"Remember to wrap up warm!" says Robert Lloyd Parry, before my trip to see his performance of the MR James stories Count Magnus and Number 13 at Cambridge's Leper Chapel. I take it for nothing more than a pleasantry – the same thing you'd say to any acquaintance venturing out on a snowy January evening – but it turns out he really means it. The Leper Chapel, which is about as portentously magical as any building situated a couple of hundred yards from a branch of B&Q could be, is 900 years old, with toweringly high ceilings and no heating.Having enjoyed the same performance at the rather warmer Lit & Phil in Newcastle I can imagine how effective the stories are in a very weird setting. (Well, not weird at all if you're a mediaeval leper, but you know what I mean.) Tom Cox of the Graun has apparently been on 'a month of rural horror pilgrimages I have been making in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk'.
Cox rightly praises the BFI's collection of the old Ghost Stories for Christmas. I'm not sure, though, that you don't get that kind of horror storytelling any more - didn't Remember Me manage it rather well? I would agree that this subtle approach is all too rare on our screens. But I suspect we would become rather bored with it if it were commonplace. That is one of the paradoxes of supernatural fiction - to be of value it must be (at its best) comparatively rare. And it's a fragile genre, reliant on a temporary suspension of disbelief that's best suited to short fiction. The intermittent, seasonal nature of ghost stories on TV is part of this, I think.
Winter is James time. It also means that, when you step out of the Leper Chapel into the snowy gloom, reality is suspended for that much longer. All the better too, if like me, your route home takes you alone through a darker, more rural part of East Anglia, where the skeletal trees and isolated churches, smudgily visible beside the back lanes linger in the imagination, with little around them to bring you back to the mundane clarity of the present.Monty James gets a mention in the Wall Street Journal(!) too. I'm not sure that James' stories are part of 'fin-de-siècle horror fiction', but since he began writing in the Naughty Nineties one could take that line. Interesting to see him alongside Wells and Machen, reminding us what an extraordinary time that was for imaginative fiction of all kinds. And again, we're reminded that the spirit of place is a vital ingredient in the traditional ghost story.
This is horror fiction at its finest, its most intellectual and its most austere—a sort that makes superb use of the stark, flat East Anglian landscapes in which the author grew up.