Published by Penguin and Oxford University Press
“I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own…”
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas
M.R. James is one of the best—if not the best—ghost story writer in the English language. Born in 1862, he went on to become a medieval scholar at Cambridge University (his academic work is still highly respected). But he is best known for his ghost stories, which he used to write and read aloud to friends.
James took the ghost story—which at the time, tended towards the Gothic—and made it contemporary. His protagonists are often scholars, antiquarians like himself, who stumble across a medieval document or artefact that opens the gates to another world, letting in a creature that shouldn’t be there.
My personal favourite is “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” in which Professor Parkins goes to Burnstow, a seaside town, for a holiday. Walking on the beach, he picks up an old whistle, probably dating back from the time of the Templars. As he walks home, Prof. Parkins notices behind him “a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any progress”. When he gets back to his hotel, he examines the whistle and blows it, without thinking that it would summon the thing following him. (Where would we be if characters in horror stories behaved sensibly?)
There are so many great stories here: “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”, where a man solves the mystery of a lost treasure only to awaken its guardian; “Casting the Runes”, in which a man uses a curse on someone only to have it backfire on him; “Number 13”, where a guest at an inn staying in Room 14 finds that the non-existent room 13 next to him appears only at night; “The Haunted Doll’s House”, which plays out a scene of murder every night; and “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, where an archdeacon has to pay for a murder he committed.
What makes these stories effective is that James often uses suggestion rather than description, letting the reader’s mind fill in the details. I find this far more frightening. In his hands, an unmade bed becomes terrifying, as does a large cat. In “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”, the archdeacon—who lives alone—notes in his diary that on his way to bed one night, at the top of the staircase, “a cat—a large one by the feel of it—slipped between my feet, but again, I saw nothing. It may have been the kitchen cat, but I do not think it was.” Then another night some days later, “The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not to be rid of it in my room. … The cat was on the stairs tonight. I think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.”
Some of these stories have been made into films by the BBC, the latest being The Mezzotint directed by Mark Gatiss. There is also an audio book with selected stories, read by Andrew Sachs. Just the thing you need in the middle of a dark night!
Interesting fact: For the last 18 years of his life, M.R. James was Provost of Eton College. As Provost, he sat on an interview panel for a student named Christopher Lee, who later played James on television.
 From the website Interesting Literature (https://interestingliterature.com/2016/10/a-very-short-biography-of-m-r-james/).