#21: GHOSTS. Pauline Kael once wondered if maybe the idea of musicals wasn’t more fun than most musicals you actually get to see. Ghost stories always sound like a great idea, but in most anthologies of the form for every bit of real hair-raising genius—every story by Sheridan LeFanu, say— you get a dozen moldy old Victorian attempts where the characters are undead but the prose is not.
My favorite master of the form is M.R. James, whose four slender volumes puts him on the shelf next to Doyle and Dumas and Stevenson. I group James in my mind with the great nineteenth-century popular fiction writers, but he published in the ‘teens and twenties and that surely is the key to the mischievous, witty and nimble quality in his prose: we get to have the braces scared clean off our teeth, and we also get the kick of how much James enjoys doing it to us. The mainly Victorian settings—rural, churchy, faintly bookish—seem deliberately and amusingly conventionalized; James sets his unsuspecting characters in motion, and we settle into the purring, confident prose; then he gets us, with one beautifully-timed flipover from the urbane to the maleficent. Just as Carroll and Austen fulfilled their geniuses in their few works—we can hardly conceive of there being others, or more of them—so James’s complete literary existence fits neatly and uncramped into his collected stories.
The only other book of James’s that seems to turn up is Abbeys (London, Great Western Railway, 1926), which is handsomely illustrated and certain proof that the antiquarianism he teases in his stories was with him a matter of knowledge more encyclopedic than mere enthusiasm.