#tobyreads: Some Brief Notes on M.R. James

MR James

Over the summer, I made the trip down to Gowanus to visit the Morbid Anatomy Museum. It was something I’d been meaning to do for a while; I’d contributed to their Kickstarter campaign, and thus had a paid-for admission waiting for me as well. It’s a great space, with a particularly fascinating area of focus, and I’m really excited about how it will evolve in the coming years. Also: the cafe and gift shop is pretty excellent, with an excellent array of books dealing with the uncanny in both fictional and nonfictional ways on sale. I picked up a couple while I was there, one of which was Casting the Runes, a collection of ghost stories by M.R. James.

I’ve been reading it over the past couple of months in stages, which I realize isn’t my usual way of reading. But I feel like these stories are best read on their own; take in too many at once and you’re liable to feel a little overwhelmed by James’s tone and the groundrules of his universe. This isn’t to say it’s formulaic, given that James is one of the writers who helped establish the formula; rather, it’s like getting a massive box of candy. It might be different varieties, but (for me) the best option seems to be to savor the work here, rather than try to devour it all at once.

These stories are largely written from the perspective of witnesses: either those who encountered something unearthly and survived, or are passing along an account of someone else who wasn’t quite so lucky. And in them, certain motifs recur: there’s certainly a fear of the flat-out unknown present here, but there’s also a sense of the past as something that can leap out at you, that the accumulated weight of what’s come before is as potentially dangerous and nightmare-inducing as the creepy figure in the corner, watching and waiting.

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