BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness: M R James

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is it’s dark hold on our collective imaginations.

Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, a collection of chilling tales from one of the great purveyors of ghost stories.

Montague Rhodes James seems like an unlikely influence on the Horror Genre. A scholar and antiquarian, his works have the feel of stories told around the fire on dark nights with friends, and by all accounts this is indeed the origin of many of them. He feels, in many ways, like a reply to my criticism of Poe, where for all I enjoyed his writing I felt he was guilty of overwriting, of hammering home his own gothic cleverness, whereas James chills you with understatement, subtlety, and letting your mind insert much of the horror for you.

James does not explain himself. His stories recount events, often first hand, that defy rational explanation and rarely attempt to provide one. The reader, like the characters, at left faced with a glimpse into something beyond their rational world, flash of something untoward, and often left unharmed yet unsettled. Personally, I think it’s wonderful – chilling rather than over-the-top “horror”, rational narratives at a loss to explain irrational events, and a clean, authoritative style that always seems to keep the tales to the right length. “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” gave me proper chills, as did “Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”.

The other thing that stands out is that they don’t feel at all dated. Turn of the Screw, for all I liked it, feels like a peice of its time, but there is a modernity to M R James work for all it features academics and writers as lead characters. Spooky goings on in spooky environments are all very well, but James seems to handle the intersection of worlds very well, and builds a lot of his work around it – and looking forward to writers like Lovecraft in the next few weeks I suspect I’m going to see a lot of that influence.

There’s just something about the short story format that works for Ghost Stories, I think. Quickly in, quickly out, and I’m not sure – though I’d love to be proved wrong – that a longer form would suit them. After all, what James seems to prove is that leaving this stuff unexplained lets your mind seep into the cracks and fill in the gaps with whatever scares you, personally. Over-explaining it reduces the options to what scares the author, which may not always intersect.

It seems that with both Turn of the Screw and now M R James, ghost stories hit a button with me that maybe some of the other horror I’ve been exposed to doesn’t. That’s certainly something to think on.

Next time: The antediluvian cosmic horrors of H P Lovecraft.

Any comments, feedback or opinions welcome either below or via twitter @thegrampus.

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