Collected Ghost Stories by MR James – review
These spooky tales from a 'weird fictionist of the very first rank' are released just in time for the darker months
Collected Ghost Stories (Oxford World's Classics)
by M. R. James
To cap it all, the wood from which they have been carved has come from a tree once known locally as "the Hanging Oak". You, gentle reader, who have not, I presume, been implicated in the unfortunate demise of a prelate of the church, and who are far from sinister carvings made from accursed wood, need not tremble; but note the season, the drawing in of the evenings, the increasing darkness and the chill of the wind.
So it's appropriate that Oxford is publishing this collection at this time of year. There is an enormous pleasure to be had reading James's ghost stories, and even if you do not have a decanter and a log fire, you can readily imagine that you do, as his stories are more, perhaps, about atmosphere than about actual horror (for that, I recommend the stories of his contemporary and, I'm fairly sure, friend, EF Benson).
The typical James ghost story kicks off when someone discovers an old manuscript or a valuable or rare book, often with a religious connection or theme. Having seemingly set up a scene of remarkable dustiness, it turns out that evil resides in the pages, or lurking behind a dark corner of a church, waiting to manifest itself and reduce the unfortunate antiquarian to a wreck. ("Canon Alberic's ScrapBook", the first story in the collection, in which a drawing of a demon comes to life, is a good example of this, and an early collection of James's stories was called Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.) You have to wonder what it was in James that inspired him to do this. He knew what he was talking about when he described the business of going through ancient collections, and he grew up in an ecclesiastical environment, so knew an apse from a chasuble; but why he found fear in these elements is something of a mystery in itself. It certainly adds to the plausibility of the stories, however, and their wide and enduring popularity. It also takes quite a talent to get a shiver from, say, an unconventional dating of a prayer-book, as he does in "The Uncommon Prayer-Book". HP Lovecraft, who was probably about as far in temperament as you could get from James, wrote a long essay on supernatural fiction in which he described James as "a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank", and in Darryl Jones's introduction toCollected Ghost Stories we are given a vignette of how James came to sharpen his craft – by telling his stories after the Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge (where he was provost) to an audience of uneasy fellows. Who might also, I was surprised to learn, have been uneasy at James's fondness for the card game "animal grab", which descended into impromptu wrestling bouts that would leave his opponents with "torn clothes" and "nailscored hands".
James saw himself as something of a Dickensian (and a Trollopian, as the reference to "Barchester Cathedral" shows; James, who died in 1936, was very much a Victorian, and a Victorian of a very particular kind at that), and so quite often the stories feature cockney or rustic accents that, after a while, become rather irritating. All I can say is that you should just put up with them and wait for the story to resume.
It's not only Stephen King and James Herbert, you should be afraid of Cormac McCarthy and Kafka, explains the horror novelist
When people discover I write horror, they usually take a nervous step backwards. Maybe they think I'm going to bury a cleaver in their skull. Maybe they think they'll catch Weirdofreakosis. They'll often say something like: "So, is your head full of sick, horrible ideas all the time?"
Actually, it's not. I'm calm, I'm happy and I hardly ever have nightmares. All my darkness is on the page – where it belongs. In fact, I'm convinced that people who write and read horror are saner and better-adjusted than those who casually dismiss the genre.
By engaging with horror, we take a journey into every possible fear. We open the closet door, rip the mask from the psycho's face, embrace ghosts and demons, cast ourselves into the hellish chasm of the imagination. We return, not polluted but cleansed and set free.
This Halloween, I urge you to peel your fingers from your eyes and face your greatest dread. If you can survive these books, I promise you'll live happily (and sanely) ever after…
1. Let's Go Play at the Adams' by Mendal Johnson
In 1974, Stephen King released his smash hit debut Carrie. The same year, Johnson's far more challenging, non-supernatural horror novel was also published. It's an exploration of the behaviour of children left to their own devices and is utterly harrowing. I've known people weep towards the end of the book. King went on to monumental success and fame, but within two years Johnson was dead.
2. The Long Walk by Stephen King (as Richard Bachman)
King's early works – written under the Bachman pseudonym – are my favourites, and this short novel is a classic of that period. Although not published until 1979, it appears King began it long before Carrie. Whatever the case, I was there with the boys of this dystopian tale for every agonising step of their journey.
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
You might want to call this post-apocalyptic fantasy, but The Road is stacked with enough bleak terror to sit proudly in the horror section of any bookshop. It's a simple story of a father and son making a perilous journey in the aftermath of a global cataclysm. But it's really about keeping the light of the world aflicker, even in the darkest times. And, whilst it's disturbing as hell, it's also incredibly beautiful.
4. The Ritual by Adam Nevill
Nevill is arguably the best British horror author writing today. The Ritual takes us into the wild boreal forests of northern Sweden where four university friends reunite to go hiking. They soon find themselves lost and terrified, stalked by an unknown but malevolent entity. Riveting storytelling that barely lets you catch your breath.
5. One by Conrad Williams
Published in 2009, this earned Williams a British Fantasy award for best novel. It charts the journey of Richard Jane, who walks from Aberdeen to London searching for his son after a cataclysmic cosmic event. Like Nevill, Williams's command of language and use of imagery lifts this novel into the realms of literary fiction. Another example of the sheer joy of terror.
6. The Function Room: The Kollection by Matt Leyshon
It may not be that big but there's still a market for short horror fiction. Many of the genre's brightest stars began their writer's journey by submitting tales to the small presses. This debut collection, published by indie magazine Morpheus Tales, showcases a talented newcomer with a firm grasp of all things weird and grim. Accompany Leyshon to Leddenton for a double-handful of the bleakest horrors imaginable. Be warned, though; he might not let you come back.
