August 1, 2015
A ghost is by definition a residue of the past; therefore writers of ghost stories will tend, even more than other kinds, to be past-obsessed. But none tops M.R. JAMES (1862–1936) for being a dedicated antiquarian, a dweller in dusty stacks whose weird legacy rests on the excavation of imaginary texts and secret histories. Scholar, librarian, and cataloger in the daytime, by nightlight James spun sinister visions of Grimm-like monsters and silent shades, ancient spells and cursed artifacts. His best stories hinge on the intellectual curiosity that reawakens some long-dormant evil, and on the archival scholarship that allows that evil to be deciphered, sometimes even vanquished: “The Mezzotint,” about an engraving which, altered upon each viewing, sketches a demoniac retribution; “Casting the Runes,” which posits diabolism in the unlikely provinces of book reviewery and academic conferences; “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” whose seaside wanderer digs up a Medieval flute and finds himself trapped with a mournful, invisible presence; “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” in which a Latin code etched in stained glass leads to an underground vault and the leathery embrace of something unspeakable. These and other classics (most published in 1905’s Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary; 1911’s More Ghost Stories; 1919’s A Thin Ghost and Others; and 1925’s A Warning to the Curious) are deceptively companionable in style, restrained in effect — the better, naturally, to smuggle dread into the reader’s comfortable room and vulnerable fancy. No writer of the weird tale’s golden age reached so deeply into the past, nor lived there so richly, nor brought so much of it back.
MORE FANTASY ON HILOBROW: CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM series | 65 Fantasy Adventures | Mervyn Peake | Lord Dunsany | H.P. Lovecraft | Edgar Rice Burroughs | Ursula K. LeGuin | Michael Moorcock | Gary Gygax | Clark Ashton Smith | Frank Frazetta | George MacDonald | John Bellairs | T.H. White | Wilkie Collins | M.R. James | Edgar Allan Poe | Lewis Carroll | Mikhail Bulgakov | Guy Endore | Alasdair Gray | Maurice Sendak | Tove Jansson | L. Frank Baum | Roald Dahl | Abraham Merritt | August Derleth | William Hope Hodgson | Madeleine L’Engle
READ MORE about members of the Plutonian Generation (1854-63).