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.
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.