The Haunted Crossroads

Gothic Stories to Amuse and Terrify

Who Was Edith Wharton?

Edith Wharton, author of “The House of Mirth”, “Ethan Frome” and more than thirty other volumes, was among the most prominent American writers of the early twentieth century. She garnered countless accolades, including both France’s Legion of Honour (for humanitarian efforts, but, as you’ll see below, that included a literary aspect) and a Pulitzer Prize. And – this obviously is why you’re reading this post – she wrote unsettling, supernatural stories.

Though Edith Wharton spent her early life in New York and rose to fame during her time there, she later moved to France. She was in Europe at the outbreak of the First World War and immediately devoted herself to leading or supporting numerous charitable projects. During the conflict, the French awarded Wharton their highest order of merit for her efforts to employ French women who had been displaced by the conflict, and for her work caring for “a terrible tidal wave” of desperate Belgian refugees that poured across the French border. Her efforts also took a literary turn. Writing for, Anne Trubeck has described Wharton’s largely successful rallying of great writers who contributed to an anthology that ultimately was sold to raise money to support refugees.

Though a few critics complained that Wharton displayed an unseemly enthusiasm for war, most observers agreed that the acclaim she received from her adopted country was well-deserved.

The Pulitzer Prize she received for “The Age of Innocence” was far more controversial. “When I discovered that I was being rewarded – by one of our leading Universities – for uplifting American morals, I confess I did despair. Subsequently, when I found the prize shd (sic) really have been yours, but was withdrawn because your book (I quote from memory) had ‘offended a number of prominent persons in the Middle West,’ disgust was added to despair.” Wharton wrote these words to Sinclair Lewis when she discovered that the jury charged with awarding the prize had chosen Lewis’ work over her own, but that their decision apparently had been unilaterally overturned by the president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler. The award commended Wharton for depicting the “wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood.” At first glance, this might not appear controversial. But Butler had substituted “wholesome” for “whole”, thereby substantially changing the award’s meaning and dooming it to impassioned controversy. As a result, an event that should have been purely celebratory was tainted by public debates that erupted regarding the criteria and processes that were used to select the winner.

So, what about her ghost stories? Wharton once wrote that “[a]ll novelists who describe . . . what is called ‘society life’, are pursued by the exasperating accusation of putting flesh-and-blood people into their books. Any one gifted with the least creative faculty knows the absurdity of such a charge.” Well, Wharton may have denied including “flesh-and-blood people” in her work, but she certainly included spirits – which is, after all, why you’re here. One of Wharton’s admirers once wrote that she had been confounded by Wharton’s ghost stories. Why, she asked, would the great author produce such tales? The answer is simple: Edith Wharton, like most people, enjoyed a good scare. In fact, her standard for measuring a ghostly tale’s quality was very straightforward: “if it sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.”

Wharton certainly achieves that effect in “Afterward” which she first published in 1910. She tells the story of a wealthy American couple that settles in England. The ghost-loving couple is disappointed to discover that the ancient country home they’ve chosen isn’t haunted. In a strange and unexpected turn of events, they unwittingly produce their own haunting – with disturbing consequences.

Stories by Edith Wharton

Who Was Ambrose Bierce?

Ambrose Bierce was an adventurous soul. As a young man, he heeded Abraham Lincoln’s call for volunteers to bolster the Union Army. With the 9th Indiana Volunteers, he fought in numerous battles. At the Battle of Rich Mountain, Bierce’s selfless courage resulted in acclaim and promotion. And he was at Shiloh when General Ulysses S. Grant’s army rallied to victory after having suffered a nearly disastrous surprise attack.

However, while the author witnessed acts of valor and glorious victories, he also observed inhumane brutality and horrific suffering. And though the nickname Bitter Bierce, which he acquired during his later career as a writer, arose out of his biting commentary, perhaps its true origins lay deeper – in the influence traumatic war memories had on his temperament and his character. While protecting railroads in Tennesee, Bierce witnessed merciless guerilla warfare. At blood-soaked Chicamauga, among the war’s costliest battles, he helped protect the Union’s retreat. And during an ill-fated attack at Pickett’s Mill, Georgia, more than four hundred men of Bierce’s brigade were killed or wounded in a battle about which Bierce later expressed bitter misgivings. Finally, at Kennesaw Mountain, he suffered a head wound that nearly took his life and essentially ended his combat career. These harrowing events, and many others, colored his view of the world and his writing.

