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Because what the Net really needs is another person sharing his uninformed views
Book review: Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James 
22nd-Jan-2011 04:01 pm
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Like I did last Halloween, I thought I'd be seasonal with my reading over Christmas as well this year and go for a book of ghost stories, and after Dickens M.R. James is probably the writer most closely associated with Christmas ghost stories (although the actual stories tend not to be set anywhere near that season, James' preference being for spooky things to happen to perfectly nondescript people on what seems to be an unremarkable day.) This being a complete edition of his stories it included all four of his collections so it took me well into January to finish them all but although I didn't find them scary I enjoyed most of them. A lot of the stories feature old books or objects that call up the past, although in the earlier stories especially they tend to feature demons (hence the nippley avatar - eh, any excuse) rather than ghosts, sinister figures from the past having apparently set fearsome hairy creatures to attack anyone who disturbed their stuff, instead of sticking around in spirit to do the job themselves. The most famous story is "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," which is much better than the convoluted new TV adaptation of it that aired last month (and which, unlike the new version, actually has a whistle in it) but there's a lot of other strong ones as well - "A Warning to the Curious" shares "Whistle"'s conceit of putting some of the spookier scenes on a beach in daylight where readers might have normally expected to be safe.

Other stories that stood out to me included a satanic Punch and Judy show in "The Story of an Disappearance and an Appearance," a treasure hunt from beyond the grave in "The Tractate Middoth" and my favourite was "Number 13" in which a hotel room gets smaller every night to accomodate a new, phantom room next door - a story I found creepy despite it reminding me of an episode of Black Books. James is fond of framing devices, and a couple of the stories challenge the Sandman issue "Cerements" for having the most narratives-within-a-narrative-within-a-narrative. There's quite a few glimpses of unexpected humour as well, especially as the book goes on - one story, "A Neighbour's Landmark," opens in particularly florid, Dickensian fashion, only for the narrator to be interrupted by his listener who complains about the scene-setting being too Victorian. It might have taken me a while to get through them but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy these stories.
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