Anyone who knows anything about M.R. James will be well aware that he wrote most of his early ghost stories to be read aloud to his fellow Cambridge scholars. It might be argued (by me, at any rate) that no dramatisation of an MRJ story can do it justice simply because it works beat when used as the author intended - as a form of intimate Victorian parlour entertainment. While other gentlemen were reciting Tennyson, Browning or Swinburne, Monty James was crafting and performing his own dramatic monologues, calculated to appeal to the antiquarian and somewhat ecclesiastical listener.
Which brings me to Robert Lloyd Parry, who has now produced two DVDs based on MRJ's stories. It's interesting to compare and contrast, as they say, the stories he has chosen to read. The first two are 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook' and 'The Mezzotint', both definitive works of their kind.
'Canon Alberic' sets the standard for the now-familiar sub-genre of the hapless tourist who finds something valuable in an out of the way place, only to discover that he's stirred up something best left alone. 'The Mezzotint' is the classic haunted picture tale, mixing a series of startling incidents based on changes to the engraving with some convincing back story. The country house setting, the theme of a revenant seeking revenge on an overbearing squire - it's been done many times since, but seldom so well.
In his reading Parry conveys the dry humour, the erudite playfulness, and the consummate grasp of the storyteller's art that make MRJ's work so enjoyable, even after all these years. In his performance of both pieces he stays on the right side of the line with regard to the non-genteel characters, who are sometimes seen as broadly comical, but are really rather helpful and intelligent. Certainly the sacristan and his daughter are intended to be good people faced - like Dennistoun - with something they can't control or comprehend. The college porter in 'The Mezzotint', likewise, is a stalwart figure, a good family man who instinctively grasps the evil nature of the haunted picture.
The second DVD is, arguably, even better than the first. Here the selection consists of not one but two 'problem stories'. The title tale, 'A Warning to the Curious', and 'Lost Hearts' are both tricky to analyse because they seem to leave the reader - or listener, in this case - with a lot of moral heavy lifting. In both stories the sheer cruelty of the action has an Old Testament feel about it. Poor Parkins in 'Warning' is terrorised and then killed very brutally for what seems - on the face of it - a fairly minor infringement that he tries to put right. And the horrific murders committed by Mr Abney in the second story are up there (or down there) with the Grand Guignol stuff that MRJ, in later life, professed to dislike so much. Indeed, he disliked 'Lost Hearts', and it's not hard to see why. It depicts a world shot through with dark forces where terrible pitfalls await the most innocent of us.
The tone of the reading/performance is slightly different in the second DVD, perhaps because the stories are so intense and the scope for humour is more limited. Instead what we get is a carefully-orchestrated build-up from the commonplace observations on topography and history, through a series of disturbing hints and incidents, to the final revelation of visceral horror. As this official trailer shows, Parry goes full-throttle to convey the panic terror that overwhelms Parkins. (There are some other clips on YouTube but I'm not sure if they are legit, so I won't use them here.) Highly recommended.