Sunday, October 29, 2017

Count Magnus and Other Stories by M. R. James

So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far.  What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and he declares, not the mouth of a human being.

M. R. James was a well-regarded Classical scholar who also happened to dabble in ghost stories. His stories are often described as "antiquarian," and they read exactly like the kind of story you might expect a Classical scholar to write.  The ghosts, ghouls, and monsters are often relics of a past age, accessed through a spooky artifact like an illuminated manuscript.  In one of the best stories, "The Mezzotint," the supernatural object is actually just a lithograph print depicting a country house, but the collector who acquires it notices that every time he looks at it a frightening shrouded figure has moved to a new spot in the picture, until he's made his way into the house and carried out an unsuspecting little boy.  They also take place against the backdrop of the stuffy world of Oxbridge; another story, "Casting the Runes," is all about a devious alchemist who uses his black magic to seek revenge on the scholar who refused to publish his monograph.  In another standout, "A School Story," a murdered man communicates with his murderer through his students' Latin exercises.

The best thing, I think, about James' stories, is how frightening and particular the various monsters are.  There's the mouth under the pillow above, but I also liked the monster from "Canon Alberic's Scrap Book," which has "[p]ale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled."  These disheveled ghouls are a perfect contrast to the gentility and decorum of James' professors and barristers and classicists.

My favorites are: "Number 13," in which the title hotel room appears at night and disappears during the day, housing a man who once made a deal with the devil to escape the hangman's noose, and the title story, "Count Magnus," about a medieval count who continues to hang out with demons long after his death.  Count Magnus is hardly ever seen, but the story is a masterwork of suspense.  Like most of the stories here, it's reported through several layers of hearsay, but that fails to dilute this image: "Also Anders Bjornsen was there, but he was dead.  And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away from his bones."  Nice.  Happy Halloween, everyone!

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