An Appreciation of M. R. James

Author Susan Price on 'the father of modern ghost stories.'

          I know I’m not alone in considering M. R. James one of the greatest writers of ghost stories ever.  I remember reading several of his stories, one after another, one dark winter’s afternoon, while alone in the house.  I was in the kitchen, making a snack, when I heard a quiet, stealthy scratching from inside a cupboard…  After I’d dropped down from the light-fitting, I discovered that the noise had been made by a bundle of crumpled plastic bags expanding.  Ever since I’ve thought James’ stories should carry a health warning: ‘One story a day.  Do not exceed dosage.’


         Something I hadn’t appreciated until recently was that James is considered ‘the father of the modern ghost story’ because he did away with Gothic trappings of dungeons and ruins, and set it in what was – for him – the modern world.

      He thought this necessary because he wanted his reader to feel: "If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!' His modernity is easy to overlook now, because James’ antiquarians in bath-chairs seem so quaint and old-fashioned to us.

         I have nothing against the Gothic, but I largely agree with James on this.  I have set ghost stories in the past – 'Davy', in Hauntings, is one – but most of mine take place in the present, or what was the present when I wrote them.


        The world is a very strange place. The very fact that each of us is alive and self-aware is strange beyond all understanding.  One thing that a story of the supernatural can do is show this ever-present strangeness, to throw a spotlight on the strangeness that exists alongside, or hidden underneath, the everyday.  That’s why ‘Beautiful’, in Nightcomers, is set in a huge shopping mall – I wrote it after hearing my brother, who worked in one, describe what the place was like after-hours, as he made his way through it to the bus-stop.

          It’s why The Landing Window is set on a modern housing estate (even if in an old house); and why Coming Home Late’ is set in a block of council flats.  (And consider that there is more than one meaning to ‘late’.)
          Like James, I want my readers to think this might happen to them!
          I’m also with James when he says: Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it…’  Somewhere he comments that he could  make a reader physically sick, if he chose, but he scorns to do so, because it’s too easy.  It’s far more difficult, he says, to write something that is eerie, unsettling – or haunting, which is why I gave my collection that title.  Don’t come to my stories for all-out, gross-out horror.  No – I don’t want to sicken  you.  I want to get under your skin, to stay with you.
          In short, to haunt you.  It’s for you to say whether I succeed, but that’s my intent.