on December 14, 2005
I realize that no one will probably put out a book to rival the amazing and beautiful _A Pleasing Terror_ put out by Ash-Tree Press several years ago, but Amazon's description of _Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories : The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, Volume 1_ (Penguin Classics) made it out to sound much better than it actually is, since it was listed at being 400 pages long, but is in reality a far slimmer tome of 288 pages. Very disappointing.
The book does have a nice sized font, but suffers from a thin cover (albeit with a great cover illustration), and a bit floppy overall.
The 15 stories included are among the best ghost stories ever written. But with so many book containing the works of M. R. James, I try to be a bit more discerning. This edition is brief and of decent publishing standards.
Introduction by S. T. Joshi
Suggestions for Further Reading
A Note on the Text
Canon Alberic's Scrap Book
"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
A School Story
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance
A Night in King's College Chapel
Preface to Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary
Preface to More Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary
If you want more (More, you say?) M. R. James ghost stories in one volume, you may opt instead for _Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories_ (Oxford World's Classics) (Paperback) ISBN: 0192837737.
It's cheaper, and includes all the stories listed above, as well as:
The Diary of Mr Poynter
An Episode of Cathedral History
The Uncommon Prayer-book
A Neighbour's Landmark
A Warning to the Curious
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
(And it also has the excellent John Atkinson Grimshaw painting on the cover entitled "Where the Pale Moonbeams Linger").
The stories of Mr. James are above reproach; unique in English literature for being subtle and creepy at the same time and shaped by James' knowledge of medieval history, English history, and the occult. The question for the reader is whether they want to pony up [...] for the Penguin annotated editions of James' tales, as the James repertoire is in the public domain and you could read many of these stories for free on the internet and / or get a [...] copy of the "Collected Ghost Stories" from Wordsworth Press and get 30 out of 33 of the stories featured in the two combined Penguin volumes. So the question then is are Joshi's notes and intros worth about [...]?
S.T. Joshi is an immensely gifted editor and critic. His studies of the "Weird Tale" are modern classics in the field, and the immense work he has put into his Lovecraft bio and his annotated Lovecraft volumes are a paradigm. There is no doubt that if Mr. Joshi put the full focus of his attention on working with James' material that he could have easily justified the purchase price for these books. Unfortunately, Joshi, for whatever reasons, just went through the motions here and produced a fairly pedestrian work of annotation and criticism to accompany the text.
Joshi's annotated Lovecraft or annotated Blackwood (also available from Penguin) are superb works of annotation - each story has copious notes explaining themes and background of the work at hand. In approaching James though, Joshi appears dutiful at best or even bored. Many tales here have less than half a dozen bland notes, and many of the notes are nothing more than scutwork, translations and nutshell bios of historical figure mentioned.
This would be fine if James needed no annotation. (But then why buy these books at all?) The true issue is that James' work would indeed benefit from some first grade notes. For instance "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" is a story involving an ambitious clergyman who schemes to murder his inconvenient predecessor who is holding him from a promotion. The career of the sinister cleric has many subtle details that point up James' low opinion of him based on his theology and clerical administration policies.
For a modern reader who is not fully aware of Episcopalian intra-denominational quarrels in the late 19th Century, knowing this info will add a new level of depth and interest to the story. Instead, Joshi tells us none of this and simply translates a few Latin phrases and fleshes out a few Biblical citations, something the ordinary reader with internet access could do on their own with a [...] copy of the stories. In comparison, Joshi's notes in his annotated Lovecraft for "Herbert West Reanimator" (one of the slightest and most pulpy of fictions in the HPL body of work) are far more detailed, engaging, and affectionate.
Now you might say "well who cares about Episcopalian church governance squabbles of the 19th Century?" and indeed the Barchester story works very well even if the reader knows none of the "extrinsic" detail. But yet the entire point of an annotated edition is to add maximum depth and detail to a story for those interested in pursuing such a level of analysis. To provide a minimalist annotation defeats the entire purpose of the endeavor, as the reader may be better served by dispensing with the slight commentary offered and simply reading the work in question cheaply or for free while doing their own cursory research as needed for historical figures, translations, etc.
