Annnnd another late-Halloween reading. This time it is approximately 30 short stories by MR James, written around 1900-1930. He is mostly known (at least to me) for his story Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad, and that story is a good emblem for his work as a whole. It has a lot of characteristic MR James elements: relatively extensive framing of the story, meta-textual elements and an impatience that subverts the framing (e.g. in many places he will write "just assume that this type of conversation or action occurred and fill in the details yourself), hotels, academics, and brief, excellently described snippets of actual horrific events. For example, in OWAICTYMY, there is the erratic and searching movement of the ghost in his dream, and the moment at night in the hotel when he clearly hears something rising up out of the second bed that he thought was empty. In a later story, he nicely describes the sound of grave dirt falling against the floor as the corpse crawls in through the window. This is good stuff! It is grounded, creative, well described, and memorable. On the whole though I had some difficulty with the short stories, and I could never read more than one or two at a sitting. I think MR James' writing is stuck in an uncomfortable position where it is unwilling to entirely abandon the sensibilities of an older style of writing, while also not entirely taking those sensibilities seriously. In practice that means that each 10-20 page story is contained in this inedible shell of 2-5 pages of mostly uninteresting Victorian framing, where you have to chew through these long winded sentences about relations and village names and history and travel arrangements and introductions and so on before you get to the actual, scary, sweetness of the story. Several stories also have a distinct lack of autonomy; they basically consist of "I saw this weird thing in a dream". I kind of wish MR had been writing a century later; I could envision a neo-MR-James where he keeps the sharpness and creativeness but isn't bound to these older forms. What that would look like I don't entirely know, either super-short ficlits of terror, or longer tracts where he allows himself to develop more, I'm not sure. But he is a skilled writer, and he can be surprisingly breezy and funny when he allows it.
Ok and now the part you have been waiting for, my picks for best stories:
Number 13 - The neighboring hotel room is a ghost room, with an ecstatic ghost/demon inside.
Casting the Runes - a slightly longer and more plot driven story, about a book reviewer who runs afoul of a Lovecraftian sorcerer
Wailing Well - an unruly school boy sneaks into the forbidden ghoul grove, gets hunted and eaten by ghouls. Brutal.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas - Another longer story, this time with minor cryptography, also a toad monster. Also has one of Jame's minor themes, of the English gentleman's uncontrollable desire to invade other people's land and steal their historical artifacts and goods
After Dark in the Playing Fields - the most humorous story, you could see this being written by Alexander Petri or someone similar
A Warning to the Curious - nice descriptions of guardian ghosts
The Mezzotint - long for the story it tells, but the core of it is nicely spooky