by Phil Nast
Years ago, a good friend gave me a copy of Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M. R. James. I’d read “The Mezzotint” before, but the remaining stories were all new to me. It was a happy meeting. James was a medieval scholar and most of his stories take the form of tales told to friends before a fire. In fact, many were presented by James to friends as Christmas entertainment. I remember the stories being awkward to read aloud. The language can be stiff and the stories filled with antiquarian details that might not appeal to young listeners. But the plots are truly creepy. The language can be adapted.
After I read the collection, I retold some of James’s stories to my oldest daughter as I walked her home from elementary school. We’d get to the front door with my hand squeezed tightly in hers. She still reminds me of how much I scared her with “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” and “An Episode of Cathedral History” while walking in bright sunshine. Like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House and Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, M. R. James’s stories aren’t gruesome. Search M.R. James using the site index. They work the same way your imagination works when you’re alone in a dark house on a windy night and the staircase creaks.
With Halloween coming up, ghost stories are in season. The Literary Gothic is a good source of e-texts. In addition to M.R. James, I recommend “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, “Squire Toby’s Will” by J.S. Le Fanu, and the “The Empty House” by Algernon Blackwood. You’ll see find stories by other well-known authors, some of which you might not associate with ghost stories: Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott, and H. G. Wells.
Some other online sources of e-texts are Gaslight E-texts, The Supernatural Omnibus, Classic Horror Short Stories, and Literature of the Fantastic. The web is constantly gaining and losing resources, but at this writing, these sites were still active.
In print, The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories collects 42 stories from 1829 to 1981. Two of my favorites are “Smee” by A.M. Burrage and “The Clock” by W.F. Harvey. You can read “Smee” at Scary for Kids. You can also listen to a reading of “Smee.” The text of Harvey’s “The Clock” can be found here.
By the way, W.F. Harvey also wrote “The Beast with Five Fingers,” a tale about a severed hand that kills to recover a stolen ring. The text of the story can be found here. “The Beast with Five Fingers” was filmed a number of times, once in 1946 with Peter Lorre and again in 1981 with Michael Caine. The 1946 version is truer to the story. The image of the murderous hand creeping in the shadows on all fives still gives me the willies.
You can also find an Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories and Twentieth Century Ghost Stories, as well as two books aimed at younger readers: The Young Oxford Book of Ghost Stories, Volumes 1 and 2. There are many other similar collections from other publishers. Also for younger readers are Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghostly Gallery and Haunted Houseful. These were published in the early 60s but might still be in local libraries.
Audio files of Alfred Hitchcock’s Ghost Stories for Young People are available on Youtube. The stories are read by Hitchcock.
Atmosphere adds to the stories. After one terrific storm, we lost power for a week, and I offered to read M.R. James by candlelight. The kids politely declined. I read them Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising instead. Who can figure?