|Artwork by Paul Lowe|
Here are a dozen stories, all derived to some extent from the tales of M.R. James. Most are sequels, but there is a prequel and two stories that tackle stories from the middle, so to speak. In some cases, part of the game is guessing before it becomes obvious. I think you'd have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of all James' works, not just the famous ones, but that's a given with the audience for the book - isn't it? Oh, and one of the stories is by me, which makes this the first collection I've reviewed that contains a personal emanation. It's a strange feeling.
Anyway, the first story is by Peter Bell and concerns the vile doings and terrible fate of the Lord of the High Court of the Wapentak of Wirral. If that isn't enough to set your Jamesian juices flowing, he offers us an epigraph from Milton's 'Lycidas' and a framing narrative in which the narrator explains that he has pieced the story together from correspondence. 'The Sands o' Dee' is an old-school story, but far superior to outright pastiche. The core incidents are suitably eerie and horrific.
While editor Ro Pardoe doesn't say which stories link to which original works, C(live). E. Ward's '11334' does give the game away in the title. I don't think it matters. Like Peter Bell's story, '11334' is a carefully-constructed extrapolation of a Jamesian idea. It pivots on mysterious threatening letters that, for a very good reason, the reader doesn't get to see until fairly late in the day.
There are any number of ways to categorise these tributes to MRJ, but the one that leaps out - for me - is whether the setting is contemporary, or nearly so. This is the case with Helen Grant's 'The Third Time', a story that works out - quite rationally - what the consequences of the good intentions of a decent Jamesian character might be. Suffice to say our modern hero fares no better than Monty's less lucky protagonists. Whether he merits his fate is another matter, of course.
Just as contemporary but utterly different in style and execution is 'Slapstick' by Christopher Harman. With typical psychological intensity and deftly cinematic images, Harman takes us into the mind of a school caretaker whose everyday concerns gradually become entwined with something altogether more peculiar. Harman fans (I'm one) will not be disappointed.
It's always a pleasure to encounter a writer for the first time and find that you're on their wavelength. For me that was certainly the case with John Ward, whose 'The Partygoers' is a witty and thoughtful comment on the modern tendency to make silly TV shows about 'real life' hauntings. It's refreshing to find that a simple premise drawn from a passage in one of MRJ's later, lesser tales can inspire a solid modern story like this.
Reggie Oliver's contribution, 'Absalom', adopts the framing device of the 'found papers' approach, which James used to such effect. The story, told in epistolary form, casts new light on one of James' most popular tales - and yes, the title is a giveaway if you know your stuff. Oliver strikes the right tone in a series of letters and depositions, and even throws in the name of real-life Restoration personality, the wonderfully-named Israel Tonge.
Surprisingly (to me) there are two stories here about one of James' less appreciated later tales. 'Touched', by John Howard, concerns the discovery of a strange object and - again - some papers that cast more light on events long past. The same story forms the springboard for Elsa Wallace's 'A Tale of Kildonan', a very effective prequel that goes just deeply enough into magic and folklore to seem Jamesian, as opposed to conventionally occult-ish.
'The Desecrator' by Derek John has a cracking title, and lives up to it with an involving story of fanatical doings at - where else? - an country house. It's a cunning tale that keeps you guessing right up to the last page, or at least it had that effect on me. I found climax more powerful than that of the story to which it is the sequel.
Rick Kennett (a frequent contributors to Ghosts & Scholars magazine) focuses on one of my favourite stories in 'Dolls For Another Day'. This is a clever tale that invites you to question everything you thought you knew about some very disturbing events. I daresay it's a bit postmodern in that regard, though Dr. James would probably have preferred the term playful.
Mark Valentine's 'Character' is also playful, and profoundly satisfying. It has an historical setting and works perfectly as a standalone tale - it's one of the few collected here that in fact requires no prior knowledge of James' ghost stories at all. This is in marked contrast to my own brief effort, 'Lineage', a sequel incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't read the original.
That, then, is my take on the second collection of stories that prove - yet again - what a living, inspiring presence M.R. James is in supernatural fiction. All the stories here (by other people) range from very good to excellent. I suspect that even the more casual James fan will find much to offer them a pleasing terror...