October 31, 2006 6:23 PM   Subscribe

Hadn't read any of these - nice. Something about the older stories makes them more fun (in a creepy way) than the overtly blood and gore style stories of today.
posted by caution live frogs at 7:28 PM on October 31, 2006

Those were totally fun to read. I have never heard of M.R. James and now I have. Thanks Iridic.
posted by DeepFriedTwinkies at 7:48 PM on October 31, 2006

Excellent. I've seen an old 1960s black and white adaptation of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You" which was very understated and spooky, but I hadn't read the short story. Thank you!
posted by andraste at 8:00 PM on October 31, 2006

Very nice. "Oh Whistle..." remains one of the creepiest stories I've read.
M.R. James, F. Marion Crawford, W.F. Harvey, Algernon Blackwood, Ambrose Bierce...these are among the best of the genre.
A truly macabre ghost story is so much more satisfying than the slasher idiocy so prevalent today.

Thanks for posting this, Iridic.
And Happy Halloween.
posted by cows of industry at 8:39 PM on October 31, 2006

Not to rain on your parade at all, but all these stories and more are available via Project Gutenberg. I only mention it because Project Gutenberg isn't an astonishingly ugly 1997-style website with frames and animated gifs.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:12 PM on October 31, 2006

In addition to the above, The Mezzotint is a favorite of mine. The Ash Tree and A Warning to the Curious are ominous tales with shades of H.R. Lovecraft. And Number Thirteen is just bizarre and spooky. A Neighbour's Landmark is vividly bleak... pity that no one has put that online. There's also a story I can't remember that involves a visitor arriving at an abandoned rural house on a bright sunny day and having a disturbing encounter with a ghost in a sunlit room... great stuff.

I have to say that you don't drill down into these stories for plot or action... the canvas of dark moods and eerie visuals are half of the recipe, if not more.
posted by rolypolyman at 9:16 PM on October 31, 2006

Whistle And I'll Come to You, Count Magnus, and A Warning to the Curious are the best. I think his stories should fall into the public domain quite soon. There was a very nice complete annotated works of his that came out a few years ago, but I never got a hold of it.

Can any Latin scholars/cryptographers figure out FLA FUR BIS FLE? (From Whistle And I'll Come to You.)
posted by stammer at 9:59 PM on October 31, 2006

(Latin is slightly rusty, so I welcome correction...)




You will blow
You will weep
You will go mad
posted by thomas j wise at 10:19 PM on October 31, 2006

Or, rather, flabis, furbis, flebis, "You will blow, you will go mad, you will weep [or rage]." The protagonist fails to realize that he's supposed to conjugate a verb (the -bis suffix is the clue).
posted by thomas j wise at 10:22 PM on October 31, 2006 [1 favorite]

"The Boarded Window" by Ambrose Bierce remains one of my favorite short stories.

To this day, this very simple tale conjures a resonating sense of chill dread that no modern horror flick can achieve.
posted by darkstar at 10:50 PM on October 31, 2006

I am a huge M.R. James fan. Thanks for posting this. Anyone have any video footage of the 1960s(?) BBC production of "Oh, Whistle"? It is absolutely terrifying.
posted by greycap at 11:08 PM on October 31, 2006

'Whistle' is a tricky one. Right after reading it, I raised my eyebrows for a second and then shrugged it off, opened a beer, and moved on to the next one. Fifteen minutes later, I find myself turning it over in my mind, and it seems eerier with every turn. As the clichee goes: everything is scarier when you leave the mind to scare itself (or something like that).

I've always loved ghost stories, but for me the best ones always understood that the most unsettling thing about the supernatural is its ambiguity, where the mystery and discomfort exist almost naturally in our own reality but are still hidden in the shadows --- where everybody knows what happened, but nobody actually knows. The best ghost stories have you dealing with a reality (and genre) that is so familiar as to seem banal but still so completely alien that nobody can quite say what happened when everything is over --- the best they can say is that there are shards embedded in the story that seem to go together and feel right together and almost add up to a conclusive whole, but still, there's the lingering feeling that a crucial detail is missing from the story but lingering in its corners.

For me, one of the creepiest things in the world is looking at other people's photos, where the context has been completely lost: why are they dressed like that? what are they looking at off panel? is that fear on their faces? anxiety? is it a joke? What is happening here?

All there is is the photograph --- somebody wearing a silly hat, looking at something just out of frame, maybe afraid or maybe not --- and your mind goes to work from there. And all it has to work on is the photograph, its details, and its something-missing.

Anyway, these stories are sort of like that.
posted by Tiresias at 11:27 PM on October 31, 2006

Oh you only have to peel the video of that BBC production off my eyelids. I saw it once, many years ago, and it still resonates as one of the most innocent, creepy ghost stories I have ever seen broadcast, and overtakes Blair WItch, The ring etc in its simple horror.

