Review of “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (1919)


M. R. James (writer).

Read in 2017.

Epistolary horror, baroque in style. In an 1837 letter to his own brother, the protagonist uses sentences like this one:

As I expected, Mr. Bowman was uneasy in his mind this morning; quite early I heard him holding forth in a very distinct voice—purposely so, I thought—to the Bow Street officers in the bar, as to the loss that the town had sustained in their Rector, and as to the necessity of leaving no stone unturned (he was very great on this phrase) in order to come at the truth.

Because of course you need a semicolon, parentheses and em dashes, and the smoothly flowing phrase “the loss that the town had sustained in their Rector”, all together in the same sentence. As usual there is a faint pretence of the event having really occurred, with James seemingly writing the prologue in his own voice, so place names are abbreviated as if to protect someone; ridiculous at an 82-year remove and a real failure to innovate. The only interesting thing about the story is its dream sequence, mixing Punch and Judy with realism.

Taken together, the pretence of reality and the nightmare prefigure the “recovered footage” and clown horror subgenres, respectively. Just look at this paragraph of the dream, begging to be filmed in grainy black and white on a shoestring budget:

When I next glanced at him he [Punch] was sitting in malignant reflection; but in another instant something seemed to attract his attention, and he first sat up sharply and then turned round, and evidently caught sight of the person that was approaching him and was in fact now very near. Then, indeed, did he show unmistakable signs of terror: catching up his stick, he rushed towards the wood, only just eluding the arm of his pursuer, which was suddenly flung out to intercept him. It was with a revulsion which I cannot easily express that I now saw more or less clearly what this pursuer was like. He was a sturdy figure clad in black, and, as I thought, wearing bands: his head was covered with a whitish bag.

If James had applied more realism the result might have been quite memorable.

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

text fiction