Sunday, January 15, 2023

Horror Stories of M. R. James

Most horror fans have probably come across the classic ghost stories of M. R. James (1865-1936). Some of the most often anthologized pieces first appeared in his GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY. Several more comprehensive collections of James's fiction are in print; I recommend CASTING THE RUNES AND OTHER GHOST STORIES, published by the Oxford University Press, which features a detailed introduction as well as twenty-one stories. Many of them focus on antiquarian characters and take place in ecclesiastical or other ancient settings. "Casting the Runes," an account of supernatural vengeance by a decidedly nasty expert in the occult who puts his research into practical application, culminates in the persecuted victim's being stalked by a creature the villain conjures up. Unlike many horror fiction protagonists, the victim manages to turn the curse back on the occultist. The protagonist of another well-known classic in this volume, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad," comes into possession of an antique whistle with a Latin inscription translated as, "Who is this that is coming?" The protagonist playfully decides to find out by blowing the whistle. A huge mistake, as any genre-savvy reader would know. In "The Mezzotint," a sinister figure in a picture begins to move whenever not being watched. The picture's owner, as one would expect, falls victim to a mysterious death. All these entities are especially terrifying because of their amorphous, essentially inhuman character.

Strangely, this book doesn't include "Lost Hearts," which I consider the author's creepiest and yet saddest story. An eleven-year-old orphan comes to live with his wealthy, reclusive cousin, a scholar of the occult. Unexplained sounds in the cellar and scratches on doors puzzle the boy until one night when he catches sight of a pair of ghostly children, mournful and "hungry," with gaping holes in their chests. The wicked cousin is found dead with a similar wound. This tale displays vampire-related motifs, since the villain's goal was to extend his life by using the hearts of his victims in a dark ritual, and the child revenants prey on him in turn. "Lost Hearts" appears in GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY, sold on Amazon in several editions and free to read on the Project Gutenberg website:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

CASTING THE RUNES AND OTHER GHOST STORIES includes James's two best-known vampire stories, "Count Magnus" and "An Episode of Cathedral History." The protagonist of "Count Magnus," an English traveler doing research for a book, comes upon the tomb of the title character in Sweden. Count Magnus de la Gardie, notorious for his cruelty, was rumored to have delved into dark magic and made the "Black Pilgrimage" in a quest for means of prolonging his life. Upon visiting his mausoleum, the protagonist idly remarks, "Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you." In another cautionary tale (like "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad") on the theme of "Be careful what you wish for," over the next few days the three padlocks securing the coffin lid fall off. The Englishman flees from two sinister figures that appear to pursue him, until at last he meets a grisly death.

"An Episode of Cathedral History" features a more overtly vampiric revenant. A frame narrative introduces a flashback story an old man tells about the "episode" that happened when he was a boy in 1840. During a renovation of the cathedral in the title, an anonymous, centuries-old tomb incurs minor damage. A gradual buildup toward the revelation of the supernatural menace follows, with strange noises and other hints of something stirring inside the monument. At the climax, we get a glimpse of a dark thing emerging from the tomb, with "a mass of hair and two legs, and the light caught on its eyes." This understated but chilling moment leads into the final line of the story, an inscription on the cross affixed to the accursed site: "Ibi Cubavit Lamia." A lamia, of course, is a type of vampiric female demon in classical mythology.

James also wrote a tale of spectral vampires, "Wailing Well," not included in this collection. It recounts the fate of a boy who defiantly trespasses on a forbidden patch of land with the titular well at the center. Four ghostly entities, described as "hideous black" figures that look barely human, haunt the spot. Desperate attempts to save the boy fail, with the would-be rescuers blocked by the unnatural atmosphere of the place. Too late, the victim's body is recovered, drained of blood, and thereafter five ghastly creatures lurk at the well. You can read it here:

Wailing Well

James's work epitomizes "quiet horror," nevertheless slowly building to no less frightful climaxes than those found in many more violent tales of terror.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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