M.R. James Is a Bit of a Jerk

Many years ago when I was knee-high to a grasshopper (what does that even mean?), I used to scare myself to sleep with ghost stories. I would habitually stay awake reading until 2, 3 or even 4 in the morning, and then spend at least 15 minutes building up the courage to turn off the light for sleep. Depending on the quality of the stories I’d read that night, the light might stay on.

I found that when it came to scary stories, I favoured both short fiction and British authors from an era gone by. Something about the supernatural and inexplicable, combined with a healthy descriptive restraint, burrowed into my brain and lodged in its emotional core. I read some collections but mostly anthologies, and two of my very favourite texts were edited by Michael Cox (a book editor) and R.A. Gilbert (an antiquarian bookseller). I highly recommend them both:

The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

The latter title included a story by M.R. James called ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. And I hated it. Hated it with a bizarre passion. It was stupid and boring, I told myself, and I felt let down that Cox and Gilbert, whom I trusted, would consider it a worthy read for connoisseurs or even novices of the genre. That night the light stayed off.

The next night, despite not having read any further stories, the light stayed on.

You see, this story that I thought I despised had got into my head. I kept thinking about it, and I couldn’t stop. Unlike most ghost stories that evoke thrilling fear only for their duration, the horror (mistaken for hate) I felt from ‘Oh Whistle’ actually grew after the story finished.

From that moment on I sought out every ghost story James had ever written and read them multiple times. I wanted to know who he was and how he did his job so well, how he wrote stories that often seemed tame but got under my skin in the worst way. James took a back seat to study and work as I got older, but when I decided to do a master’s degree in history in my late twenties, I did it on James and his stories (look, he died in 1936 – that makes him history so it’s totally not cheating).

It turns out James was a rather pleasant, old-fashioned, even-tempered man who just happened to have a knack for scaring the living crap out of multiple generations of readers.