Book Review: Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James
By Marie Sumner
If Montague Rhodes James could read Stephen King or Clive Barker, he’d probably be appalled. He certainly didn’t have many good things to say about their predecessors: in his essay “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories,” he called the stories in the anthology Not at Night (which was comprised mainly of excerpts from Weird Tales) “merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating… The authors of the stories I have in mind tread, as they believe, in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable), but they do not possess the force of either.” If you could tell James, who decried the use of sex and graphic violence, that he helped pave the road for modern horror, which is no stranger to either, he’d most likely be downright mortified. Nonetheless, the ghost stories of M.R. James, which elicited great praise from no less an eminence than H.P. Lovecraft, provided one of the foundations of horror fiction as we know it today.
The stories in the 2005 Penguin release Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories come from James’s first two ghost story collections, Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911). These constitute the main bulk of his achievement in the horror genre. Different readers will probably have their own favorite stories, but mine include “Number 13,” “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’” “Count Magnus” and “Casting the Runes” (which provided the inspiration for the great 1957 British horror film Night of the Demon).
Many of James’s stories follow the same basic pattern. A male scholar or researcher travels to some unfamiliar locale (it can be in another country or simply in some obscure English town). He comes to this place in order to work on a book, investigate some artwork or artifact or do something along these lines. Various little incidents occur that aren’t too creepy in themselves but build up in the mind of the reader. Finally, there comes the moment when something unequivocally frightening occurs (the occupant of the mysterious thirteenth room appears, the sarcophagus begins to open, etc.). A swift denouement follows, and the reader is left with lingering, delightful feelings of nervousness and dread.
A big part of the power of James’s stories comes from the dry, even tone that he applies to his narration. “Number 13” is a perfect example of this. James devotes much of the story to the mundane details of Mr. Anderson’s trip to a town in Denmark. You read about the back and forth between Anderson and the proprietor of the hotel he stays in, his findings as he goes about his scholarly pursuits and so forth. As written, it feels as if the narrator were just chatting with you over a cup of tea. That makes it even scarier when the characters run afoul of supernatural elements. By layering on all of these realistic details and by describing them in such a calm, conversational way, the story achieves what James says that all good ghost stories should do: it gives the reader the feeling that “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”
That brings me to one slight misgiving that I have about James’s stories. If there’s anything to dislike about them, it’s their rather simplistic view of the world. Pretty much all of the stories in this collection boil down to a basic message: “Don’t cross the line or you’ll get punished.” Once you reach the end of Count Magnus, you may feel a little bit like a schoolboy or schoolgirl getting scolded by a likeable but strict clergyman or schoolteacher (which, judging from the various details of his life described in the introduction, is pretty much what James was). Still, there’s a lot to enjoy about these stories. The conversational tone of James’s narration makes them extremely easy to read, and he had a good ear for dialogue. Count Magnus also has an incisive introduction and informative notes by renowned scholar S.T. Joshi. Taken as a whole, this is a must-have for any serious horror fan’s library.