Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of MR James
Edited and with an Afterword by Stephen Jones
Published by Jo Fletcher Books, June 2012.
Review by Mark Yon
“M R James was a wonderful storyteller but he was not much of a stylist.” claims Stephen Jones in the first sentence of his Introduction to this new collection of Montague Rhodes James’ ghost stories.
Although Stephen then qualifies this further by saying, “Well, he was a stylist – but he wrote in a unique style that was very much all his own.” the point is perhaps a fair one.
I must admit that, for me, it is that uniqueness that makes M.R. one of my favourite ghost story writers. Nothing works quite as well for me at Halloween as I dip into my collections of his original published stories. Originally written as rough notes for his reading aloud to choristers at King’s College, Cambridge, they were evidently a highlight of the Christmas festivities.
There are many editions out there, including the recent Collected Ghost Stories by the Oxford University Press in October 2011. I have five of my own, all slightly different. So why look at another new collection?
Stephen has, some would say controversially, taken a brave step with this particular collection, in that he has re-punctuated some of the tales herein.
There are no doubt some who will be very upset by this. Stephen himself points out that there will be some readers ‘who might accuse me of vandalising the sacred text’. Thoughts of previous revisions, such as those with Robert E Howard’s Conan manuscripts or HP Lovecraft’s eldritch tales may be troubling.
This however is different, in that the original text has not been cut at all. Instead, Stephen has taken the pages of ‘unbroken print, complicated sentences and protracted paragraphs’ and reset them for a modern audience, with the intention of making the stories more accessible. ‘Letters, manuscripts and inscriptions are now clearly delineated within the body of the narrative and are presented here in a manner that simply clarifies the complex structure and manifold narratives employed within many of these stories.’
So: they’ve been given a tidy-up and a spring clean, as may be befitting stories about 150 years old. The variety of type fonts does work, and does make the different elements – references and documents within stories, footnotes and so on – clearer to follow and thus easier to read. The stories benefit from this. It’s clearly something that has been long overdue.
With that out of the way, let’s look at the book itself.
Though I am admittedly a fan, the stories are still marvellous. Atmospherically creepy, disturbing, and wonderfully English in their understated nature and simple statements of supernatural happenings, they may be too mannered for some readers tastes, but for many, like me, their inherent creepiness is eminently readable. They evoke thoughts of old Norman churches and graveyards, dark country lanes at night, of something watching you from the shadows, perhaps reading over your shoulder. Re-reading does not diminish the power of these stories. There’s little I can add to that, other than all the stories you would expect to be in such a collection are here. The book contains all thirty of the stories from the original four James collections.
More excitingly, this edition includes Living Night, a two page poem, and more than a dozen other rarer story fragments, including James’s only novel, The Five Jars (1920) a tale written possibly for, but felt to be too scary for, children in 1920. Some of the other extras here – Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb, Merfield House for example – are the only remaining fragments of the writing, a tantalising glimpse of some of James’ unfinished material. To be frank, the additions are interesting but not essential and Five Jars is a slim novel, but they are worth a read and do give the reader a better idea of James’ canon.
Lastly, at the back of the book is the fifty-page Afterword ‘The Stony Grin of Unearthly Malice’ by Stephen, a thorough biography of James and a summary of the publication history of James’s work, in text, audio and cinema, as well as a fairly balanced commentary by Jones on both the importance of MR James in the Horror genre and his legacy to other writers. To cap it off, there’s some lovely pictures throughout the Afterword (admittedly only in black and white) of some of the original publications and film posters of James’ work.
If you want a book containing more of James’ writing on other authors, then the Ash Tree Press book A Pleasing Terror (2001) may be more your thing. However, this edition covers pretty much the same material – I would say the essentials – for a much more reasonable price. (Stephen Jones says in the Afterword that copies of the out-of-print Pleasing Terror are going for about £300/$450 today, although a quick search on the Internet shows prices nearer £500/$750.)
Curious Warnings is a collection very much akin to those books of the Gollancz Black Library (GBL) series, much beloved by SFFWorld members. Not only is it like the GBL editions in a faux leather cover (although this time it is dark brown, not black) and with the same editor, it also has some sublime black and white drawings to illustrate from GBL artist Les Edwards. These drawings complement the tales enormously (and are something not in the Kindle edition.) To me, rarely has an author’s sense of unease been echoed with such care, if not relish, by an artist. The small title headings and the little motifs at the end of each tale, mainly of hooded figures, churches and bats, not to mention the creepy full page illustrations when they appear, make this edition book worth buying, if the tales themselves were not enough.
Though the contents cannot be complained about, some aspects of the physical books production stop this from being my definitive edition. On the slightly negative side, like an Everyman’s Library or an Easton Press Edition, for such a large, and some might say expensive edition, a bookmark ribbon would have been useful. More disappointingly, where in an Everyman’s or Easton edition there would have been red or gold gilt edging around the pages, in this edition we have black: a colour that marks easily and rubs annoyingly. The black dye also has the irritating effect of bleeding onto the edges of the page, and staining the reader’s fingers, which gives the pages a rather cheap look. Despite being handled very carefully, my copy was marked from the offset, and I believe that repeated readings of this one will not bode well. It’s rather a shame for such an otherwise quality book. However, to each their own – a deckled edge would have also caused concern on my part – but it would, in my opinion, have been better if the page edges had been a lighter colour or just left pristine white.
However, in summary, for any horror fan not aware of James’ writing, this is a superb introduction. It’s a book I will keep picking off the shelf late at night, dusting down and reading from – if not reading aloud from. It’s about time such an important and entertaining body of work was given the care and attention it deserves. Though there are issues with this one, it’s about as good as you can reasonably get.
Mark Yon, June 2012