Five spooky tales…
This shortish audiobook (2 hours 37 minutes) contains five ghost stories from the pen of MR James, narrated by the always wonderful Derek Jacobi. I do admire James’ writing style and usually find his stories enjoyable even although I rarely find them scary. I think it’s because he often tells them at a remove – a narrator tells us of something that once happened rather than us being put there while it’s actually happening, which prevents them from building any kind of atmosphere of tension. Quite often, in fact, we are told the end before we’re given the story. I’ve still read relatively few of his stories, though, so maybe I just haven’t come across the really spooky ones yet.
Since there are only five stories in this volume, here’s a brief idea of each:
The View from the Hill – an antiquary, Mr Fanshawe, visits his friend Squire Richards in the country. Fanshawe borrows a set of binoculars from his friend, but when he looks through them, he sees things that aren’t there, such as church spires that once existed but are long gone. Richards acquired the binoculars when he bought up some of the possessions of a man named Baxter after his death. It culminates with Richards’ old servant telling the two friends the story of Baxter and the experiments he carried out. It’s well told, but knowing in advance that Baxter died kinda spoils the tension, and nothing terribly bad happens in the present. I gave this one four stars.
Rats – A story that, oddly, isn’t about rats. A man is staying as the only guest at an inn. Out of nosiness, one day when the landlord is out, he decides to take a look into the other empty rooms on his floor. One is locked, but he finds a key that will open it. Inside, he sees something that scares him and swiftly retreats. But his curiosity is too strong – on his last day, he goes to the room again, and this time he sees… well, of course I’m not going to tell you! This one is lighter in tone and quite fun, but again not scary. Another 4 star read.
A School Story – two men are discussing the tradition of ghost story telling in public (i.e. posh) schools, and then one tells the other a real ghost story which happened when he was a schoolboy. The haunting concerns a teacher, Mr Sampson, who begins to receive odd messages in Latin, either via the boys or in notes. The messages seem to imply that if he won’t go to the sender, then the sender will come to him. And then one day the teacher disappears… Again, well told, but there is our narrator, safe and sound and old, so we know whatever happened he clearly wasn’t harmed by it. Four stars again.
The Ash Tree – ah, this was much spookier! Starting back in the late 17th century, Mrs Mothersole is condemned as a witch and swears revenge on the man who gave evidence against her, Sir Matthew Fell. He later dies mysteriously, as if from some kind of poison. For years, the room in which he died lies empty out of superstition. But now his grandson decides to sleep in the room, even although the window is shaded by an ash tree growing just outside, and despite being warned that folklore says that sleeping near an ash tree is unwise… I think the reason this works better is because it’s told in the third person and therefore there’s no foreknowledge as to what happens to the grandson. There’s also lots of nicely scary imagery and old superstitions and stuff. This one got the full five stars!
The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance – Told as a series of letters from a man to his brother and set at Christmastime. The letter-writer’s uncle, a rector, has disappeared and our narrator has gone to his uncle’s town to try to find out what has happened to him. I must say that I really had no idea what was going on in this one. It’s full of really quite effective stuff about a Punch and Judy show – a form of entertainment I’ve always found quite scary in itself – but if there’s a coherent story in there, I missed it. This is possibly because I was listening rather than reading – sometimes I don’t seem to concentrate as well in that format. I thought the imagery was excellent and there was a definite sense of dread and oddness about the whole thing, but I found it too unexplained to be satisfying. Jacobi’s performance was great though – he really shines best when the stories get darker. Five stars for him, but just three for the story, though I may read a print version one day.
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Overall, this is an enjoyable listen – not harrowing, and the inclusion of what is apparently James’ only story set at Christmastime makes it perfect for this time of year. The shortest story is about 15 minutes and the longest around 45, so it can be easily split over several short sessions or binge-listened in one evening. MR James is undoubtedly the ideal choice for people who like their horror to be of the mildest variety, and Jacobi as narrator is always a treat. Recommended.