by M.R. James
“I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake, there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.”
8 stories make up this 1904 collection, and they hold up well. The language of the time isn’t much of a barrier here, and though it may take a couple of pages to find the proper cadence for you, every last tale here accomplishes the feats of being interesting, supernatural and easily recognizable as horror. In its way, this is a pure book instead of hitting a few, missing a few, that we’re used to from modern collections. And it’s not varied, with a couple of horror, a couple of fantasy, a thriller here and there, etc. Pure supernatural horror stories, told with a mystery bent, and not a one of them reached down to the level of fair. No gore, just story.
We begin with “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book,” the weakest of the eight but still good, where our subject discovers a valuable book its owner is keen to rid himself of it for a fraction of its value.
Next is “Lost Hearts,” where a young orphan boy is transferred into the care of an eccentric, alchemist character.
“The Mezzotint” is a supernatural mystery regarding a picture that changes and gives the first dose of palpable fear as you picture the descriptions like they’re right in front of you.
“The Ash Tree” is about getting to the bottom of multiple deaths, possibly related to the execution of a witch in earlier times.
Then there’s the kicker. “Number 13” maintained the themes of interest and spookiness, but elicited howls of laughter, enough so that the tears were flowing. The antics of two gentlemen trying to get to the bottom of a mystery hotel room foreshadowed the straight-faced, whodunit buffoonery that would eventually be perfected in the movie, Clue. Not any of the slapstick of Clue, mind you, but you may not be able to get the befuddled Colonel Mustard out of your head while reading. You may be roaring in laughter. Hopefully that’s what Mr. James intended, and you’ll certainly sober up in the last couple of paragraphs. This is one of the finest short stories a horror lover can read.
We continue with “Count Magnus,” the tale of a travel book researcher, who uncovers and dives into the history of a devilish, Vlad the Impaler type of personage.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is the story of a whistle found and a man’s troubles after using it.
And finally, “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” concerning a man’s hunt for hidden treasure by deciphering cryptic messages left in an old church.
Most of these tales are told through second or third person, a story within a story type of setup, so we’re generally reading about something that happened rather than while it is happening. This adds a more scholarly, learned air to the book, often because those doing the storytelling are researchers or academics in one field or another and uncovering the mystery for themselves. That extra degree of separation allows us more of a full, birds-eye view of the tale as opposed to the nightmarish, up in your face monsters where you can’t run fast enough. It’s harrowing and effective but lets you keep your monocle on. You’ve heard of the book many times and seen it quite a few as well, but if you haven’t yet taken the plunge that’s a mistake.