Montague Rhodes James (YGtCTO Words #98)

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Book written by Montague Rhodes James

As near as I can tell, this was the second book that James published, after A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Peterhouse. One of the few approaching Poe in sheer talent and creativity, this Cambridge don lived a life vastly different from that great American writer. On the other hand, I’m not sure a few days in the company of either would go down so well. While Poe might kill you with his lifestyle, James would seemingly vacillate between the tedious life of the university and occasional fulminations against the modern world. Well, he couldn’t have been all bad. He did like reading Agatha Christie. I’d like to believe that Poe would have also appreciated what she did with the modern detective mystery genre. Both pursued short story writing as a sidelight to their main careers (though Poe certainly viewed writing as his primary pursuit).

As a youth, we (friends in the neighborhood) had an occasional thing where we would go overnight camping in one of our yards. Half the time, people wound up in their own bed, but not always. While sleeping bags were a good idea, we desperately wanted entertainment. After all, we had been raised on television and comic books. Someone, often me, dragged out a copy of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe. The Tell-Tale Heart was always a favorite for ensuring that no one got much sleep.

Montague Rhodes James

Many of James tales were meant to be read aloud on Christmas Eve. This was a practice for which he created fresh stories annually. Some publisher must have been in attendance or heard about them, but they were soon enough collected, a practice that continued every few years as he continued preparing them. A bit of me wonders at the age of the person who came up with this title for the first collection, considering that James was in his early forties.

The remarkable thing about these tales is indeed how well they have aged in over a century. Everything about them is just as creepy as ever. But the language and the tone and the format all speak of a current sensibility. They lull you with such an ease and smoothness that the shocks roll over the audience with wonderful ferocity.

This feeling that James writes like authors today is no accident. No one creates a spooky story of much value outside of James’ influence. His method, drawing us into the main character first followed by slow unveiling of oddness glimpsed out of the corner of the eye culminating in an exploration of that oddness, is a powerful formula. Reading James beside earlier and later masters also reveals just how finely honed his prose was. The words move with an ease that belies the horrors that sit within. The shock of discovery when you first read Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book or Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad is doubled by the comfort initially felt. For that matter, those titles could be ripped from any short story collection written this year.

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You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 7 more to go.

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