I have been reading the Collected Ghost Stories of MR James this week, as research for a feature I’m writing about the old boys 150th birthday this year. I have read many of these stories before in those paperback collections of Horror stories from the 1970s like Christopher Lee’s Archive of Evil, that I used to scour charity shops for, while others are familiar from those TV adaptations that used to turn up every Christmas.
Despite the predictability of hindsight, in print these stories can still do the business, every now and then there is a little twist, say where Dr Haynes’s hand idly touches the carving of the cat on the archdeacon’s stall in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral only to discover instead of polished wood, living breathing fur, that has the power to shock and surprise. The power of James’s writing is in the ability to suggest and let the reader’s imagination do the rest, for my money a skill far greater than that of churning out gruesome violence and mutilation.
One of the things that did surprise me was how much of MR James’s material had been plundered by HP Lovecraft. I know Lovecraft admired James, he confessed as much in his essay on supernatural literature, but some of Lovecraft’s short stories have borrowed quite extensively from James tales like Lost Hearts and despite Lovecraft’s phenomenally fertile pantheon of horrors he is not the technician that James is when it comes down to atmosphere and plot.
Surprisingly few of James’s works have been filmed for the big screen, but in 1957 the French-American director Jacques Tourneur (him of the very stylish RKO B features Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie) crossed the Atlantic to film the story Casting the Runes. Moving the story on from 1911 to the 1950s Night of the Demon was remarkably faithful to the orignal story.
OK the fight with the stuffed cat looks a bit lame but the movie scared the pants off me when I first saw it on late night TV in the 1960s. It’s still one of my favourite horror films to this day. (Curse of the Demon was the US release title)