Sunday, 5 March 2017


Our frustration that M.R. James is not as popularly recognised as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft will never cease.
The above is a Tweet from the Twitter machine, courtesy of the publisher Shadows at the Door. I'm sure a lot of people will agree with it, but others might quibble. I had a bit of a ponder and a few thoughts (or near-thoughts) emerged.

1, I think M.R. James is probably as well known as Lovecraft to bookish British people, perhaps a little more so. He is also fairly familiar to older TV viewers, like me, thanks to the BBC's dramatisations of his work in the Seventies.

2. Lovecraft produced a larger body of work than M.R. James, including several short novels, As an American writer he has a bigger 'pre-sold' audience than MRJ, an English academic whose output of fiction was relative slight.

3. Poe has had a lot longer to build up a head of steam and of course a great many film, TV, and radio adaptations of his work exist. Lovecraft has also done quite well in this area. Again, M.R. James lags behind somewhat, and quite a few adaptations of his work are lost (i.e. those in the ITV Mystery and Imagination series).

4. Poe and Lovecraft have more immediate appeal, especially to adolescent readers, because they are 'on the nose'. Some of their work demonstrates subtlety and restraint, but a lot of their stories say to the novice reader: "Hey, come and see the freaky shit that's going down!" MRJ's lighter, anecdotal approach might seem rather dull to fans of full-on Gothic horror. He is subtle and witty, as well as erudite, and his work takes a bit more effort to appreciate.

5. M.R. James is classed as a ghost story writer, and this is sometimes taken to mean he produced watered-down, genteel stuff that's not very exciting. Untrue, but labels tend to stick.

A lot more might be said on the subject, especially re: Poe and Lovecraft's attitude to science, an area M.R. James did not overtly concern himself with. But, as I said above, these are just a few of my own half-developed notions.

Image result for m.r. james


Aonghus Fallon said...

My relationship with Lovecraft would be similar to your relationship with CAS. I came to him late (ie, in the last few years) and just can't take the guy seriously.

I'm a bit more ambivalent when it comes to drawing comparisons between M.R. James and Poe, but I guess this depends on the context? M.R. James would be seen - in Ireland as well as the UK - as one of the last great writers of supernatural horror. Poe's interests were more wide-ranging, he was more prolific and I think, more innovative. Even assessing both men exclusively as horror writers is hampered by how they were two authors working at two very different times - Poe being one of horror's earlier practitioners, M. R. James coming much later.

Oscar Solis said...

I work in a library part time here in the USA and when I come across a patron who likes King, Koontz, etc. I make it a point to introduce them to M.R. James. They have never heard of him. I make it a point to tell them the stories have a bit of a build up to them, but the investment of time isn't like a novel. And I always recommend that they read Wailing Well or Rats first as those are more on the nose. And that the stories are best read at night. I really try to interest them in this wonderful writer.

If Machen's work wasn't such an acquired taste these days I'd do the same for him.

Regarding Aonghus Fallon remark about Lovecraft I think some authors have to be introduced at a certain age. As an example, I think it's best to come to Ray Bradbury's work in your early teens. I mean, he's wonderful at any age, but there is something about the sense of wonder in his works that just hits right at an earlier age. Same with Harry Potter. Unfortunately (or fortunately, in my case), I was well into my 30s when that series started and I just couldn't I didn't buy into that universe, seeing it as a hodge lodge of everything that had come before it. But I did read Shadowland by Peter Straub, which is about young magicians and that made a far bigger impression than the Potter stories. Of course, I was younger when I read it but I think in that case it wouldn't have made a difference.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Yeah, I think I was way too old for the Harry Potter books as well! There's a saying to the effect that you know you're getting old when everything starts to sound like an amalgam or a variation on stuff you've heard before. And you're right about Bradbury - I'm re-reading his stories at the moment. They stand up pretty well (he was a consummate stylist) especially as I think he was writing around one a week to pay the bill - but I think a lot of their impact (for a young reader) is his way of seeing the world.

Aonghus Fallon said...

Funnily enough, I've always been a big fan of CAS, maybe because I discovered him in my teens. I can still remember the first story I read by him: 'The Maze of Maal Dwebb' - one of his best, I reckon.

knobgobbler said...

Lovecraft was recommended to me by my High School American Lit teacher... and made a huge impression on me at that age. But Lovecraft was also my gateway to all the guys that he admired... so James and Machen and Blackwood... etc. Also forward in time to various writers that cited Lovecraft as an influence.
So Machen might not be the 'gateway drug' to weird fiction... but for those who get addicted I think he eventually ends up on the menu.

Oscar Solis said...

"So Machen might not be the 'gateway drug' to weird fiction... but for those who get addicted I think he eventually ends up on the menu."

Machen strikes me as the author you make your way up to. The rewards are wonderful if you're willing to give his work the room it needs, The White People being a perfect example. Another author one works their way up to would be Robert Aikman. Just my own opinion, of course.

Lovecraft I find to be hit or miss. You really have to like his way with words to get the full effect and sometimes, I just don't want to bother with it. Having said that (or, rather written) I have to say that The Hound comes pretty close to an M.R. James kind of story