I love really detailed and informative introductions, which I found in Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, the first of two volumes of collected ghost stories by M.R. James. You'll have to excuse me if I seem to be borrowing heavily from what I read, but it was all fascinating and very new to me. M.R. (Montague Rhodes) James led an interesting life. A lifelong bachelor, he was not only a distinguished scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity, but he was a professor and administrator at Cambridge University and Eton College, and he also managed to write ghost stories in his spare time. It's his ghost stories that he is known for today. He was a busy man, and I loved this description,
"How exactly James found the time for all this work, let alone the writing of ghost stories, was a puzzle to friends and colleagues alike, especially when one considers James's other interests--his devotion to Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; his interest in card games and crossword puzzles; and of course, the abundant conviviality he showed to friends, students, and almost any others who came within his horizon."
He also traveled widely, which served him well in his writings. In 1892 he took his first bicycle tour of the Continent, and later he took at least one trip a year to France where he studied Medieval cathedrals, visiting nearly all those there were to see.
James would often read drafts of his stories to friends and collegians, usually at Christmastime. Although his earliest couple of stories had been published in magazines, he probably wouldn't have considered publishing them in book format had not a friend wanted to do the illustrations for them. It seems as if James's work can be seen as a bridge between Gothic novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries to a more modern tradition of ghost stories. Writers of Gothic novels liked to set their tales firmly in the Medieval period, but James wrote about more contemporary subjects. James used an "antiquarian background" (or as the editor describes it--he wanted to create a "patina of verisimilitude"--I love the way that sounds) in his tales. His stories usually are set in a small village or seaside town, or an abbey or university, involve a gentleman scholar (no doubt his stories were somewhat autobiographical) and there is usually a discovery of an antique book or artifact that is in some way supernatural or menacing.
All interesting stuff and I didn't even touch on everything I read about him. But what about the story? I read "Canon Aleric's Scrap-Book", which was one of James's earliest stories. He uses his own travels in this story. The real French town of St. Bertrand de Comminges was the setting for this tale of the supernatural. An unnamed narrator shares with us what happened to Dennistoun while he was researching and photographing a local abbey. There is the usual church with it's chilly interior, strange muffled sounds and voices, even laughter. But it's an antiquated book, a real find for the protagonist, that will bring upon him strange and unusual occurrences when he buys it. It has the strangest illustrations inside. Like an earlier story I read by James this year, it wasn't particularly hair raising, but it was creepily atmospheric. I've now got two volumes of James's work, and while I'm not going to attempt to read it all by the end of the year, I do hope to revisit it as I like what I've read.