounds is discovered to contain two entwined skeletons: “One body had the arms tight round the other.”
In Casting the Runes, Dunning reaches under the bedclothes and, to his horror, feels his fingers brush against “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it”. What exactly was the bachelor don afraid of?
But James’s stories are much more than suppressed tales of sexual fear and longing. In little more than 30 short stories he delineates a distinctive world in which scholarly certainties are shaken by implacable spirits.
Darryl Jones’s edition of the Collected Stories offers some useful biographical background to James, and explores the connections between his anti-systematising intellect (and his misogyny) and the stories themselves. But it is the tales one keeps coming back to, with their odd subdued atmospheres and the pervasive sense that we are not quite being told the whole story. They remain what they always were, a chilling treat, and not only for Christmas.
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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