Collected Ghost Stories

To read Casting the Runes
click the pic.
 This Wordsworth edition of M.R. James ' ghost stories is good value, containing 31 tales - all except three of James' short stories. It must be said that unlike the Penguin anthology that I reviewed earlier in the year, this is much heavier going. This is not to say that James is not a good writer, because he is, but reading so many of the stories straight after each other reveals how often he used the same basic story with embellishments. So to fully enjoy these stories, you would be better advised to read little and often.

Although renowned as a writer of ghost stories, most of his stories are actually more horror stories than true ghost stories, with a constant theme being the finding of treasure, the removing of the treasure, and the subsequent pursuit  of the thief by a foul fiend. His best stories are generally the ones that leave this well-worn track, and there are some real gems in this collection : my personal favourites are the Edgar Allan Poe inspired Lost hearts, the wonderful foul fiend tale Casting the runes, which was later brilliantly adapted, and made even more frightening, as the classic 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon  (released in the USA as Curse of the Demon), the eerie The uncommon prayer-book (you'll never look at the psalms in quite the same way again - for depth of cursing Psalm 109 takes some beating), the extremely creepy The mezzotint, and the repulsive The diary of Mr. Paynter.

At his best Montague Rhodes James is an amazingly good writer, some of his stories have not dated as well as others, and his constant use of Latin tags can sometimes be a bit of a trial. I was going to say that he probably used so much Latin because it was in such common use in the educational circles in which he moved (Cambridge and Eton), but I would suspect that even the young choirboys of King's College, Cambridge to whom he first told the tales, would have found it rather annoying(!) Having said which you can't really enjoy horror fiction without reading James, he was hugely influential, and at his best was one of the great horror writers.


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