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.
Our 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: 😐 😐 😐