M.R.James
M.R. James
The Antiquary himself

M.R. James is perhaps the most reliably frightening author I can think of. Although Montague Rhodes James only published 34 stories over the course of his life, each one is a polished gem of unwise inquiries, lurking supernatural threats and terrible ghostly vengeance. What could be better, with Halloween looming?

Published between  1895 and 1936, James’s ghost stories are slightly stuffy, off-handedly erudite, and almost impossibly creepy–the kind of creepy that makes locking all the doors and looking behind the furniture a rational reaction. His tales were influenced by his scholarly work as a medievalist and antiquarian, with many of them featuring archaic manuscripts and bookish protagonists, with the setting being often a small village or a country estate.

M.R. James also incorporated a subtle humor into his terrors, with side comments about social obligations and domestic disagreements. The contrast between the prosaic and the threatening unknown makes the effect all the more intense and hard to shrug off.

Although there are several collections to choose from, for the full M.R. James experience the Complete Ghost Stories is the way to go. This collection, which has never been out of print, contains all but the four stories he wrote after Complete Ghost Stories was published in 1931.

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Of, course, I have my particular favorites.

M.R. James“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” begins with the discovery of a small flute.

It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.

“Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” contains a trove of stolen, rare documents.

Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy. One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life.’

M.R. James“The Mezzotint” is a still life that is not so still.

It was indubitable — rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

Finally, “Lost Hearts”, which I have always found the most tragic of M.R. James’s stories.

His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself in the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church in Dublin, which possess the horrid property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart.

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While M.R. James exerted plenty of influence in the literary world (inspiring H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith, as well as John Bellairs, Ramsey Campbell, and Stephen King), his work had less impact on movies and television. The only full-length film version of one of his tales is the adaptation of  “Casting the Runes”, filmed as Night of the Demon (Curse of the Demon in the US) in 1957. James’s stories were adapted for television several times over the years, from a 1951 version of “The Tractate Middoth”, to the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas series in the 1970s that used five of James’s works,  to a chilling 2010 adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You” starring John Hurt.

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M.R. James’s Complete Ghost Stories has no scaly cosmic horrors, no carnage, and precious little blood. What it does have is an undeniably unnerving atmosphere that has held up for over a century. And whatever form you find them in, M.R. James’s stories can be counted on to make you look over your shoulder–just to be sure.

 

castle rock
castle rock
Scenic downtown Castle Rock

Castle Rock is Hulu’s finely-crafted ode to Stephen King’s intricate world-building. The series is faithful to the author’s voice and deep sense of nostalgia, and brimming over with familiar names and references. Originally released on July 25 and with the first season still unfolding, it has already been renewed for a second season. If it can grow past the limits of the familiar and the nostalgic, I am heartily behind it.

“People say, ‘It wasn’t me. It was this place.’ And they were right.”

So many threads from King’s mythos are knit together here that anyone familiar with his work will have no problem finding their bearings. The show is built layer upon layer, with a deeply felt sense of the community and its people. It highlights the skill King has always had of making his world big enough for his characters to have lives outside the confines of any particular story.

castle rock
Henry meets …someone

Castle Rock also evokes all the familiar themes of King’s work. It features good, decent, damaged people fighting their dark sides and often failing. There are the expected flashbacks to twelve-year-olds facing the origins of coming horror, godly true believers and evil incarnate, pedophiles, and magical African-Americans. And, of course, there is well-placed classic rock and blues.

“Nothing stays dead in this town.”

The cast is outstanding. André Holland plays Henry Matthew Deaver, death-row attorney and prodigal son at the heart of the unfolding mystery. Bill Skarsgård is…unnatural…as The Kid, a nameless prisoner discovered in a pit at Shawshank State Penitentiary. Scott Glenn gives retired sheriff Alan Pangborn a determined vitality, while Melanie Lynskey’s Molly Strand shows a quiet desperation beneath her ambition. Rounding out the main cast are Jane Levy as Jackie Torrance, writer and font of local knowledge, and Noel Fisher as Dennis Zalewski, a Shawshank prison guard who sets the story in motion while trying to do the right thing.

Assorted minor characters are well represented by the talented likes of Ann Cusack, Terry O’Quinn, Frances Conroy, and Rory Culkin, among many other.

castle rock
Sissy Spacek, the Once and Future Queen

But the absolute standout is Sissy Spacek. She brings the same convincing blend of fragility and strength to Ruth, Henry’s fierce and failing mother, as she did to her portrayal of Carrie in 1976. Episode 7, “The Queen”, is a star-turn.

Castle Rock‘s Needful Things

As good as Castle Rock is, it isn’t perfect. It takes itself very seriously, and the portentousness does wear after a while. At times the plot twists broadcast themselves, as when Alan teaches Ruth how to do sleight-of-hand. And a few characters have (so-far) opaque or non-existent motivations. This ends up creating inconsistencies in otherwise beautifully drawn characters. One false note is Jackie Torrance’s actions upon meeting the Kid. Another is Alan Pangborn’s wild goose chase. Both are clearly the needs of the plot, and not natural reactions from the characters. The sudden addition of Henry’s son to the goings on also feels like a set-up rather than a character-driven decision.

And just and aside:  While this is definitely a show for adult audiences, the graphic depiction of animal deaths surprised me. Human carnage? Not a problem. But I didn’t expect the Mr. Jingles stand-in to meet that particular fate on-screen.

The emerging evil in Castle Rock is signaled by wildfires, mass shootings, suicides, and ugly family conflicts. But while all the trappings and affected characters are comfortably familiar, the show has not so far taken that familiarity in a new or challenging direction. Castle Rock is a wonderfully done pastiche of all things King, but I am interested in seeing it grow beyond that. There are still three more episodes for Season One.

I guess we’ll just have to stay tuned.