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Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics) Paperback – March 15, 2009
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"Magnificently, authoritatively edited and annotated."--David Gorman, Northern Illinois University
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
M.R. James was one of the most accomplished scholars of his generation, a brilliant, internationally known authority on early Christian manuscripts. He was in turn a Fellow, Dean, and Provost of Kings College, Cambridge, and then finally the Provost of Eton, where he died a much-loved and revered figure in 1936. Michael Cox is a senior commissioning editor with Oxford University Press.
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Acknowledgements, Introduction, Note on the Text, Select Bibliography, M.R. James Chronology
Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book
'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'
The Treasure of Abbott Thomas
A School Story
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance
The Diary of Mr. Pointer
An Episode of Cathedral History
The Uncommon Prayer-book
A Neighbor's Landmark
A Warning to the Curious
The Malice of Inanimate Objects
Explanatory Notes, Appendix: M.R. James on Ghost Stories
It seems that a certain patience is required to read the stories of M.R. James. He’s from another time; it takes awhile to fall into the scholarly cadence of his words. Historical references to places abound, as well as quotes from dusty literature, long outdated to the modern reader, but their obscurities are addressed in the back section of the book, a coatroom of sorts, as well as the translation of Latin phrases, of which there are many. These anchors into the past can be ignored, I suppose, and one can just blast through the stories without reading the endnotes, but anchors imply depth, why not see what they’re holding?
These are ghost stories. The horrors tend to start out as being invisible, and then, if only for a moment, they assume a physical reality. The use of eerie atmosphere is prominent: Candles and shadows, lone occupants in old houses, voices from curtains, old portraits on walls, at least one haunted well, ancient books and manuscripts, windows that creak open by themselves, cobwebs, hideous hands that reach out from dark places, statues that come to life, and neglected mausoleums to name only some. The sense of being cut off and alone is a repeated theme…neighbors and acquaintances there are, but they remain remote, and have a way of drifting away into the dusk, or disappearing at candle time to other rooms along dark corridors. They drink a lot of tea in these stories. Maybe that’s a good way to break the tension.
Best story? The Mezzotint, where a picture keeps changing.
Other good ones are Number13, where room 13 isn’t there, then it is, then it isn’t. Rooms 12 and 14 seem to get smaller at night.
Count Magnus, where three padlocks on a coffin are found undone on each visit to a mausoleum, one by one.
And Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance, where we enter a maze on an old estate.
Rats is another good one. What’s locked in that room?
There are no bad ones actually; they’re all good.
The book also contains an informative introduction on the writings of M.R. James, extensive explanatory notes, and lastly, in the
appendix, the author explains his own style of writing, and also gives his opinion of other writers of weird tales, such as Algernon Blackwood. This last section is a nice bonus.
The following stories are included in this book:
"Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"--The classical MRJ invocation of a scholar who unwittingly opens the wrong book and pays horribly for his misadventure.
"The Mezzotint"--A collector of topographical pictures purchases a mezzotint with a view of a manor-house from the early part of the eighteenth century. The picture slowly evolves through a story of murder and revenge from beyond the grave.
"Number 13"--A scholar settles into a Danish hotel to research the town's ecclesiastical history and learns more than he ever wanted to know about a bishop who sold his soul to Satan.
"Count Magnus"-- Another story (along with "Number 13") that may have had its origin in MRJ's trips to Scandinavia. Mr. Wraxall, the scholarly hero of this tale dooms himself by reading a forbidden treatise of alchemy and expressing a wish to meet its long-dead (or not so dead) Swedish author.
"'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'"-- A Professor takes a golfing vacation on England's East Coast, and agrees to take a look at the site of an ancient Templars' preceptory for an archeologically-inclined friend of his. He finds a whistle inscribed in medieval Latin.
"The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"-- Mr. Somerton deciphers a text from a medieval Latin history and an inscription in the painted-glass window of a private chapel, then goes on a treasure hunt in Germany.
"A School Story"-- MRJ was a dean at King's College, Cambridge and he supposedly wrote this story to entertain the King's College Choir. In this tale two middle-aged men are reminiscing about ghosts at boys' schools, and one relates a story of a schoolboy's revenge on a murderous master.
"The Rose Garden"-- Features one of MRJ's less sympathetic female characters. The overbearing Mrs. Anstruther gets her supernatural comeuppance when she insists upon the removal of an old oak post in the rose garden.
"The Tractate Middoth"-- The young Mr. Garrett is asked to find a copy of the "Tractate Middoth" in a "certain famous library" and stumbles upon a cobwebby mystery. Find yourself a quiet, unpopulated corner in the stacks of an old library and see if you can read this story without looking behind you.
"Casting the Runes"-- One of MRJ's most collected stories along with "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." This is a tale of a man who unwittingly angers a sorcerer, who is assumed by some Monty scholars to be based on the self-styled 'Great Beast,' occultist Aleister Crowley.
"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral"-- The Venerable John Benwell Haynes succeeds to his new ecclesiastical position upon the mysterious demise of Archdeacon Pulteney in 1810, but does not find much enjoyment in his new job. In fact, the archdeacon's stall with its carvings of a cat, the King of Hell, and Death becomes a particularly haunting spot for the new prelate.
"Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"-- Once installed as the new master of his deceased uncle's estate, Mr. Humphreys discovers the plan to an overgrown maze on his property. He decides to investigate the old landscaping feature after stumbling across a set of stone blocks that were once part of the maze. He reconstructs the inscription on them to read: "Penetrans Ad Interior Mortis."
"The Diary of Mr Poynter"--A book collector finds a sample of fabric in an old diary and decides to have it reproduced as curtains for his bedroom.
"An Episode of Cathedral History"--Mr. Lake is deputed to examine the archives of the Cathedral of Southminster, and is curious to see what the ancient building looks like at night. He hears the tale of a rather plain altar-tomb and what transpired when a Victorian Dean attempted to move it.
"The Uncommon Prayer-book"-- Mr. Davidson strikes up a conversation with an old gentleman on a train and is invited to view a disused Chapel. MRJ engulfs his reader in quaint British dialects in this story of a prayer book that would not stay shut.
"A Neighbour's Landmark"-- A gentleman spends a wet August afternoon in his host's library and discovers an old pamphlet with two lines from a country song, "That which walks in Betton Wood/ Knows why it walks or why it cries." When the weather clears, he explores the part of his friend's property that used to be called 'Betton Wood.'
"A Warning to the Curious"--A young man discovers the hiding place of an ancient crown of East Anglia and is haunted by his finding. As in many of MRJ's stories, curiosity is severely punished.
"Rats"--This story almost ruined quaint English inns for me. It has nothing to do with rats and you will wish that it had.
"The Experiment"-- First published in "The Morning Post" in 1931 and uncollected in MRJ's lifetime. A horrid little tale of murder and buried treasure.
"The Malice of Inanimate Objects"--Morbidly humorous story that starts out with the retelling of a fairy tale and ends in death.
"A Vignette"-- This might be a childhood recollection rather than a work of fiction. It has no plot and the setting very much resembles the rectory at Livermere Park where MRJ grew up.