Bierce had just one more adventure during the Civil War. While on a lark in the Georgia countryside, he was captured by confederate forces. Fearing for his life, Bierce made a daring escape when his captors drifted off to sleep. After a torturous cross-country march and a perilous river crossing, he staggered into a Union camp. Bierce’s account of his exploit in “Four Days in Dixie” displays his sense of humor and his adventurousness while humorously highlighting the callousness of hardened veterans.

“Late that evening Colonel McConnell and his staff were chatting by a camp-fire in front of his headquarters. They were in a pleasant humor: some one had just finished a funny story about a man cut in two by a cannon-shot. Suddenly something staggered in among them from the outer darkness and fell into the fire. Somebody dragged it out by what seemed to be a leg. They turned the animal on its back and examined it—they were no cowards.

“‘What is it, Cobb?’ said the chief, who had not taken the trouble to rise.

“‘I don’t know, Colonel, but thank God it is dead!’

“It was not.”

Having narrowly survived the Civil War, Bierce rode a wave of westward migration, settling in San Francisco. There his sharp-edged criticism and black humor earned him the sobriquet “the wickedest man in San Francisco” as well as nationwide fame as a prolific and extraordinarily talented writer. Bierce also spent time in England where he wrote for London Magazines, the Dakota Territory where he struggled in placer mining, and finally in Washington D.C. where he continued his writing career. In 1913, Bierce travelled to Mexico and mysteriously disappeared in the turmoil of that country’s civil war.

Bierce once wrote, “If you want to read a perfect book there is only one way: write it.” Bierce himself wrote in a wide variety of formats as a journalist, poet and author. Today, he is remembered primarily for his cutting, and often insightful, epigrams and his shorts stories. Whether about the Civil War or macabre fantasy, Bierce’s stories often were grim and brutal.

In Bierce’s “The Damned Thing,” a witness to a bizarre and bloody event addresses a skeptical coroner’s jury. The story includes elements that are common to Bierce’s supernatural fiction: a lonely (or isolated) protagonist, a mysterious and malevolent force, and, of course, a grisly death.

To learn  more about the Devil’s Lexicographer, take a look at the New York Time’s review of Roy Morris Jr.’s “Ambrose Bierce: Alone in Bad Company.” Better still, read Terrence Rafferty’s , “Ambrose Bierce: The Man and his Demons,” also in the New York Times.

Stories by Ambrose Bierce

Who Was E. F. Benson?

Why don’t we hear more about E. F. Benson?

I’m finding that when the great writers of short horror fiction of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras (and the years immediately preceding or following that period) are discussed, the conversation tends to focus on Edgar Allen Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and M. R. James.  Of course, that’s not at all surprising.  Edgar Allen Poe and H. P. Lovecraft are well-known even among people that aren’t interested in literature that touches on the supernatural.  Think, for instance, of the discount section at your local bookstore.  Isn’t it filled with volumes of Poe and Lovecraft’s collected works?  (By the way, Lovecraft didn’t always write the type of stories we focus on here at the Haunted Crossroads.  And some of his work appeared a bit later than the period we emphasize.  Nevertheless, he’s a vital part of the conversation because he commented extensively on works that appeared during the Victorian and Edwardian Eras and because his own stories, which appeared shortly afterward, were heavily influenced by them.) And the extraordinarily high quality of M. R. James’ chilling tales makes him a favorite among aficionados of gothic short stories.

Algernon Blackwood and Sheridan Le Fanu also figure prominently in the dialogue for the same reasons: they wrote well and they wrote prolifically.  In other words, over the decades, they’ve terrified (in a good way) an awful lot of people.  H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle tend to be brought up less often.  My impression is that this is because Wells tends to be thought of as a science fiction writer and Sir Arthur’s other works are overshadowed by that detective he created . . . what was his name?  Many other authors are ignored for the same reason.  Their very good ghost stories are more-or-less forgotten because they created brilliant works in other genres (Edith Wharton, are you listening from beyond the veil?).

