Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories
By M. R. James
Review by Chris Ferrier

M. (Montague) R. (Rhodes) James is one of those authors who almost disappear in the modern world of publishing. He was born in 1890 and died in 1937. While the time period is represented in type of characters and the settings of his stories, his psychology is modern.

The strength of the stories is their subtlety. Look elsewhere for piles of dismembered corpses and towering monsters dripping venom. His is a world of quiet libraries, respectable inns, and orderly fields. His heroes are quiet librarians or busy archeologists who find themselves confronted by evil. In fact, their lives are so ordinary that they often dismiss the first warning that things have gone wrong. Their responses are very human: "...the kind of thing that makes one wonder if something has not given way in one's brain." But evil there is, slipping through the barriers of normality when least expected. Most of his characters are the objects of its attention, although, in several stories, they are witnesses to events over which they have no control.

But James is in control. Few of the stories in this collection are over 20 pages long. Some are as short as six. But in those few pages, he conveys characters, settings, and warnings. The narrative then moves quickly to the conclusion. He doesn't linger in describing the evil beings that stalk the pages. They are shadows with eyes like glowing coals, indistinct hairy shapes, a pale figure among the bushes, or a chilling noise. They attack and depart with little explanation, perhaps only to wait for another victim.

James plays fast and loose with point of view. His technique is to use a narrator who is told of the events in the stories by the reluctant hero or witness. This is less distancing than might be expected. Once the action begins, he fades into the background from whence he may appear occasionally to add pieces of necessary information from another source or to point out that the person speaking "merely appears in this prologue, there's no need to give his entitlements".

The best stories in this collection are "Casting the Runes" in which the expert who rejects a badly written paper for publication in a scientific journal receives a note with magic runic writing, "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad", and "The Mezzotint" about a haunted engraving.

James' narrator is distancing, his dialogue is sometimes stilted, but an author who can turn ordinary bed sheets into objects of sheer horror deserves to be read.

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