Tuesday Terror! Number 13 by MR James

Unlucky for some…


I’ve read a few MR James stories over the years, listened to some on audio and seen some TV adaptations, and I’ve never found any of them remotely scary. However his name always appears on lists of top horror writers. So I googled ‘MR James scariest story’ and the top answer suggested Number 13. And that’s why it’s this week’s…


…as he neared the door he could hear footsteps and voices, or a voice, within. During the few seconds in which he halted to make sure of the number, the footsteps ceased, seemingly very near the door, and he was a little startled at hearing a quick hissing breathing as of a person in strong excitement.

nineteen ghost stories of mr jamesOur hero, Anderson, books into the Golden Lion in Viborg, Denmark. He is given room number 12, and chuckles to himself about silly superstitions when he notices that number 13 doesn’t appear on the list of rooms. Number 12 is spacious with room for him to work – he is in Viborg to study old papers relating to the last days of Roman Catholicism in Denmark. (Did you yawn there? Me too!) On his first evening on returning to his room, he notices two things – firstly, that there is a room 13 after all, and although the door is locked he can hear someone inside; and secondly, that his own room seems much smaller somehow in the evening gloom. But the next time he walks along the corridor in daylight, room 13 has disappeared. Enlisting the help of the owner, he sets out to solve the mystery of room 13 and of the increasingly terrifying noises emanating from it each night…

It was a high, thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly.

Hmm! The thing is it’s quite imaginative – and I’d expect that if it were adapted for the screen with good casting and some great sound effects it could be quite scary. But sadly, James’ writing style doesn’t lead to a build-up of tension. It’s all told very matter-of-factly and Anderson takes the whole thing in his stride pretty much. We need a screaming damsel or some descriptions of pounding hearts, clammy hands etc – or at the very least some element of real danger. James makes the odd decision to let us know in the second paragraph that Anderson survives quite comfortably, killing any uncertainty as to how the thing will turn out. And the ‘being’ who haunts Number 13 is, to say the least of it, not the scariest one I’ve come across. The big climax is over so quickly that if you blink at the wrong moment you’d miss it.

No, I’m afraid I just don’t get MR James. Mildly interesting (but only mildly), adequately written…and completely terror-free.

But what do you think? Have any of his stories tingled your spine?

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯

Overall story rating:         😐 😐 😐

55 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Number 13 by MR James

  1. 😆 Lovely job, FEF! (Stellar.) I love the last line in the last paragraph to death. (Hope that wasn’t too confusing.)

    Of course you know, the professor has never read this poor soul. And I don’t think I will. If FEF doesn’t recommend it for the professor, I probably won’t read it.

    I think it was a ripio. Lovely, lovely.


  2. FictionFan – Sounds as though I need not worry about reading this just before dropping off to sleep. Pity too because as you say, it has potential. Well, it sounds useful for those folks who want to report that they’ve read horror stories, but who really don’t want their spines acknowledged, let alone tingled.


  3. I have never encountered this author. I do like horror, though. I think I will leave MR alone based on your review. Have you ever read The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham?


  4. Hmm. I’m obviously nervous maiden auntie material (no comment PLEASE, for politeness sake) because i DO remember being well and truly clammy spined at the reading of Whistle And I’ll Come To You – well before any TV or film adaptations.

    The ghost type story which really creeps me though (other than Turn of The Screw which was an instant spooker, when first read) is not an M.R.James but one by W. W. Jacobs – The Monkey’s Paw. That was one i had consciously to NOT think about ‘ think of something else, quick!!

    I’m reading ‘fearie stories’ – I have to say I’m not very far in, but (with the exception of the estimable Gaiman) am sighing mightily. Horror should creep like tendrils of mist, clammily around, rather than be like a sudden bucket of heavily signalled ice (in my mind, anyway) Rather like a cat coming in from a snow laden garden in the middle of the night really. Though sometimes they manage clammy creeping and the heavy thud of ice in one fell swoop.


    • Well, I haven’t read that one so maybe it’s an exception, but no MR James has ever ruffled my equilibrium. I’ve heard other people mention The Monkey’s Paw – must look out for it.

      Sorry you’re not enjoying ‘Fearie Stories’, but not really surprised. It makes me laugh that you continue to read books I recommend – you must know you’ll dislike them! I don’t think the accident of us both liking Patrick Flanery should be taken to be a trend… 😉


  5. Have not read this author. I do like some horror though. Must admit I was truly scared by reading the old Bram Stoker classic! And then Lovecraft. In the portions you quoted, the style is not one I’d probably enjoy. I so enjoy your writing, and your reviews! 🙂


    • Thanks, DR! 😀

      I’m trying to expand my knowledge of horror – it’s an area I’ve avoided a bit, because I so rarely find them frightening. But yes, Dracula’s a good one and I enjoyed Frankenstein too, though it was a bit too long in places. Lovecraft I read for the first time last year, and at the time laughed at them a bit, but oddly they’ve stayed in my mind much more than most horror stories, so in retrospect I think I was a bit unfair on them. I may have to revisit him at some point…


      • Yes, the Lovecraft can absolutely generate a chuckle here and there. But, eventually, they become scary, as they do stick in one’s mind. 🙂


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