Reviews

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (1894) and related work:

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (1894)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Two good “visual” scares, effective because the reader cannot see them: The old picture itself, and the antiquary’s incredulous misinterpretation of the creature’s reappearance.

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“Count Magnus” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

From “Number 13”’s Denmark to my native Sweden. James acquits himself quite well in this exotic locale until he names minor characters according to an Anglicized Danish pattern, as “Nielsen” (it would be Nilsson), “Bjornsen” (Björnsson) and “Hans Thorbjorn” (Torbjörn is not a surname). Similarly, while Råbäck is given in correct Swedish spelling and pronunciation, Nyköping is given as “Nykjoping”. The text mentions “Dahlenberg’s Suecia antiqua et moderna”, which would be Dahlbergh’s Suecia antiqua et hodierna. The apparently medieval church gets a lovely description, and the Fanu-esque plot is quite effective. The journey home, in particular, implies an indeterminate mixture of madness and murderers in supernatural camouflage.

References here: “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (1904).

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“Lost Hearts” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

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“Number 13” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

James trying to have his post-Gothic cake and eat it too, hanging a lampshade on the silly fear of the number 13 and apparently suggesting that rooms number 12 and 14 always instantly and visibly contract by ⅓ when night falls and expand by ½ at dawn, without anyone noticing this for decades, before the main character and his neighbour do. That’s a stupid idea, but James makes the best of it.

References here: “Count Magnus” (1904).

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“The Ash Tree” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

The unceremonious treatment of the main character, and the monstrous burning of the tree, prefigure H. P. Lovecraft.

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“The Mezzotint” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

An engraving that changes each time it is seen.

Note the mezzotint was an old medium at the time of writing, equivalent to the use of black-and-white photos in 21st-century horror narratives.

References here: “The Haunted Dolls’ House” (1925).

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“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

A puzzle and a dungeon crawl in search of the titular treasure.

The most awkward and self-consciously dramatic narrator in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by a thin margin.

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“‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’” (1904)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Where the last paragraph of “Count Magnus” (1904) seemed at first to be missing a few quotation marks, this one goes much further into a curious mix of screenplay and verbal anecdote with poor notation. I gather that James would read it aloud, probably doing some of the lines in a working-class Suffolk dialect etc. The scenes of horror are excellent, but the golfing upper-class twits are rather distracting; these things never quite come together. Also, why would the Templars, or anybody, create a beautiful well-sounding whistle if it summons a magical creature that will try to drive the user mad? As burglar alarms go it is overly elaborate.

References here: “The Gateway of the Monster” (1910), Ringu (1998).

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“Casting the Runes” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Once again the plot as such doesn’t make sense at a basic level, but individual scenes are good.

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“Martin’s Close” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

A ghost story in the form of a transcript of court proceedings, with admirable moments of realism both in the overall treatment of the supernatural in the court—it’s laughed at, at first—and in small details like Martin’s final plea that his name is misspelled.

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“Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Good examples of the paratelic in James’s overtly supernatural scenes.

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“The Rose Garden” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Almost a comedy of a shrew, in bad upper-class taste.

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“The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

The writer goes on to reflect upon the probability that the writings of Mr Shelley, Lord Byron, and M. Voltaire may have been instrumental in bringing about the disaster, and concludes by hoping, somewhat vaguely, that this event may ‘operate as an example to the rising generation’; but this portion of his remarks need not be quoted in full.

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“The Tractate Middoth” (1911)

M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

The plot is as contrived and ridiculous as any earlier, more Gothic horror I can remember, but the breezy, cinematic opening scene is quite nice.

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