and; his face expressed horror and disgust, yet there was in it also the mark of imperious command and confident power. The left half of the picture was the strangest, however. The interest plainly centred there.
On the pavement before the throne were grouped four soldiers, surrounding a crouching figure which must be described in a moment. A fifth soldier lay dead on the pavement, his neck distorted, and his eye-balls starting from his head. The four surrounding guards were looking at the King. In their faces, the sentiment of horror was intensified; they seemed, in fact, only restrained from flight by their implicit trust in their master. All this terror was plainly excited by the being that crouched in their midst.
I entirely despair of conveying by any words the impression which this figure makes upon anyone who looks at it. I recollect once showing the photograph of the drawing to a lecturer on morphology--a person of, I was going to say, abnormally sane and unimaginative habits of mind. He
M R James was the master of the brand of horror that emerges from the everyday. Subtle in its initial intensity, by the end of the story you cannot help feeling scared in a way that remains with you long afterwards. In James's world, it is what you cannot see that terrifies; the unseen horrors whose face is only revealed when all the comforts of reality have been stripped away and it is far too late to run. This is fear that drives the victim to insanity...or worse.
The Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James are truly unique in the genre in that they have very little to do with ghosts. They are not frightening, disturbing, horrific, suspenseful or even especially thought provoking however there is certainly a bland kind of interest coupled with a calm almost uneventful flow of the story which I find very comfortable. In truth they almost all deal with books, manuscripts, documents, archives or libraries. As one reads the book one has very much the feeling that he is seated in a comfortable chair in a darkened university library passing the time with a well written but not especially engrossing novel. In truth this may not seem an especially strong recommendation for the book however as I read the book on a lazy Saturday afternoon and evening whilst the sky was overcast and the rain seemed unending I found it an enjoyable and satisfying experience.
Mr. James was apparently a well known medievalist and Cambridge professor who enjoyed telling these stories to his students. It is not known if the enjoyment was reciprocated. Henry David Throeau once wrote “Read the best books first, or you may not have a chance to read them at all.” Were I to follow Throeau's advice I would put this book about at the 50/50 mark.
These stories will keep you up all night.
If you have a curiosity about classic ghost stories, this is the place to start. M. R. James is considered the greatest of the post-Victorian ghost story writers. These stories were actually written for Christmas Eves, upon which he would read them by candlelight to a gathering of his students and other professors.
It's interesting that, while we consider him a "ghost story" writer, James often gives us something other than a ghost. His true interest is antiquarianism (ancient documents and histories) and his characters are usually pursuing some discovery along those lines when they unearth something best left undisturbed. More often than not, it's not quite a ghost--but it's something quite unpleasant just the same. James had a number of followers who attempted just this formula for writing the supernatural tale. We call them Jamesians.
Read one of these late at night (one is plenty), with a nice glass of wine and perhaps a wavering candle. Then sleep with the lights off. I dare ya.