M. R. James: Subtlety in Horror

There are sounds coming from the basement…
A creak of a door, footsteps…
They seem to be coming upstairs…
And then the lights go out.

There are many ways to be scared. Horror as a genre is expansive, whether you’re talking about films or books. It can range from the abhorrently gory to the psychologically scarring and everything in between. Some people love the scare, savouring the terror thrill, while others hate it. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

Even so, the horror genre can be fascinating and so much more than just the immediate gore and terror that first comes to mind. So, for those who hate the bloody slashers flicks and cringe at the jumpscares but still want to get a taste? Don’t worry, there’s something here for you too.

Books are a perfect first step into horror and there are plenty of great authors in the genre. Mary Shelley, Stephen King, and Edgar Allan Poe are well-known and well-loved, but the author I’d like to highlight instead is M.R. James. If you enjoy a quieter, fleeting sort of horror, or if you like ‘The Twilight Zone’, this author would be right up your alley.

M. R. James & His Ghost Stories

A late 19th century to early 20th century author, Montague Rhodes James was a scholar – studying in Eton College and then Cambridge ­– and was a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum before continuing to the role of vice-chancellor at King’s College, and then provost at Eton College. His life was one of little fanfare – he never married nor showed much interest in politics. He travelled around Britain and Europe instead, busied himself with fine arts and interesting books, had lively debates with his students about the Classics and literature, and told ghost stories around the fire to his friends at Christmas.  

It is these ghost stories that he is well-remembered for.

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In a time where bemoaning ghosts and monster horror dominated literature, M. R. James wrote stories of a much subtler kind of frightfulness. His monsters are the ones in whispers carried in the breeze, half-heard and half-seen only out of the corner of one’s eyes, and his stories are of normality, tinged slightly with wrongness. Not a lot, just enough for you to feel it.

You never see the occupant of ‘Number 13’, and, though you hear them coming, never see who comes when the whistle is blown in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. But you are very much aware they are there. There is not much of a full-on confrontation in his ghost stories – a gift to some readers but a bane to others. Instead, the reader is given just enough of a nudge for their imagination to take hold and do its worst.

Another distinct aspect of M. R. James’ stories is its strong suggestion of authenticity and realness. In any ghost story, this is the feature that cements the event in reality. It is what makes us consider the possibility that it could be true, and, more frighteningly, that it could happen to us. M. R. James achieves this amazingly well by drawing inspiration from his own expertise, life, and work. Each of these ghost stories is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who’s narrative style suggests rationality and lack of superstition.

The narrator includes facts and references to real places, for example, mentioning a peculiar mezzotint that can be found ‘in the Ashleian Museum’. He seems to do research into these stories that he heard from others and is methodical about how he tells the story, with footnotes and references to academic papers and books. It is without excess, only giving us the pieces of the puzzle and leaving us to do what we will with it. Paired with the unremarkable-ness of his protagonists – all scholars or antiquarians much like the author himself ­– this leaves the reader wondering how true all of this could be, for the narrator appears reliable and unlikely to blemish the accounts.

His stories are also more intimate.  His are stories told from a friend to a friend, travelling along the grapevine and by word of mouth. It was not meant to scare a crowd into action or into a frenzy, but to frighten you in particular. In fact, his first collection of ghost stories, ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’, featured mostly short stories he had written for his friends and colleagues to hear him read aloud.

An additional winning point of his ghost stories is that they’re easy to read. The backdrop they are played in front of may not be very relatable now – the stories written with aim to frighten those living at that point in time – but the shadows and the uncanny never become obsolete and still manage to give the reader a sense of discomfort.

These things are what makes M. R. James a good starting point for those who scare easily but want to dip their toes in. The stories are short and over in a moment, but have the power to linger long after. The narrator doesn’t exaggerate the horror and simply says what he needs to give the reader a clear picture of the event, and the horror does not come from shock, disgusted surprise or gory terror, but from unease and the niggling, instinctive sense that something is just wrong

The century old English writing style is easily understood – albeit a tad hard to read when first going in – and the fact that the stories are set in an age less relatable to our own helps distance the new-to-horror reader from the scariness of it all. His ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ is a good place to start, with works such as ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘Number 13’ haunting its pages.

Something Old, Something New…

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 For a modern equivalent, although not a book, yet no less well written, look up ‘The Magnus Archives’, a horror podcast series very much influenced by M. R. James’ writing style. Named after one of M. R. James’ earliest works, ‘Count Magnus’, the podcast follows an archivist tasked with sorting through statements of strange events and encounters. These stories are set much closer to our times, with statements and stories dating around the 2000s and 2010s, but follow the subtle horror style and analytical consideration that is distinctly M. R. James. It’s bound to enthrall listeners looking for a frightening tale and may even leave them looking over their shoulder.

Written by Jamie Tan Jean Minn

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