I have a love for English ghost stories, particularly those stemming from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Many of today's attempts at horror include gore and sensational storylines. I prefer the quite murmurs of fear Susan Hill inspires in readers in her book The Woman In Black. I am, as I have previously confessed, also a lover of books. When I walk into a second hand or used book store, I feel as though I am embarking on an adventure. What marvels shall I encounter? That said, I was in a used bookstore in London, Ontario a few years ago and picked up a copy of M.R. James' Collected Ghost Stories. It is a modern edition, though I love it just the same. I had never heard of this author before, but because this book had been published by the same publishers as another collection of works I enjoy, I purchased the book. The story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' was the first story I read, and I made the mistake of reading the story late at night.
M.R. James (1862-1936) was a medievalist and provost of King's College Cambridge. Allegedly, he identified himself very much with the Victorian age, and did not like ways in which the 'modern' world was progressing. James never married; the academic world was his home and sanctuary. Most of his stories reflect these details about his life. His stories are cast in dusty academic settings, where the antiquarian and university professor are the heroes (or victims). The past is a mysterious entity, which, if pushed and prodded too vigorously by the curious, can retaliate and reveal its lessons with terrifying severity.
James wrote his ghost stories to entertain a select group of friends and fellow scholars at Cambridge at Christmastime. This is why I felt it appropriate to share the stories of M.R. James with you in early December, so that you may also take part in the Victorian tradition of sharing ghost stories at Christmas.
The BBC has some very good television productions of several of his stories as part of their 'Ghost Stories for Christmas' series. A View from a Hill (2005) is a good place to start, as is 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (1968).
The University of Adelaide, a most useful website, has posted the collected works of M.R. James online here.
For a more complete observation of the life and works of M.R. James, as well as details of film, radio and theater productions of his stories, the site 'A Thin Ghost' is a good place to start.