The problem may be that Joshi is well-known for his postulate that a Christian perspective is incompatible with effective horror writing. Joshi is a rather strident atheist and feels that atheism and similar godless perspective make for the most creative and interesting horror. I see his point, but yet the existence of effective horror by pious men like Hawthorne and Montague Rhodes James acts as a counterpoint to Joshi's thesis. This is not to say that Joshi sets out to sabotage James with lame notes - rather it perhaps shows why Joshi viewed this particular exercise as a bore and a task rather than a pleasure.
I do not wish to psychoanalyze the editor too much; my theory above may be entirely wrong. However, the heart of the matter is that if we compare Joshi's notes and analyses on the stories of the pantheistic Blackwood, the existensialist Lovecraft, or the atheist Ligotti, we see that he has done a much better job than here. Maybe this is due to the fact that he finds these others more personally simpatico, or perhaps he simply finds detailed textual analysis of James to be uninteresting.
In any case, the ultimate answer to the question of whether a reader should purchase these two volumes of James' ghost stories is probably not. The much cheaper Wordsworth edition (though less aesthetically pleasing) will offer all the pleasures of the original text (or 90% of them anyway), the somewhat cheaper Oxford World Classics Edition though offering only 20 or so tales has a far better intro and notes by Michael Cox, and for the ultimate discount, most of these tales are in the public domain and can be tracked down and read for free over the internet. Joshi, though ordinarily adding enough value to an annotated edition to justify a higher price, has fallen down on the job here and given us a bare-bones minimal effort annotation effort.
on June 11, 2007
M.R. James' scholarship in the areas of medieval manuscripts and church history manifest themselves in appreciable ways throughout his many stories. The stories range from definitively supernatural (Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book) to those that really allow you to question the reality of the events described ("'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad'"). James has a wonderful grasp of just how much background story is necessary to create story and character depth, while at the same time establishing a mood conducive to truly spooky and chilling revelations.
Jame's training and knowledge allow him to tap into real history and geography, as well as invent things which seem utterly plausible - the Penguin notes are helpful in circumventing extensive research to determine whether a place is real or not, and what historical relevance there might be for the story. However, those not interested in this may grow tired of the notes and those pursuing studies will find the recommended reading of far more pertinence.
This is a nice, portable introduction to M.R. James' ghost stories and is highly recommended to those that are interested in the gothic and to anyone who enjoys a good short story.
on December 1, 2015
Predictable, pedantic, the opposite of a good "ghost story." I found M.R. James' writing to be severely disappointing. What makes a good ghost story is suspense - and James' stories lack suspense entirely. There is so much unsubtle foreshadowing in each story (James in fact beats you over the head with it) that the reader is left entirely unsurprised, startled or shocked by the climax of the story. Instead, the stories become predictable and even boring. The frightening aspect of each story is apparently supposed to be not suspense or actual terror/fright, but instead the "grotesque" appearance of the given supernatural creature. For one, this makes these stories more creature-features or horror stories than classic "ghost stories" (very disappointing). And, even at that, they don't work - at the very most, the reader ends the story feeling somewhat disturbed (rather than frightened) but more so than not simply bored due to the lackluster writing and anti-climatic endings. M.R. James' writing also cannot escape its overall pompous tones: his writing has a smug, arrogant element that again detracts from his intended purpose of a "ghost story." Overall, M.R. James' ghost stories are extremely disappointing, not frightening, and honestly not even written very well. For a true "ghost story," turn to Henry James, not M.R. James.
on January 9, 2007
M.R. James is one of the masters of Victorian ghost stories. All of them are extremely plausible and none require you to make a leap of faith to accept the premise of the story. The companion volume, Vol. 2 is just as delightful. If you enjoy the ghost stories of Edith Wharton and Arthur Conan Doyle, you'll love this collection. (If you have explored Wharton's and Doyle's ghost stories, you don't know what you're missing). James is undoubtedly one of the masters of Victorian ghostly fiction.
on February 8, 2012
Penguin's annotated edition of Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, representing approximately half the entries of the more comprehensive Collected Ghost Stories, is a fitting introduction to one of the most famous British ghost storytellers. This comes as a bit of a shock when reading the actual stories, however, for their perspective and narrative stylings are almost alien to what you'd find in more contemporary collections, whether these subscribe to the gory cult of horror or the more restrained evocation of suspense.
