In honor of M.R. James reading these ghost stories out loud on Christmas Eve at Cambridge, I read these stories out loud to my family over a series of evenings. My primary impression? Enjoyable, but not very scary or chilling. Like M.R., most of the main characters are scholars. And for the most part, these scholars are not the ones narrating the story. That task is left to other scholars who stumble upon collections of letters, journals, or local histories that tell of prior events. This approach adds distance between the reader and events being described, diluting the impact of the ghost stories.
James also places distance (doubt) between readers and the exact nature or appearance of the evil being confronted. Instead of seeing bodies crawling out of sarcophagi, the main protagonist sees the open locks on the floor of the mausoleum and runs. Instead of an entity toying with the scholars directly, they watch events unfold in an old photograph. Instead of meeting the sketchy being in No. 13, we get snippets from shadows on walls, glances of sleeves at neighboring windows, and flashes of a skinny aged arm as it claws at turned backs. I wonder if James influenced Spielberg's approach to Jaws, where the audience doesn't see the shark for the first 95 percent of the film. In some instances, the unseen terrifies more than the seen. James describes the unseen beautifully, but then compromises it's power to move readers through academic distance.
What can I say? I need more immediacy with my darkness. I want storytellers to help me see sweat on terrified brows, anticipate spectral fingers grasping at unaware hotel guests, and experience the addled mind of the hunted. James gives me something too safe for my taste.
Despite my overall disappointment with the ghost stories, I did enjoy James' wry sense of humor. Here's the opening paragraph of "Number 13": "[H]ard by [the town of Viborg, Denmark] is Finderup, where Marsk Stig murdered King Erik Glipping on St. Cecilia's Day, in the year 1286. Fifty-six blows of square-headed iron maces were traced on Erik's skull when his tomb was opened in the seventeenth century. But I am not writing a guide-book." Some guide book! James' stories have entertaining moments, I'll give him that. No doubt, many people weighing whether or not to read "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" will enjoy themselves more than I did. And since it's free in ebook format on Project Gutenburg, I'd encourage folks to give James a try. He is a legend of dark fiction, after all.