Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Just Finished: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, by M. R. James, is just about as good as it gets if you like your ghost stories to be of the cozy, English, nineteenth-century variety.  Even the book jacket describes the settings as "the leisurely, late-Victorian, middle-class world of country houses, seaside inns, out-of-the-way railway stations, and cathedral closes, where gentlemen of independent means and antiquarian tastes suddenly find themselves confronted by terrifying agents of supernatural malice." 

I read these stories mainly over lunch, one or two a day for a very pleasant couple of weeks.  They are short (five to ten pages), and each is an atmospheric gem, creepy but not terrifying, which is just my cup of tea.  Many center on an antique document--manuscript, prayer-book, etching, or diary--and the unfortunate literary-minded gent who takes an interest in it.  Some center on a place--a locked room in an inn or a shady corner of a garden or a nook in a cathedral--which people avoid without consciously knowing why.  There are many stormy nights, dusty libraries, forbidding strangers appearing and disappearing, and train journeys to remote locales peopled by folk who keep ancient secrets.  When the secret is revealed, usually with a wry twist, our "gentleman of independent means and antiquarian tastes" generally wishes it had not been.

Casting the Runes reminded me strongly of Sheridan Le Fanu's work, which I enjoyed immensely, and even of one or two of Isak Dinesen's, with their windswept Scandinavian settings.  And the combination of intricate language with occasional humor recalled Dickens, who also told some good ghost stories.   Happily, James seems to have been a prolific author and there's a lot more from him to enjoy.

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club

No comments:

Post a Comment