James' style is a function of his background as much as of his time. Prolific during the first two decades of the 20th century, James was first and foremost a medieval scholar, and highly respected at several posts at Cambridge and Eton. James' medieval research became the foundation for his numerous ghost stories, which he typically shared with family at annual Christmas parties, and which he was eventually persuaded to publish. While James' scholarly work was influential at the time, his reputation today is most closely connected to these published tales of the supernatural.
Above, I described the ghost stories as feeling almost "alien," although this is not the case in terms of subject matter. Cursed artifacts and bloodlines, ghosts and demons, Satanic ritual, and haunted sites were common tropes of ghost stories long before and after James' writing; the actual plots of his stories are, if anything, timeless. It is their perspective, and with it a sort of unexpected rigor, that make these stories most distinctive.
For example, more than 200 years after the early Gothicists outlined a philosophical divide between terror (which withholds unpleasant information) and horror (which revels in its display), most writers of Gothic or horror literature still fall back on one of these two strategies. They share an effectiveness in our close identification with the protagonist, achieved through their emotional vulnerability, a vivid description of their experience, and presumed proximity to the reader's own perception. James is a great fan of nested narrators, and often a story is told by a scholar who has unearthed an account of an investigator who, himself, might be hearing a supernatural tale second-hand. So we are reading an account of an account of an account. In an almost stereotypical display of British "dryness," emotions are suppressed with expressions of politeness and propriety, and seldom break beyond generalized expressions of anxiety, fear, apprehension, or relief. In fact, in most of these stories, we only develop the most rudimentary understanding of any character, and even this is most clearly understood through our aquaintance with their their area of academic specialty. It is, therefore, difficult to empathize with characters, and thus difficult to feel a sensation of "terror" or "horror."
This emotional detachment will be problematic for many modern horror readers, who rely almost by instinctively on an author's ability to evoke fear, and James' work is dated, at least in that it restricts itself to a more intellectual, more ruminatory approach to the supernatural. An underlying strategy is well illustrated in "Casting the Runes," one of the more effective stories (and, incidentally, one of the few with sharply defined characters). In "Runes," a medieval critic and scholar is pitted against an real-life alchemist. The annotations note that this latter figure may have been inspired by Aleister Crowley, the erstwhile Marilyn Manson of his day. Even if this were not the case, there was a deep fascination with the occult among the British upper class at this time, and "Runes" aims to appeal to this fascination far more than to evoke delicious "fear." Thus, James reveals and withholds information about the legitimacy of Karswell's alchemy, and hones in on the symptoms of his curse and Dunning's strategies to escape. Personalities, motivations, and even survival are discussed in an abbreviated way and as a secondary priority.
Which isn't to say that there aren't creepy moments in many stories. "Runes," itself, makes good use of suspense, as does "The Mezzotint," "Number 13," and "Mr. Humphrey's and His Inheritance." As for gristle and gore, there's plenty to be found in "Young Hearts," "Count Magnus," and "Martin's Close." The historical detail and precision which underlies each supernatural mystery is well established, and as a result, these stories unfold as (and can be enjoyed in the same manner as) a puzzle. Even here, you might be able to guess the plot's final destination: after all, James' borrowed tropes that were hundreds of years old, and they have been borrowed again and again down to the present day. But the actual development of the stories are engaging nevertheless.
