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His ghost stories transformed the genre like a galvanic shock. His universe – the one which made him famous as a first rate writer of ghost stories – is not one of clear boundaries between good and evil, but one in which the two merge and blend, trespass and encroach. He was deeply concerned about human corruption – both more broadly in society and individually within the spirit – and this plays out chillingly in his best tales. Obsession drives his victims to remove themselves from the company of mankind towards some undead, antique relic or knowledge – an artifact found on a wind-lashed beach, a treasure hidden in a monastery well, a book inscribed with a secret code, an overgrown hedge-maze with a sinister past, or even a Gothic dollhouse.
But something stands in the way of enjoying the find: there is a cipher which must be solved, a historical connection which must be researched, or an intellectual puzzle which must be grappled and mastered. Fate either resists or – worse yet – clears the way for the seeker, until they have unlocked the enigma and in the process learned something uncomfortable about themselves and the universe around them. Instead of bringing them inner satisfaction, these mystical journeys end with them in strange and unwanted company: a hairy, spidery demon, slimy, tentacled elemental, or gaunt, mummified revenant is now standing in front of them with open arms, rushing forward to initiate this new kinsman into a fraternity of death. To this day, M. R. James is considered the undisputed dean of the modern ghost story.
The tales that follow are of vengeful spider goblins, forgotten relics and haunted treasures, undead wizards accompanied by Lovecraftian monstrosities, pictures that change at night, entombed vampires released by unwitting meddlers, and bony ghosts who slither through windows at night to execute their brutal, Old Testament revenge on their living enemies. They are tales to read at night – as Monty always did for the Chitchat Society – with a single candle by your elbow and an eye ever glancing to the dark window just out of sight. But they are also tales to make you think about the life well-lived – both socially as a society and psychologically as an individual. What are these demons, he asks, that we have summoned to trouble ourselves? What monsters are squirming in the pit of your own soul, and if you wish to confront them, will you flush them out with light and laughter and warmth, or will they wrap their arms around you when you are alone at night, and press their cold, moist faces against yours?
TALES INCLUDED in this ANNOTATED EDITION:
Canon Alberic's Scrapbook
Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance
The Haunted Doll's House
A View From a Hill
A School Story
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
An Episode of Cathedral History
A Warning to the Curious