Thoughts on M.R. James

Note: At this point, you might be wondering if I’ve changed my book review policy, but the answer is no. I still don’t accept requests for book reviews, but I am an avid reader and I like to talk shop. The difference is that I’m not reviewing books for author promotion (in fact, many of the authors I talk about are dead). I choose books I’m reading anyway and think might interest my blog readers. I’m also not concerned with “rating” books, etc. I’m just giving impressions, raising points, and opening discussion.

If you’re into these types of posts, I’ve gone back and added a tag. You can click on “Not Quite Book Reviews” to see the other authors and books I’ve discussed in this way.


I recently read the Penguin Classics edition of M.R. James’s short stories, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. James was the last author I hadn’t read from my list of The Founding Fathers (and Mothers) of Horror Literature. Indeed, he does belong there.

Who is M.R. James? I now think of him as “the most famous horror author you’ve never heard of.” He’s known for a single type of short story that he did very well: the antiquarian ghost story. What’s that mean? He told supernatural tales of fright set back in time a little ways for his readers and ‘a lot aways’ for us. His stories are subtle, original, quality stuff, but they don’t have the boundary-pushing concepts of Matheson or Bradbury, nor did they ever really develop the cult followings of Lovecraft or Poe. And although technically solid, James is rarely given any critical or scholarly acclaim, in spite of his being a well-respected scholar himself. Yet somehow, his story niche and his unabashed embrace of said niche has given him an enduring and quiet spot in the literary canon for over a century now. Like I said: the most famous horror author you’ve never heard of.

It’s been about a month since I finished this book, so I’m writing this not-quite-review with a bit of distance. This is nice because it gives me a good idea of what stuck and what faded. For instance, out of the fifteen stories I read, I remember about seven of them relatively distinctly. Three of those I remember vividly and loved. That’s a pretty decent ratio, but it doesn’t quite make me an avid fan. I’m very glad I read James, because he’s part of my literary heritage and I care about the classics. But, much like Lovecraft, James didn’t quite succeed in burrowing down to live in my dark little heart forever (unlike Poe and Bradbury, who have put out roots there).

Unlike Lovecraft, James is quite well written. His prose is, of course, of the long-winded old-timey sort, because he was writing in the early twentieth century, but it’s of a fairly high quality. His stories also seem well structured and well edited. Sometimes they drag a bit, but in general I felt he had a plan and followed through with it, leaving me satisfied if not thrilled. He does have a tendency to keep talking beyond the ending, but again I think that’s a symptom of his times. Modern short story authors – especially horror authors – tend to end as soon after the climax or ‘big reveal’ as possible, letting the reader finish on a high note. James tends to wind his reader down after revealing the horror, which for me personally melted away that delicious spooky chill, when achieved.

Speaking of which, how often did he achieve it? For me personally: once, maybe twice I felt a nice trill of fear. I felt uneasy or slightly tense several times, and I got a nice creepy vibe a good portion of the time. In other words, I wouldn’t really describe his stories as “scary” to horror fans, but perhaps less-experienced horror readers will get more chills than I did. And if you’ve been looking to find some “classic ghost stories,” James is absolutely the single best place to start.

To give you an overview of his story style, here are some generally-true basics. His narrators seem to be stand-ins for the author, meaning that they’re all white, male, scholarly types interested in antiquary, religious relics, curiosa, etc. His stories tend to be set in cathedrals, old schools, and large manors in small European villages. His protagonists often discover some strange and interesting object from the near-past (a manuscript, a whistle, a statuette) and delve into studying it out of curiosity. The knowledge found brings about some sort of supernatural terror, like ghosts or similarly malicious demons.

One of the things that bothers me is the absence of women in almost all of his stories. I can think of only one female character, and she was unabashedly a detestable shrew. But I talked about this issue with Lovecraft and racism, so you might not be surprised to learn that misogyny and sexism in century-old books isn’t reason enough for a full denouncement for me. It’s probably also worth noting that James seems fond of poking fun of the poor common country folk, though that seems further removed to me since today’s classism takes a different face.

Now let’s get to the good stuff. If you only have time to read one of James’s stories, I’d go with “A School Story.” At only seven pages long, it’s not much of a time investment, yet I thought it had a lovely creepy payoff. It wasn’t stunningly original now – though it might have been back then, I don’t know – but it stuck with me. Another one of my favorites is “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come for You, My Lad.” Though the title is a mouthful, this story was a blast. In it you can see James’s rather delightful sense of humor bubbling to the surface, and it actually did scare me once I got full enveloped in the atmosphere. I don’t want to spoil anything for those who do want to read it, so I’ll only say that I found it to be a refreshing twist on a ghost story trope that had become familiar to the point of meaninglessness to me. Worth a read!