(Incidentally, a case can – and should! – be made that many other writers – several of whom produced fewer stories – should be part of that discussion.  Just because an author didn’t write a lot doesn’t mean that what he produced wasn’t outstanding.  Moreover, failing to achieve widespread popularity doesn’t equate to failure to produce great prose.  In fact, it might mean precisely the opposite. )

Hanging around the margins of the argument with countless other writers who produced enduring works in other styles is Edward Frederic Benson.  If scaring a lot of people over time and using good prose to do it are the principle qualifications for inclusion in the debate, then a strong case can be made that he should be right in the thick of things.  On a personal note, when I look back at the stories I loved in my youth, I find that Benson wrote many – very many – of those that still give me genuine chills.

E. F. Benson was boundlessly and variously creative. He wrote biographies about Queen Victoria, William Gladstone and others. He authored sparkling novels. His Map and Lucia books, in which he sharply and hilariously satirized British country society, are still popular today.  In 2014, the BBC adapted them for television. There’s even a society that annually commemorates them.  He also penned plays and reminiscences. Aside from being an author, he was an expert figure skater and, during his early adulthood, an archaeologist.  Amid his many accomplishments, his “spook stories” sometimes get lost in the shuffle.  This is a shame since so many of them reflect his own appreciation for a good scare.

In one of his best-known tales, “The Bus-Conductor,” Benson’s narrator exclaims, “Why, of course I like being frightened . . . . Fear is the most absorbing and luxurious of emotions. One forgets all else if one is afraid.” As Benson wrote these lines, perhaps he thought back to an October evening in 1893 when he joined a small circle of friends to hear M.R. James publicly read his own spellbinding stories by candlelight. The two men loved supernatural tales and became well-acquainted. And both drew readers into their tales with carefully selected details and expertly executed plotting that made the appearance of dark, supernatural forces perfectly credible. Nevertheless, their storytelling was noticeably different. The malevolence that manifests itself in Benson’s stories feels more personal. He once wrote, “The narrator, I think, must succeed in frightening himself before he can hope to frighten his readers . . . .”

It appears the author’s own fear may have originated in genuine belief.  Unlike James, Benson believed he had personally met the supernatural. He and the local vicar had encountered a dark apparition while strolling through Benson’s garden. In “The Bus-Conductor,” one of Benson’s characters proposes an explanation for such ghostly appearances: windows between our world and the “spiritual plane” sometimes align, providing a view of supernatural scenes. Opportunities to investigate these otherworldly visions are fleeing and most often encountered by solitary souls. “Just room for one inside, sir.” So beckons the bus-conductor in Benson’s eerie tale.  So, if  you’re up for a good scare, I suggest you climb aboard.  With E. F. Benson as your guide, it’s unlikely that you’ll be disappointed.

Stories by E. F. Benson

Who Was Sir Walter Scott?

Edinburgh’s Princes Street is famous throughout the world for its shops, historic buildings, neighboring Princes Street Gardens (with its enormous floral clock), glorious views of Edinburgh Castle, and nearby restaurants and pubs.  It’s also home to the Scott Monument.  Rising more than 60 meters above Princes Street, this tower is a fitting memorial to a man whose literary talent and influence was similarly massive.

Sir Walter Scott began his literary career as a poet – an extraordinary one.  Critics of his day compared him with Lord Byron and even Shakespeare. The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake are perhaps his greatest works of narrative poetry.  Marmion is notable due to Scott’s placement of an anti-hero at the center of the action.  This produced a Gothic effect that many professional critics of the day hated.  But Scott’s readers – including Lord Byron – loved the drama Scott’s choice had produced.  In fact, it’s generally agreed that Marmion significantly influenced his admirer’s creation of the so-called “Byronic Hero” – the rebellious, melancholy, guilt-stricken and romantic figure at the heart of many of Byron’s narratives.

