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Wednesday 17 November 2010

Reviving a Creepy Tradition

Simply titled "Ghost Stories: Volume Two", this audio book is distinctly different from other classical collections I have listened to or read in the past. The reason for this being that each of the four tales contained within are the works of M.R. James. Despite an undeniable legacy and influence over the genre in the 20th century, James's tales are still very different from what we expect in the horror or, more specifically, the ghost short story genre. They often have the superficial criteria of a contemporary pompous upper-middle class scholar uncovering an ancient object in a remote area and subsequently becoming haunted by a supernatural entity or curse. This has become known as Jamesian. They are also not particularly horrifying, not by today's standards, not by the standards of his day and not for the standards of Victorian ghost or horror stories that preceded them. These are stories that create atmosphere and imply an unknown menace, which are perfect for the function James originally intended them: as fireside tales to be told at night to a group of gathered friends.
Typically James's listeners were aimed at the undergraduate or graduates of his time, which is probably why the story's hero is often cast as something of a stuffy intellectual; someone like a university lecturer and someone who should be above such lowbrow fancies as the believing in the existence of the supernatural.
However, there is another distinctly different element feel and style that M.R. James uses that has helped him to become known as "The Father of the Modern Ghost Story". This is the strong emphasis on the imaginative psychological element. From The Haunting - both the book and the original film - to The Omen, the Jamesian ghost story is a tale that leaves it up to the reader or, more appropriately, the listener to make up their own mind over the supernatural element.
I was unaware of this new series of audio books on the works of M.R. James, so I missed out on the first volume. Nevertheless I was impressed. The audio book is the perfect medium for M.R. James's work and in this instance the stories are told by Derek Jacobi, not only a great British actor but also an experienced narrator. He may not have Christopher Lee's booming intensity, when he read the M.R. James stories for television in 2000, but his slightly hushed tones that gently speed up during moments of excitement are very much in line with the way one would imagine the hero of the stories might talk. If Lee does well to evoke the scary atmosphere of James's work, Jacobi's strength lies in the way he speaks for a story's characters. The production values for the audio book are ideal. The eerie musical accompaniment at the beginning and the end is just enough to enhance the stories and leaving the narration uninterrupted.
This volume contains stories selected for broadcasting and is not put in any sort of chronological order or as part of one of the collections James published. They are "A Warning for the Curious", which was part of 1925's "A Warning to the Curious" collection, "The Mezzontint", which was part of the first collection entitled "Ghost Stories of Antiquary" published in 1904, "The Stalls of Burchester Cathedral" which was part of "More Ghost Stories of Antiquary" published in 1911 and "A Neighbour's Landmark", which was also part of the "A Warning to the Curious" collection.
"A Warning to the Curious" breaks the Jamesian formula to some degree by having a distinctly horrific description of a corpse. The story is about an individual's search for an ancient Saxon crown that turns out to be cursed. "The Mezzotint" is about an ancient engraving that seems to change in appearance at each renewed viewing and, for obvious reason, reminded me of "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" to a small degree. The journal of an archdeacon reveals the set of circumstances that led to his untimely death in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral". And "A Neighbour's Landmark" follows the curiosity of a man who wishes to investigate a story he believes exists behind the line of a folk song, "Than that which walks in Betton Wood Knows why it walks or why it cries".
Despite M.R. James's undeniable ability to create atmosphere this cannot really be done with someone uninterested in this type of story. Atmosphere really is the key word. I first listened to this CD when I was driving on a typical autumn morning, weather and time conditions perhaps better suited for Winnie the Pooh than early 20th century ghost stories. Despite knowing and liking both the works of M.R. James and the talents of Derek Jacobi I found it a little difficult to concentrate. The CD is best listened to under the correct conditions. As much as James is described as the father of modern ghost stories and it is often mentioned that another distinction of his work was that they were set in contemporary times, it is also important to remember that these time were the times of his day. The stories have dated. With this in mind we need to settle ourselves down and put our minds back to the first couple of decades of the 20th century rather expect an immediate connection to now or very recent history. Finally, they were written to be listened to in a darkened room or around a fire at the end of a day with a very willing yet relaxed audience. Better still put it on around Christmas Eve and resurrect an old tradition!
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