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 $20 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 $6 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 $14?
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 $6 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 with James to that 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 October 21, 2012
The British love their countryman M. R. James (1862-1936), the Medieval scholar who is today most remembered for his supernatural tales, which he wrote and published over a period of twenty-five years; Fortean Times, a reputable magazine dedicated to "the world of strange phenomena," recently dedicated a cover story to the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of James' birth.
James is held in considerably higher esteem than Englishman Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) or the Welsh Arthur Machen (1863-1947), both of whom also wrote numerous relatively well-regarded 'literary' stories of the paranormal.
James' standing as an academic and as provost of King's College, Cambridge probably has a lot to do with his fairly lofty literary reputation in comparison to Blackwood and Machen, both of whom who lived externally ordinary lives and suffered through multiple periods of hardship and poverty. Which is to say that the British class system has certainly played a role in maintaining James' reputation over the decades.
But Blackwood's and Machen's stories were also romances which arose directly out of the Romantic tradition inaugurated by William Blake (1757-1827) and the work of later, less important writers of the fantastic, like Scotsman George MacDonald (1824-1905).
Blackwood loved nature, and many of his supernatural agents, whether literal 'snow maidens,' werewolves, wendigos, trouble-making fairies, ambulatory trees, or 'cat people,' seemed to spring directly from it, while Machen seemed deeply distrustful of all aspects of living: time, space, history, science, race, and nature were all troublesome for him: for example, his 'fairies' are revealed in several stories not to be supernatural creatures at all, but one or more races of extremely primitive cannibal 'dwarves' surviving in wilderness areas throughout the British Isles.
Due to Blackwood's engagement with life, his tales usually reveal a corresponding sense of awe and wonder, no matter how dire the climax, while Machen's stories often leave their readers with a sense of grim revulsion (especially his most notorious tale, 'The Great God Pan' of 1890, in which a woman is corrupted and possessed by the spirit of the ancient Greek god, which erupts from within her during intimate moments and rapes unsuspecting male suitors, which in turn leads them to commit suicide).
Despite the presence of middle-aged antiquarian proto-protagonists, ancient manuscripts, and isolated, mouldering estates, ruins, and castles, the stories of M. R. James found in 'Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories' (2005) and 'The Haunted Doll's House and Other Ghost Stories' (2006) are definitely not romances.
James' stories are dry, clipped, rational, workaday, and far more like standard late-Victorian detective stories or reportage than the terror tales of Edgar Allan Poe, Blackwood, or Machen. Something of namesake Henry James' style predominates, though M. R. James' style is flatter and far less ornate all around. There is little if any attempt at mood or tonal foreshadowing; the only foreshadowing comes from the 'practical' facts of the narrative as presented.
Thus, it is no wonder that many readers do not find James' stories frightening, engrossing, or awe-inspiring, despite their lofty reputation.
Most of his fiction includes a purposefully-banal accumulation of 'facts,' a sliver-thin hint of a threat, a broad mystery of some kind, and then what today might be called 'the reveal' (or 'the big reveal'), in which a 'hideous' image is usually thrust forward at the protagonist and the reader and then just as quickly withdrawn.
In 'The Rose Garden,' for example, a mature woman resting in the garden of her large estate (where several very minor 'unusual' events have been reported) notices what she first believes to be a mask protruding from the shrubbery: "It was not a mask. It was a face--large, smooth, and pink...minute drops of perspiration were starting from its forehead...the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut...the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip...as she looked the face receded into the darkness of the bush."
In 'Count Magnus,' the 'reveal' serves up two hooded figures stalking the protagonist, one tall and the other short, the shorter eventually accidentally revealing the tentacles it hides beneath its cloak. The reader never learns anything more about the creature than that; the larger figure is the title character, risen from his grave.
In 'Casting the Runes,' probably the most famous of James' stories (and the basis for the 1957 Jacques Tourneur classic, 'Night of the Demon,' known as 'Curse of the Demon' in America), the apparition in question is a squat, toad-like creature conjured up by a demonologist's spell; one of the characters finds it under a pillow in his home after the lights have inexplicably gone out.
Since the monster is at least as big as a child, what the monster is doing under "a pillow" is anyone's guess (there is no mention of a bed or a sofa), but such 'blankly dropped into the narrative' incidents are common in James, who seems to have enjoyed offering his audience puzzles with important pieces missing.
Whether readers will find James' exceedingly reductive stories frightening, intriguing, or absorbing on any level will depend on the individual in question. Those who do not should seek out Blackwood and Machen for work they will probably find to be more satisfying fair.
James chose to write 'fantastic' stories, but didn't seem to enjoy his own imagination. Few writers, at any time or of any period, seemed to adhere to the 'less is more' credo as strictly as M. R. James did.