Ironically, it may have been Byron’s rise that caused Scott to abandon poetry in favor of novel writing.  Nevertheless, he achieved similar (if not greater) success in his new endeavor.  Virginia Woolf wrote that Scott was “perhaps the last novelist to practice the great, the Shakespearean art, of making people reveal themselves in speech.”  Although Scott published his first novel, Waverly, anonymously, Jane Austen recognized both its author and his talent and apparently resented it.  “Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones.  It is not fair.  He has fame and profit enough as a poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths.  I do not like him, and do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it, but fear I must.”

If Austen hoped Scott’s interest in novel writing would be short-lived, she was disappointed.  Outstanding works flowed from his pen for the next seventeen years: Guy Mannering, The Antiquary, Rob Roy, The Heart of Midlothian, Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet and many others – twenty-eight in all.  Because Scott was a gifted teller of swashbuckling tales, and because he rarely recycled plots, many of these novels achieved great popularity.

Scott’s writing also appealed to his contemporaries because it was steeped in British – and especially Scottish – history. In fact, Scott is generally considered the most important figure in the rise of the historical novel. His work inspired such later giants of the genre as Honoré de Balzac, Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens.

While producing these novels, Scott carried on a charade of anonymity. Nevertheless, everyone knew Scott was the author, his fame grew, and he acquired the nickname, “The Great Unknown.”

That Scott achieved such enormous acclaim and influence in his day makes it all the more shocking that his novels (and to an even greater extent, his poetry) have all but vanished from bookstore shelves during our own.  Articles about Scott sometimes refer to him as “The Great Unread” – a play on his earlier nickname. Modern readers undoubtedly struggle with Scott’s extensive use of Scottish dialects. And many lack the historical and cultural context Scott assumed his readers would have. Consequently, his novels can be rough going for today’s recreational readers.

The shorts stories that Sir Walter Scott wrote can be a bit more accessible.  The Tapestried Chamber, one of Scott’s better-known supernatural tales, is a good example. Here, Scott tells his tale in straightforward prose and without relying too heavily on historical context. Moreover, the plotting is direct. General Browne, recently returned from fighting in “the American war,” happens upon the country estate of his old friend from Oxford, Lord Woodville.  The latter has recently come into his inheritance and Browne finds him entertaining the local gentry.  Naturally, Woodville is thrilled to see his old schoolmate and invites him to spend a week relaxing at the family castle.  To make room for his many visitors, the newly risen aristocrat has reopened an old bedroom that was known to have been the site of certain heinous acts and which Woodville’s servants believe is haunted.  Woodville places the unsuspecting General Brown in that room.

What could possibly go wrong?

Stories by Sir Walter Scott

Did Thomas Hardy Believe in Ghosts?

Did Thomas Hardy believe in ghosts? Well, that’s an interesting question.  But before we attempt to answer it, there’s another pressing issue to address: who exactly was Thomas Hardy?

If you’re an English major, you’ve just rolled your eyes and shouted something along the lines of, “Who was Thomas Hardy! He’s only one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language! Haven’t you read Tess of the d’Ubervilles?”

Well, no, actually I haven’t. One of my buddies (a big fan of English literature), warned me to steer clear of the great man from Higher Bockhampton. Hardy, he said, was bleak. At the time, it didn’t occur to me to ask whether that bleakness sometimes incorporated the sort of supernatural turns that would have captured my interest and vindicated that cheerless tone. Bleakness solely for bleakness’ sake wasn’t something I was interested in.  And so, a victim of my own more-or-less willful ignorance, I gave Hardy a wide berth.

Of course, once I discovered (by fortunate chance) that Hardy had been fascinated by the supernatural, I did a little digging.  These lines from “The Shadow on the Stone” were among the first I read: “I went by the Druid stone / That broods in the garden white and lone, / And stopped and looked at the shifting shadows / That at some moments fall thereon / From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing, / And they shaped in my imagining / To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders / Threw there when she was gardening.” Longing, mystery, melancholy atmosphere, illusion, and (perhaps) a spirit – I immediately realized I should have started reading Hardy a long time ago!

