The trouble with coming to “acknowledged” classics is that you can expect too much. For years I’ve heard that the ghost stories by M. R. James are the Rolls Royces of the field, exercises in unease and outright fright unequalled by other authors. I wish I could agree.
I read them all, and I do admit to one genuine scare that chilled me from head to toe, but for the rest I found them all an awful struggle to get through. The language, now more than one hundred years old, is dense, packed with sub-clauses, and often composed in page-long paragraphs that aren’t a pleasure to the eye. And while they may all be grammatically perfect, and the vocabulary exemplary in its scope, reading them today in our lightning-fast world isn’t easy.
The come from a lost age, when reading took time, and there were no distractions of any kind – except perhaps the shadows in the corner cast by gas lamps or candles. You would have settled into them and savoured every word and meticulously constructed paragraph. You would have had time.
The strange thing is, they make wonderful material for adaptations in other media. The BBC produced a series of short films taken from James’ stories in the 1970s that were genuinely frightening. The 1957 film Curse of the Demon – very loosely based on Casting the Runes – is still creepy. And the 2010 BBC version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You scared me so much I didn’t want to leave the sitting room.
But reading them, today, for me, was really hard work.