Watching a bedsheet flap will never be the same for me.
posted by arzakh at 12:46 AM on November 1, 2006

Excellent. I've seen an old 1960s black and white adaptation of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You" which was very understated and spooky, but I hadn't read the short story.

Aw yeah, Michael Horden was in the starring role in that. It's one of my earliest scary memories too. I absolutely love MR James, although have trouble going back to it these days, as I connect his stories so closely with my recently deceased father.

There was a tradition for a number of years of showing MR James adaptions on television around Christmastime in the UK. In fact it only stopped fairly recently - I looked for them last year, and for the first time that I can remember they didn't appear in the listings. Most of them were pretty good, and of particular interest to trekkies, one of them starred Patrick Stewart - The Treasure of Abbot Thomas I think, or maybe The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.
posted by bifter at 2:36 AM on November 1, 2006

Interesting, I had only recently watched Night of the Demon again (a movie which in turn inspired lines for the Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Kate Bush song The Hounds of Love), which is loosely based on Casting the runes. One of the best eerie horror movies I know; I can only recommend it, even if the story by James is only used as a very basic inspiration.
posted by PontifexPrimus at 2:51 AM on November 1, 2006

Yet another noteworthy author I was unaware of-- thanks for this.

Spoooooky. :)
posted by exlotuseater at 3:26 AM on November 1, 2006

I looked for them last year, and for the first time that I can remember they didn't appear in the listings

You can't have looked very hard, PontifexPrimus. Last year the BBC commissioned a new M R James adaptation ("A View from a Hill") as well as a documentary, and re-showed all of the old ones on BBC4. This year they're doing "Number 13".
posted by Hogshead at 3:31 AM on November 1, 2006

Oop... that should have been directed not to Pontifex, but bifter. Apologies to both.
posted by Hogshead at 3:33 AM on November 1, 2006

BBC4 - that would explain it... not fixed up with digital in my part of the country yet.
posted by bifter at 5:37 AM on November 1, 2006

This seems as good a place as any to tell this.

Not to snark, but I fail to connect much with ghost stories -- because I've had the actual experience, and print just seems dry and fragile by comparison.

June 1999, about a month before Dad would go back into the hospital for the last time, but we didn't know that yet. I was working away contentedly (for a change) at a new job when, mid-morning one day, I got the strangest feeling, this overwhelming sense of presence. Somebody over my shoulder. Somebody familiar that I was totally comfortable with. And I instantly knew who.

I'd been holding Mom the last half hour the previous September when she passed, talking gently in her ear, trying to help her finish what had been taking over two weeks. And now she was back, checking on me to make sure I was all right (and I hadn't been -- in fact, I'd been very not all right at a couple of points in the intervening eight months).

I actually looked over my shoulder -- I had the distinct physical back-of-my-neck sense that she was behind me to my left, looking interestedly at me and my work -- but of course there was nothing to see. But I couldn't deny the perception that someone was there, I knew exactly who, and I was thrilled that she was there, however briefly or inexplicably. It was a little scary, but my main feeling was joy -- elation that she was there, tinged with disbelief, and disbelief at my disbelief -- something weird and Extra was happening to me, and it felt totally real!

"Hi, Mom," I whispered a little hoarsely, blinking back the tears. "I'm all right. I really miss you. 'Preciate the drop-by. I'll be seeing you."

The tingly feeling, the sense of presence, the joy gradually faded to background levels, and I resumed writing my user manual.
posted by pax digita at 6:34 AM on November 1, 2006

I've enthused about MRJ before on AskMeFi. He is the greatest writer of ghost stories in English. Spare a glance, too, for the original illustrations by James McBryde, including A hand like the hand in the picture (from 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook'), Looking up in an attitude of painful anxiety and It leapt towards him upon the instant (from 'Oh Whistle'). They are wonderfully atmospheric.

It's hard to pick a favourite among the stories, but I particularly like Count Magnus, possibly the darkest of them all. 'Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?'

As a manuscripts curator, I also have a professional interest in MRJ, who was a great manuscripts expert and wrote the first modern guide to cataloguing medieval manuscripts. Many of his ghost stories are, of course, about manuscripts and the people who work with them. One story, 'Casting the Runes', is an awful warning to all librarians and curators, never to tell one reader what another reader has been working on. Another, 'The Tractate Middoth', is set in the rare-book stacks of Cambridge University Library. Our own stacks are clean and well-lit, but I sometimes wonder what I would do if, working late in the stacks one evening, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, a creature in white darting in and out between the bookcases.
posted by verstegan at 10:05 AM on November 1, 2006 [1 favorite]

You can find DVDs of: A Warning to the Curious here, The Signalman here, Whistle and I'll come to you here, but sadly The Stalls of Barchester (which is extremely well adapted in its early BBC airing) doesn't look like it's on DVD yet. These are likely to be Region 2, but even if you're from another region, they're really well worth it.
posted by paperpete at 10:47 AM on November 1, 2006

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