Other highlights that earned a shout-out include the cool concept behind “The Mezzotint,” the satisfying ending of “Casting the Runes,” and the heebie-jeebies from “The Ash-Tree.” I also enjoyed seeing the impact of Poe’s cryptography tales in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.” It’s also interesting to note that M. R. James was one of Lovecraft’s favorite authors, and at times I felt I could almost see roots of inspiration there that would later become Lovecraftian tales.

As an end note… would I recommend these stories? Probably not as a blanket rec, no. But I do think they’re worth it for avid horror readers tracing the roots of the genre, fans of the classics, lovers of ghost stories, and people who enjoy twentieth-century literature.

Have you ever read M. R. James? What did you think?

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  • Traci Kenworth

    I haven’t read him yet, but will look into doing so based on your review. I’m working on a few ghost stories and want to see what’s out there. Thanks!!

  • Regina Richards

    I don’t remember having ever read him, but now I want to. 🙂

  • Rivki Silver

    Oh, nice. I haven’t read him, but it sounds great. Of course, this is the kind of thing I’ll end up reading when my husband is working the night shift and I’ll have to leave all the upstairs lights on, but it’s probably worth it. Right?

    • Hehe, well I don’t know that they’re *that* scary. It’s hard to say, though, because one person’s fear is another person’s joke and vice versa. So if you’re susceptible to ghostly things, it might do the trick — in which case it would definitely be worth it! 🙂

  • Marialena Carr

    Very nice not-quite-review! Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of horror or terror since I scare quite easily and forget very slowly. My brother is an avid Stephen King reader and I’ve tried to read him, only to find I’m too much of a wimp. On the other hand, I love Poe and Bradbury. Your post has tickled my curiosity to take a look at M.R. James. I love how you broke out setting and form, and pointed out the elements you liked and didn’t like so much. Superb introduction, thanks!

    • Thanks, Marialena! M.R. James might actually be a good author for a “scaredy cat” reader, although there are different levels of that, and it’s hard to really know what will push whose buttons. But he’s old-fashioned and slower, so generally speaking he’s less scary than contemporary authors like King.

      • Marialena Carr

        Yes, I am a scaredy-cat. No question. Old fashioned works. 🙂 I’ll let you know what I think.

        • I hope you know I meant that lightly! I’ll be curious to hear what you think. 🙂

          • Marialena Carr

            Of course! 🙂 And I really am a huge scaredy cat. It hadn’t occurred to me to word it so pithily, but I like the phrase.

  • Cynthia Robertson

    Yes, I read him years ago, when I was going through my
    horror phase and read it almost exclusively. I agree with your assessment,
    Annie. It’s refreshing to read these very articulate not quite reviews of
    yours. I do get a bit tired of reviews of the latest novels, and appreciate bloggers
    who take a wider view.

  • All of us write from our minds, hearts, and souls. Our true beliefs shine from under the surface of everything we create. I guess Mr. James was afraid of ghosts and didn’t like women! (And I’m still trying to get over the fact that someone would read classics if they weren’t forced to. lol)

  • Julie Sondra Decker

    Love the idea of “not quite book reviews.” I’m still a bit unsure of how to handle voicing my thoughts on books because I would LOVE to rave about the ones I like but I feel like it’s dishonest to just be silent on stuff I don’t like so much. I post mostly about books I love on my blog and I talk about what I dislike in books without connecting it to the books in question. Still planning to move onto Goodreads with some thoughts, but I’m buried these days. 🙂

    Thanks for the thoughts on this author!

    • Julie, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about reviews. I do rate books on Goodreads, but I don’t “review” them. Goodreads is just so fun!

  • jclementwall

    I love your Not Quite Book Reviews. I’m glad you’ve added the tag so they can all be found in one place.

    In this one, I found it interesting to think about the differences in style between horror then and horror now. Not just the language (which is one of the reasons I find reading from that period a bit of a slog, something I have to gear up for), but things like the structure of the story – the quick ending after the big reveal, versus the slower winding down, for instance. The evolution of a genre and its readers interests me.

    Looking forward to perusing your new category and seeing what I might have missed!

    • 🙂 Thanks j! I agree about the genre evolution bit. I’m fascinated by genres and readership in general. I read a pretty interesting article the other day about how horror has changed based on society’s deepest fears for various generations — wish I had the link! I’m sure many things have been written about modern readers and attention spans, too.