So, who was Thomas Hardy really?  Well, he might have been an Anglican priest. But faced with both a lack of funds and diminishing faith, he turned from the priesthood and instead became apprenticed to an architect.  While working in that demanding field, he somehow found time to pursue his real passion – writing.  His new wife, Emma Gifford (who, it turns out, would be the inspiration for the melancholy lines quoted above) supported Hardy’s writing ambitions and in 1872, he embarked on a career as a full-time author.  After a few successful, though not particularly noteworthy novels, Hardy published the book that would truly launch his career: Far from the Maddening Crowd.  Numerous novels followed, including several that are considered classics: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the d’Ubervilles and Jude the Obscure.  In all, Hardy published fourteen novels, around a thousand poems (a body of work that rivaled the importance of his novels), and three volumes of short stories.

Virginia Woolf described Hardy as a “gentle and humane soul.” But he couldn’t escape allegations of misanthropy (which persist today), bitterness and degeneracy.  The author’s strongly strong opinions about Victorian attitudes toward class, religion, education, marriage and sexuality appeared in his novels – sometimes subtly, but often overtly.  And so, though he wrote beautifully, he often wrote controversially and, as my friend pointed out, bleakly.  Ironically, his personal darkness and the quarrels he picked during his lifetime, and which may have undermined his popularity among some of his peers, assured that his work would be relevant long after his death.

Speaking of death, there’s a rather Gothic question that’s often asked about this author: Where is Thomas Hardy’s heart buried? At Hardy’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey, his coffin (borne by such luminaries as A. E. Houseman and Rudyard Kipling) contained only ashes. The great man’s heart would be laid to rest in St. Michael’s Churchyard in Stinsford, Dorset (a rumor persisted that it had been eaten by a mischievous cat before it could be interred).

So, now that we know a little bit about the man, let’s return to our original question: did Thomas Hardy believe in ghosts?

“I seriously assure you that I would give ten years of my life – well, perhaps that offer is rather beyond my means – but when I was a younger man, I would cheerfully have given ten years of my life to see a ghost – an authentic, indubitable spectre.” Hardy expressed this wish to his interviewer William Archer in 1901 when Hardy was more than sixty-years-old. “I should think I am cut out by nature for a ghost-seer. My nerves vibrate very readily; people say I am almost morbidly imaginative; my will to believe is perfect. If ever ghost wanted to manifest himself, I am the very man he should apply to.”

Though it seems no ghosts appeared to Hardy, one did pay a visit to his family. “My mother believed that she once saw an apparition. A relative of hers, who had a young child, was ill, and told my mother, who visited her, that she thought she was dying. My mother laughed at the idea; and as a matter of fact she apparently recovered, and my mother went away to her home at some distance. Then one night – lying broad awake, as she declared – my mother saw this lady enter her room and hold out the child to her imploringly. It afterwards appeared (I need scarcely tell you) that she died at that very time . . . .”

One might have expected Hardy, who was fascinated by superstition and folklore, to have embraced this unsettling account. Instead, he viewed it skeptically. “I am most anxious to believe in what, roughly speaking, we may call the supernatural – but I find no evidence for it!” – apparently, not even in the appearance of a distressed soul to his very own mother.

Still, though Hardy may ultimately have doubted the existence of supernatural forces, he nevertheless appreciated their appeal and their power. Indeed, he used supernatural episodes to skillfully explore such themes as fate, obsession, the subconscious, malice, jealousy, guilt, remorse, isolation and consequence.

Each of these concepts plays a role in Hardy’s short story, The Withered Arm, in which a jilted and jealous woman’s malice manifests itself in an astonishing and uncontrollable fashion and with tragic results. For fans of Gothic literature, this story’s an excellent introduction to Hardy’s work.

Stories by Thomas Hardy

Who Was Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu?

Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu holds an exalted position within the pantheon of great Victorian writers of supernatural fiction.  He’s commonly mentioned in the same breath as M. R. James, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen – luminaries of the genre.  He published prolifically and to some acclaim.  And his work became broadly popular.  In the opening paragraph of his novel The Liar, influence author Henry James hints at his regard for Le Fanu and his popularity as paints a description of a “pleasant house”, “There was the customary nove of Mr. Le Fanu, for the bedside; the ideal reading in a country house for the hours after midnight.  Oliver Lyon could scarcely forbear beginning it . . . .”