7. The Rats by James Herbert
I was 10 when I read this; a portal to a new world of shock and gore. I forget how many times I've read it but several of its scenes linger even now, as though they were my own memories. I think it's safe to say that the late James Herbert is responsible for my chosen career. Wherever you are now, Mr H, I salute you.
8. Metamorphosis and other stories by Franz Kafka
Born in 1883 and largely unpublished in his own lifetime, Kafka became and remains incredibly influential. This collection contains one of the most brutal and disturbing stories I've ever read: In the Penal Colony. If you haven't read Kafka yet, you're missing an astonishing talent.
9. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
Canongate have a knack for picking unusual but brilliant writing. Marketed without the merest mention of the word horror, this novel packs in one terrifying surprise after another. The wonderful thing is that so many people bought and read this incredibly speculative work, probably thinking it was literary fiction. An engaging but utterly creepy book – now set to be adapted for screen – and another coup for Canongate.
10. American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis
A meticulous study in sociopathy and a satirical critique of ladder-climbing, materialist culture. It's also cold, grim and nausea-inducing. I read it on a sunny tropical island but never have the grasping fingers of a serial killer felt so close to my throat. A landmark novel encapsulating the madness of late Twentieth Century society.
… Having picked this top 10, I realise there isn't a single female author among them. The reason is that I simply haven't read enough dark fiction by women. I'm now on the lookout for hard-hitting full length horror from women for my TBR pile. If you have suggestions, please post them here. I'm starting off with Poppy Z Brite's Exquisite Corpse …
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
Wizened or suspiciously beautiful, the witch in art has proved a scarily compelling muse
Witches & Wicked Bodies
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art,
Starts 27 July
Until 3 November
Albrecht Dürer’s ‘shrieking siren’ of a witch riding backwards on a goat, c1500, with Dürer’s AD monogram reversed. Photograph: © Trustees of the British Museum
What do witches look like? Ferocious old dames with pointy hats and whiskered chins, repulsive warts and green skin: we would recognise one anywhere, even without the soaring broomstick. A child can draw one in seconds – black hat and broom (the cat and cauldron are rare, not to say superfluous, these days). Witches are so generic they have turned into logos.
But they had to be dreamed up by artists in the first place, and the revelation of this startling exhibition is that they had such a vivid career in art from the 15th century right up to the 20th – roughly the show's span – before descending into Halloween cliché.
Dürer's witch is a shrieking siren, lithe and naked, her beautiful hair streaming forwards as she rides backwards on a cloven-hoofed goat. Witchcraft is abnormal, it reverses all human order; Dürer even signed his drawing with a reversed AD monogram.
Goya's trainee witch (on a broom) is young but already weary, learning the ropes from the old lady flying the stick; the sense is of a madam kidnapping a hapless new protege: prostitution as witchcraft by other means.
And Fuseli's deathless trio of Weird Sisters from Macbeth, their heads arrayed in profile like the open blades of a Swiss Army knife, have prominent noses, strong throats and craggy chins. They do not look like women, young or old; they are quite simply men.
Had these male artists ever met a woman who looked anything like such visions in reality? Not one of these figures is the classic old hag of medieval literature, the reclusive village spinster forced to endure the ducking stool or the stake because she was thought too weird in her ways, too sharp in her observations, too active with the herbs, or simply because she muttered to herself.
This "witch" has been the subject of copious writing, from fairytales to scholarship; what makes this show – and its excellent catalogue by Deanna Petherbridge – unique is that it shows the evolution of the witch in art.
In the centuries when people still believed in witches, they were often shown bare – naked and flying by moonlight, attending black Sabbaths, sleeping with the devil; they had a busy and lascivious schedule. Their wickedness was written on the body, which was either wizened and deformed or suspiciously beautiful.
In the Romantic era, witches turned into theatrical grotesques – the limelit gargoyles in Delacroix's illustrations to Goethe's Faust; John Martin's sensational witches lifting into the night sky in a flash of lightning before Macbeth, tiny and terrified on the top of a crag. Daniel Gardner's bizarre version of the same subject casts three society beauties as the witches in diaphanous frocks – including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. You'd think it was a hideous and possibly misogynist satire, except that one of these women apparently commissioned the picture herself.
One sure lesson is that black and white, and graphic night, really set off a witch to best advantage. The true frighteners of this show are all prints – particularly by Dürer, Goya and Fuseli – that can be held in the hand and closely examined for nasty details. Winged fish, carriages made out of skeletons, dear old ladies sprouting devilish horns like Charles Saatchi on the cover of his latest book: these prints don't waste an inch in the effort to induce a shudder.
And the same is true of the most recent work in the show, a black and white photograph taken in 2000 by Markéta Luskacová in her native Bohemia. It shows a female figure in a feral mask, holding what seems to be the head of a bird, moving enigmatically through a forest, and through the shadowy image. The figure is eerie enough, but so is the photograph.
But the most terrible visions in the show, inevitably, come from the mind of Goya and include a gathering of witches whose wickedness has an appalling resonance to modern eyes. One witch is using a child as a pair of bellows to fan up the fire by which another can see what she's munching – namely a basket of battered babies. The infants are starving as she eats. As so often with this darkest of artists, the vision is both allegorical and surpassingly real – human beings become monstrous, a crime beyond crimes, a wickedness beyond all explanation.