Saturday, January 04, 2014

Ghost Stories

On Christmas Day we watched 'The Tractate Middoth,' an M. R. James ghost story adapted and directed by Mark Gatiss. It was enjoyable, but I don't think M. R. James is all that easy to adapt. So much of the pleasure of reading him is in the tone of the writing. More interesting for me was the documentary on M. R. James that followed, which was excellent and told me a lot I didn't know. Anyway, between them the two programmes sent me back to the stories and I settled down to read one of my favourites, 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook,' and realised all over again what a master James is. The story is a lesson in suspense. Denniston is a middle-aged don, rather fussy, sceptical, not all inclined to believe in the supernatural. He is exploring a church in the foothill of the Pyrenees and is at a loss to account for the behaviour of the sacristan who is conducting him round the church - the fellow is unaccountably jumpy - not that Denniston tries very hard, engrossed as he is in photographing the architecture of the church. The afternoon wears on: 'the short day was drawing in, and the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises - the muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day - seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent.' This still gives me a little frisson. We see things from Denniston's point of view and yet we see more than he does, and are well aware that something very unpleasant is coming. As the story unfolds Denniston continues to view sinister events in a rational light, but eventually even he starts to feel uneasy until back in his room in the inn, 'his attention was caught by an object lying in the red cloth just by his left elbow. Two or three ideas of what it might be flitted through his brain with their own incalculable quickness. A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black, A large spider? I trust to goodness not - no. Good God! a hand like the hand in the picture!' You'll have to read the story to find out what happens next. I think it is one of the most perfect of the stories, but I also very much like 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,' 'Casting the Runes,' and 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance.' It's one of the signs of a good writer that they are endlessly rereadable and M.R. James has that in spades.

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