It’s our great good fortune that Le Fanu chose to become an author.  As a young man, he studied law at King’s Inns in London, but turned from the bar in order to embrace journalism and the writing of historical and supernatural fiction.

There can be little doubt that this was a good decision.  Le Fanu had found his calling – one for which he had developed considerable talent.  M. R. James, though expressing some reservations about other aspects of his writing, stated that “he succeeds in inspiring a mysterious terror better than any other writer.”  Coming from one of the undisputed masters of Victorian horror fiction, that is indeed high praise.

Like Algernon Blackwood, Le Fanu had carefully nurtured a vague sense of unease within his narratives until it matured into unnerving fear.  M. R. James admired this aspect of Le Fanu’s approach.  “But how does he contrive to inspire horror?  It is partly, I think, owing to the very skillful use of crescendo, so to speak.  The gradual removal of one safeguard after another, the victim’s dime forebodings of what is to happen gradually growing clearer; these are the processes which generally increase the strain of excitement.”

E. F. Benson, himself a leading figure in the genre, writing in The Spectator in 1931, made essentially the same observation. “[Le Fanu’s stories] begin quietly enough, the tentacles of terror are applied so softly that the reader hardly notices them till they are sucking the courage from his blood. A darkness gathers, like dusk gently falling, and then something, obscurely stirs in it.” This, said Benson, was Le Fanu’s “quiet, cumulative method.”

This is perhaps the principle distinction between M. R. James and Le Fanu.  The former’s hobgoblins manifest themselves overtly.  There’s rarely room to doubt that his protagonists have been menaced by something otherworldly.   Indeed, James often delivers his frights in gruesome, physical forms.  Le Fanu’s method for terrorizing his characters (and, we might add, his readers) is more subtle and psychological.  He leaves room for an explanation to be found in nature or neuroses.

Nevertheless, Le Fanu’s best tales conjure up visceral feelings of fear.  Where did that terror ultimately originate? Perhaps it arose from within Le Fanu’s own psyche.  Russel Kirk, the political philosopher and literary critic, wrote of Le Fanu that “[h]e knew that his creations were not his creations merely, but glimpses into the abyss.”  Along this line, V. S. Pritchett, the noted British literary critic and prolific short story made this observation: “Guilt is the ghost in Le Fanu.  It is guilt that patters two-legged behind its victims in the street.  It is retribution that sits up night after night, adding up its account.  The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love, scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind.”  Le Fanu, it seems, conjures up his monsters from the human mind and the human heart.

Whatever the source of Le Fanu’s inspiration, it seems to have been nearly boundless.  Le Fanu wrote fourteen novels.  The best of these, or at least the best remembered, is Uncle Silas.  Le Fanu sends his victim, a young heiress, to live with her diabolical uncle.  Slowly, methodically and relentlessly, the author builds tension toward the novel’s terrifying climax.  Benson celebrated the book as a departure from the “flat” narratives of his day.  And M. R. James praised its unforgettable ending.

Personally, I discovered Le Fanu through his short stories.  Some of his best are contained within In a Glass Darkly, a volume of five stories that was published in 1872, not long before his death at age 58.  There you’ll find The Familiar and Mr. Justice Harbottle which, along with Squire Toby’s Will, M. R. James described as “the best ghost stories in the English language.” It also includes Le Fanu’s novella Carmilla, an early and influential vampire story, which preceded Bram Stoker’s Dracula by a quarter of a century.  The story is especially significant as an early depiction of female vampirism

If you’d like to discover more about Le Fanu and his fright-filled gothic stories, Brian Maye’s article in The Irish Times is an excellent place to start your research.

Stories by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu

Who was Montague Rhodes James?

When I was a teenager, M. R. James may have been my favorite writer of spooky fiction.  But, believe it or not, I didn’t realize it at the time.  How’s that possible?  Well, back then, I read virtually any well-written ghost story that I could lay my hands on.  I moved with relish from book to book, most of which I grabbed at garage sales, fishing tattered paperbacks out of old cardboard boxes, or at musty bookstores, snagging them off untidy shelves. They were cheap and I treated them as if they were disposable – inadvertently smearing them with sunscreen or dripping ice cream on them, and afterwards, having squeezed them for every ounce of entertainment, tossing them into my cluttered closet.

