A Warning to the Curious

Christmas is approaching so it’s time for….ghosts?? 

Perhaps ghosts are something people relate more to Halloween, but traditionally, in the UK at least, ghost stories are told at Christmastime too. There is of course Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with his famous ghosts, but I thought I’d take the time to talk a little bit about some of my favourite ghost stories. 

In my mind there is no greater teller of ghost stories than M.R. James. If you’ve read any collection of ghost stories, then it is inevitable that you have read some of his work. I have a battered old Penguin edition of his ghost stories that has survived at least eight house moves and still moves me to delight when I come across it unexpectedly.  

Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

The first story I ever read of his was Rats which was in a children’s collection of scary stories that I borrowed from my Primary school library. What on earth that story was doing in a children’s book I have no idea, but it chilled me to the bone and continues to do so. Having read it countless times since, I can still vividly imagine the inn and the events of the story. That sense of mystery, the peeking through the mysterious room, the link to some archaeological mystery (a common theme in James’ stories)…all spooky stuff. Other favourites of mine include Lost Hearts, The Mezzotint and of course Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. I’ve often thought that Lost Hearts would make a great stop motion animation and I still get creeped out when I’m in a bathroom in an old house that has a small window above the door.  

Lost Hearts by Les Edwards

So, what makes his ghost stories so enthralling? Many of the stories either involve a rather stuffy academic type and take place in settings such as private schools, churches, manor houses and lonely seaside inns. This rather genteel, very Edwardian/Victorian atmosphere is classic ghost story territory and indeed coined their own term – ‘Jamesian’ to describe ghost stories of this type. The stories masterfully build up to the main event and have an otherworldly, uncanny atmosphere and genuine creepiness. There is an imaginative variety of ghouls and ghosts and a common theme is around the dangers of curiosity – A Warning for the Curious perhaps, as indeed one of the stories is titled. 

In my most recent catalogue from The Folio Society there is a gorgeous edition of M.R. James ghost stories that I’ve been lusting after. Perhaps I’ll treat myself in the new year (although it might feel like cheating on my trusty old copy). If you are interested, James’ work is out of copyright now so should be easy to find online. Worth having a paper copy to read in a darkened room of a windy night though. Preferably by candlelight in an old country inn.

mezzotint Rich Johnson
The Mezzotint by Rich Johnson

Sticking to the Supernatural theme, on my To Read list I’ve got some more supernaturally inclined books to work my way through including: 

Melmoth by Sarah Perry
The Loney & Devil’s Day  by Andrew Michael Hurley
The Coffin Path by Katherine Clements

Which all appear to have rather crappy Goodreads scores. I’ve noticed whether it’s books or film, people tend to judge scary stories more harshly than other genres. I sometimes feel people expect far more from these genres than they do others but hey, their loss.

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