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Book review: Collected Ghost Stories, By MR James

The don and the damned: a master of terror returns

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) may seem an unlikely figure to be the master of the English ghost yarn. You would not expect a man who was Provost of King's College, Cambridge, Provost of Eton and a member of the Order of Merit to have written the deeply creepy "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" or "Casting of the Runes", later adapted as Night of the Demon, a 1957 horror flick. Yet, as Darryl Jones shows in his introduction to this immaculately edited edition, James was far odder than his CV suggests.

This pillar of the educational establishment held an appropriately stony view of intellectual speculation. "No thinking, gentlemen, please," James admonished his students. He opposed the abolition of compulsory Greek from the Cambridge curriculum and obstructed degrees for women. He detested domesticity and modernity. His sexuality, described by Jones as "simultaneously unknowable and all-persuasive", found outlet in "ragging and other... horseplay".

But "it is the very limitations of James's personal, social and intellectual horizons that account for the brilliance of his ghost stories." His weird academic output, such as his 1924 Apocryphal New Testament, fed his ghost stories with arcane detail. His "life-long arachnophobia" was equally productive.

The consecutive reading of these yarns reveals James's scope for inventing a seemingly limitless variety of grisly dénouements, preceded by unsettling hints and the enthralling power of his well-crafted prose. In "Oh Whistle…", the cartoon cliché of the sheet-swathed ghost is transformed into "a horrible, intensely horrible face of crumpled linen." In his brilliant exploitation of a popular genre, James stands comparison with Conan Doyle.

For those with a taste for terror, the days around Halloween are exactly the right time to sample eerie vignettes set in quadrangle, cloister, or on a beach at dusk. Their potency when read aloud by James to cronies in his candlelit study can be imagined. Or, perhaps better, not.