But didn’t you notice author’s names on covers?  Yeah, sure I did.  I was interested in covers.  After all, a great title that promises mystery, terror and mayhem is what catches a teenage boy’s eye, right? – that and fantastic cover art, which I also loved.   So, yes, I’m sure I noticed the authors’ names.  But I knew virtually nothing about them.  Remember, this was long before the advent of the internet when you could virtually meet the author through sites like this one.  Moreover, many of the books I read were anthologies – again, the emphasis was placed on excellent individual stories, rather than on any particular authors’ collected works.  In short, I became attached to stories, rather than authors.  I didn’t care too much about who had written the text, provided it was entertaining.  Obviously, my feelings later changed!

When I started reading Gothic fiction again, I instantly recognized my old favorite.  James’ general formula is unmistakable: he sets a staid English gentleman, typically a professor or student of antiquities, in a spooky or peculiar setting (for example, an old church, a decaying ruin, an isolated village in an unfamiliar countryside), allows the unsuspecting subject’s curiosity to draw him into unknown – and we sense, unsafe – territory involving some ancient text or relic, then proceeds to frighten the daylights out of him.  James’ spooks are particularly satisfying because, generally speaking, they aren’t merely the result of his protagonists’ suspicions or feelings.  They often manifest themselves physically and unequivocally.  They’re present.  And they can hurt you.  Thus James’ finest stories obtain an intensely visceral power over his readers.

I think it’s extraordinary that James’ style, which captured my imagination as a teenager, holds me spellbound even as an adult – just as it did his contemporaries!  One might reasonably expect that Jame’s friends, Cambridge scholars and students, would demand nuanced narratives.  James certainly was capable of subtlety.  But his stories also included hairy beasts, slimy monsters and cackling denizens of the underworld.  Yet even his most erudite audiences were enthralled when he read his stories in a dimly lit room on Christmas Eve.

Perhaps there’s a very simple explanation for this:  nearly everyone loves a skillfully told and suspenseful tale – even if (or perhaps, especially when) it includes an awful monster.  Still, James’ Cambridge audience must have found great appeal in his use of the extensive knowledge of archaic books and manuscripts, ancient artifacts, and archeologically significant sites that he had acquired as a King’s College medievalist.  By weaving arcana into his tales, he grounded his stories in reality even as he conjured up a mysterious and vaguely threatening atmosphere and ultimately summoned his hobgoblins.  This approach still hooks sophisticated modern readers.

James employed these methods to chilling effect in “The Uncommon Prayer-Book.” The story’s principle character, an antiquary by the name of Davidson, visits an ancient chapel in the English countryside. There he finds a peculiar collection of archaic prayer books whose caretaker routinely finds they’ve been opened by some unknown agent to a particular Psalm, and makes the acquaintance of an unsavory character who is obviously, and perhaps worryingly, not who he claims to be. If you’ve never read M. R. James, this is a good place to start.

Now, to be clear, saying that James’ writing appeals to a sophisticated audience is not that same as saying that it’s inaccessible.  To the contrary, it appeals to lovers of horror fiction regardless of their backgrounds.  This is evident from its enduring popularity and the variety of mediums (as in media, not persons who contact your deceased relatives beyond the veil) through which it’s available.  It has been collected and anthologized and turned into audio books, made into television dramas, studied in documentaries, and damatized in one-man plays. Unsurprisingly, there are those who dismiss James as a mere writer of ghost stories.  Nevertheless, though his work isn’t ranked among the greatest of authors, there’s no denying his wide and enduring appeal.

James’ works can be enjoyed without further introduction, or indeed any introduction. But there are many resources available to those who’d like to learn a little more about his life and his craft. In 2012, Anthony Lane wrote an effective, short introduction to James and his work for The New Yorker. Those who wonder what it might have been like to sit in a suitably gothic setting while listening to James read one of his chilling tales by candlelight will be happy to know that actor Robert Lloyd Parry provides precisely that experience. In 2013, Tom Cox wrote about Parry and his reenactments for The Guardian.

Stories by M. R. James

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