Sunday, August 14, 2005

Initial-Guy Number One

posted by Tim Walters @ 8:40 PM

M.R. James, A Warning To The Curious And Other Stories. Very nice, if a bit samey. At first I wasn't sure I liked his intrusive authorial presence--constantly saying, "I'll just skip this bit"--but once I started thinking of it as oral storytelling, it made sense. The similarity of the stories also makes more sense if you think of them as being doled out one at a time at long intervals.

The plots are rather slight--sometimes barely seeming to make a story at all--but that leaves all the more room for atmosphere and character, which he handles very well. Some of the minor characters could come right out of Dickens.

He also has a wicked sense of humor, which I didn't expect (especially in "Wailing Well").

I'm not sure I'm ready to count myself a full-blown devotee of old-school ghost stories, but this is good stuff.


At 8:02 AM, Blogger Todd T said...

Rats, I posted a comment on this at the same time I made a bunch of other posts, but this one never turned up. I'll try to recreate it, though its immanent brilliance will be forever gone. If it now appears twice, my apologies.

I think you have pegged it as far as the oral tradition's influence on ghost story style in that era, and also about plotting. I find that most ghost story plots are minimal frameworks designed to set up one of three things: a fright, an atmosphere, or a telling metaphor. Some of the best tales resolve nothing in the end, though the characters may evolve.

Many are surprised to find any humor in a ghost story in general, and in particular in MRJ, who was known for his arcane erudition, e.g. essays on the vicars of 18th century villages, and not his jocularity.

MRJ also can be distinguished from many ghostly authors of his era by his willingness to occasionally present hauntings that are a bit more tactile and grisly than the ectoplasm and funny sensations many of his contemporaries went in for.

As for how one responds to work such as this, I think it depends on what buttons one has that can be pushed by it. I get a frisson from the scene in "Number 13" where the narrator looks out his hotel window at night and sees the shadows being thrown onto the street from the room next to his. I find the figure on the beach and the animate sheets in "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" quite unsettling. But there are many who just find it all silly, and one has to be able to feel creepiness and suspend rationality to some degree to enjoy them.

If I remember what's in the collection you read, it has most of his best stuff in it, so you may not need to go much further unless inspired to do so. There are only about 30 stories, maybe 8-10 fragments, a couple of essays, a short novel aimed at the younger set that has similarities to ALICE IN WONDERLAND. MRJ has a number of imitators who are now labeled the Jamesians, but none reached his peaks IMHO, though I enjoy them. Probably the next major ghost fiction for you to try, if you remain curious (despite all warnings), ought to be that of J. Sheridan le Fanu, an Irishman who supposedly influenced Joyce and has a different vibe from MRJ's but just as good. Another route would be to look at folks who share something with Robert Aickman: Elizabeth Howard, John Metcalfe, Jean Ray.

At 10:35 PM, Blogger Tim Walters said...

Yes, definitely successfully creepy--I didn't think it was silly at all.


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