short stories

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James

M. R. James (1862–1936) was a scholar on the medieval period. He was the Provost of King’s College at Cambridge. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) is a collection of eight supernatural tales by him.

The edition I read contains only the original eight stories. Some editions of the book combine James’ 1911 book More Ghost Stories with it under the same title.

The book opens with Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book. A man is persuaded to buy a strange manuscript volume with an odd looking illustration. Soon he finds out why the sellers were so keen on getting rid of the book.

In Lost Hearts, a young boy is disturbed by visions of two children in terrible distress, looking for their missing hearts.

The Mezzotint is the story of a painting that reveals a dark secret about a country house’s past.

The Ash-tree is a morbid tale of witchcraft and vengeance from beyond the grave.

In Number 13 a man staying at a hotel decides to investigate the mysterious, and apparently non-existent, room number 13.

Count Magnus recounts the unfortunate story of a traveller who in his mischievousness sets free a terrifying monster from the past.

In ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ an academic finds a strange whistle on the beach and ends up questioning his long held scepticism.

The final story of the collection is The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. A priest goes in search of the hidden treasure of Abbot Thomas but what he finds is more than he can handle.

I cannot really pinpoint my favourites but I liked Number 13 and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.  Some stories like Lost Hearts, The Ash-tree and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas were rather sickening.

Most of the stories are very, very similar. A lonely scholar goes to visit a rural area; he finds ‘something’, foolishly tampers with it and unleashes some kind of dreadful being in the process. In some stories his friends come to his rescue, in others he has to face his doom. In other words, the stories are predictable. You’ve read one, you’ve read them all.

Having said that it doesn’t mean I was not spooked by the stories at all. Some like The Mezzotint, Count Magnus and ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ were fairly creepy.

M. R. James’ brand of horror is very subtle. The supernatural events and beings, barring a few exceptions, are fully revealed. However, the effect of the events on the characters’ minds is vividly portrayed in each of the stories.

On the whole, I can say Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is a good Halloween read. It may not be ‘blood curdling’ scary but it provides a few good chills along the way.

For the Love of Short Stories

Today I want togush’ about an oft neglected genre, Short Stories.

Short stories are my favourites. I think that a writer who can put all the emotions that requires a whole book to play through in just a few pages deserves to be applauded. Only a really good writer is capable of doing that. But in the hands of mediocre writers short stories can become bungled messes that come to an abrupt end without any rhyme or reason.

Most people feel that short stories do not satisfy a reader’s hunger, that it leaves them wanting more. But I feel that little bit of ‘want’ that a short story leaves behind is what makes it so good!

Here are some of my favourites,

Mystery; Inc.

Since mystery is my favourite genre I like reading mystery short stories which in my opinion are the hardest to write. The writer has to be really adept in creating the right amount of  tension. The solutions also have to be good.

Some favourites,

The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Chilling atmosphere of fear and distrust. 

The Idol House of Astarte by Agatha Christie – A touch of the supernatural works perfectly well.

Murdering Max by Peter Lovesey – A twisted tale of jealousy and revenge.

The Biter Bit by Wilkie Collins – Not a ‘mystery’ per se but has got to be the one of the funniest detective stories ever.

Things that go bump in the night!

Horror/supernatural is another difficult genre for short stories. Packing just  enough elements to shock the reader, to get that tingle up the reader’s spine in such a short span of time is a difficult task.

Some of my favourites,

Don’t Look Now by Daphne Du Maurier – It’s the unexpected ending that took my breath away.

The Upper Berth and The Screaming Skull by F. Marion Crawford – A little longish but spine-chilling. The latter one is especially scary.

The Dream-Woman by Wilkie Collins – A dream comes true for our hero Isaac Scatchard. Too bad it’s really a nightmare!

Love Hurts

I am not a major fan of romance in general. But I do have one or two favourite short stories where love (and not just ‘romantic’ love) is the central focus. And where the romance itself is the focus almost all of them are about the disillusionment of love.

Favourites,

The Kiss by Anton Chekhov – I love the brutal honesty of the ‘love’ story of an insignificant, unattractive soldier.

The Last Leaf by O’Henry – A non-romantic story but I feel it’s about love.

The Letters by Edith Wharton – Another story about how unrealistic the idea of true love can be.

A Mixed Bag

Finally, there are some gems out there that refuse to fit into any one genre but are great reads nonetheless. The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber deserves a special mention. Read the story yourself and figure out what Thurber meant by it.

Some favourites,

A Shocking Accident by Graham Greene – I actually understood how a situation that sounds silly to one may mean life and death to another.

The Revolt of Mother by Mary E. Wilkins – Feminism, nineteenth century rural New England style!

And of course, The Unicorn in the Garden by James Thurber.

It has been fun doing this post! It got me remembering all of the great short stories that I have read.

I would love to hear from any other short story readers out there. Just to know that I am not alone!