All things considered, the stories in Count Magnus are not particularly arresting, or mesmerizing, or affecting. They are, however, reliably intriguing... probably best read when you're well-rested, mentally alert, and just as interested in the way a ghost story is structured as in the actual ghosts and their powers.
on September 7, 2006
I fully concur with Mr. Zajac's observation that Penguin shortchanges the reader with this edition of M.R. James' stories of the supernatural. I also agree that the far better edition to purchase is the Oxford World Classics edition. In addition, one can buy an imported (British) complete stories but I wouldn't recommend it as it is an inferior version, in terms of paper quality and overall durability. It is, in a word, a cheap mass market paperback. I noticed, however, that Penguin calls this "The Complete Stories of M.R. James, vol.1," from which I infer that there is the intention to issue another volume. This will address Zajac's point but there is really no reason why Penguin could not compile all his stories in one big volume. After all, it was done by the same publisher in the 1980s. My guess is that Penguin felt it could milk the book-buying public for more money by releasing his collected works in several volumes.
As for the content, I have no qualms with Joshi's erudite annotations. He has, as with the Penguin Lovecraft, Dunsany, and Blackwood volumes, done his usual masterful job. The notes are worth the rating alone if you're of a scholarly bent. If you aren't a fan of footnotes then you probably shouldn't be reading M.R. James to begin with. Better to stick with Dean Koontz or Stephen King.
For several years when she was growing up my daughter and I made a habit of from time to time gathering all the candles we can muster, lighting them, turn off the electrical lights and reading one of the stories in this collection.
What Conan Doyle is to the detective story, James is to the ghost story. These are not horror stories. No gore is to be found, no monsters, no savagery. One can find a subtle horror, a persistent sense that there are things in this world that we have either forgotten or never discovered.
If one has ever engaged in any historical research on the occult (which I have undertaken as an extreme nonbeliever), one will come across several ancient books and manuscripts in the field that were edited by M. R. James. He was not merely the writer of perfect ghost stories; he was an authority in the field of occult beliefs and practices. This concrete grounding accounts for much of the realistic feel to the researches of many of the characters in his stories.
on October 12, 2014
Excellent renditions of M.R. James' ghost stories, read directly from the text by actor Derek Jacobi. Unlike the dramatized versions narrated by Jacobi but presented as radio plays, this is the actual stories without tinkering or changes. (The radio play versions are wretchedly rewritten and don't even hold true to the gist of James' tales).
For those not familiar with M.R. James, his ghost stories are mild and very British. There is not a lot of super scary jump-out style hauntings here and about half are kept deliberately vague but they're excellent spooky tales if you are a fan of turn-of-the-century British stylings and don't require dire deaths and blood in your ghostly tales.
M.R. James' "Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories" is not a simple anthology of classic English ghost stories of the 19th century, but rather a well-researched and annotated compilation of some of most thoughtful stories of the supernatural ever written. Given the changes in language, custom, and style that have elapsed since James penned these tales, the annotation is critical in fully enjoying these great stories, while at the same time providing interesting historical context and appropriate anecdotes. While most all of the stories are similar in tone, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is probably the best known - a haunting tale with frightening imagery that set the baseline for the more visceral horror fiction of the 20th century. And then there's the spooky "The Ash-Tree," and "The Mezzotint" - a theme that has been repeated in contemporary literature and film.
On that note, however, a word of caution: these stories are not the gory, gaudy, "slasher" fright stories of Stephen King or other contemporary writers. Instead, the Victorian version of a ghost story was expectedly more reserved and less sensational, relying on nuance and imagination - with healthy does of ambiguity - than today's works of terror that leave little to the imagination. This is by no means a criticism of modern horror - but if you're expecting Peter Straub's "Ghost Story" or King's "Salem's Lot," you may find the prose and settings a bit boring and the pace at points tedious. Notwithstanding, the ghost story fan will want to read this as fascinating insight into the origins of the genre - insight that is not without spine-tingling moments and a more "civilized" version of terror. Think of the brilliance of Hitchcock, for example, in his ability to produce the mind-numbing fear of "Psycho" in spite of the motion picture rating constraints of the day. M.R. James produces some of these same effects through prose and plotting - a neat collection of entertaining stories that will keep you up late into the night - frightened or otherwise.