OK so where I have I been this last week?
Er nowhere much, I have just been a bit busy with fabulous writing commission about one of my favourite writers, MR James and my favourite kind of fiction, the 19th and early 20th century tale of the supernatural.
What do I like about this period of writing?
Well there was no need to go graphic on the violence, every fright and every chill was delivered by intimation, letting the readers’ imagination deliver the true horror of the situation. This interaction between writer and reader, in my opinion is far more fertile than layering on the gore in an orgy of violence, where a queasy stomach is more likely to be the result than a raising of the hackles.
I first got hooked on this kind of fiction aged around eleven or twelve when I found a dogeared old paperback lodged amongst the Mickey Spillane and Agatha Christie thrillers on my mother’s bookshelves. Growing up in the 1960s I had become obsessed by Science Fiction monsters like Dr Who’s Daleks and aliens from the occasional 1950s American B Movie at Saturday Morning Pictures, probably because then sci-fi was so difficult to come by on the box then. So The Frankenstein Reader was too good an opportunity to miss out on.
It was a bit of a misnomer, there was no body stitched together from parts scavenged from the gibbet and graveyard, but a collection of spooky stories mostly dating back to the 19th century. It was such a revelation that authors like Robert Louis Stevenson and Charles Dickens had a dark side to them. I liked Stevenson. well enough from Treasure Island and Kidnapped, but the Dickens was a real eye-opener. Having endured the crushing monotony of the class read of Oliver Twist with the knuckle rapper, it showed me that there was far more Britain’s second best writer! However the real discovery in The Frankenstein Reader was EF Benson, whose tale of a slug like elemental scared the living daylights out of me.
From reading that set of tales, pocket-money was scrimped together for trips into Wood Green where two second-hand book shops (now long gone) would furnish me with more collections of scary short stories. Authors like HG Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Algernon Blackwood and Sax Rohmer fed my habit, but far and away the best was MR James. James didn’t need Gothic castles with the wind whistling through the rafters and rats gnawing at the skirting boards to take you to a place of abject terror. He’d start somewhere innocuous, even cosy like a golfing holiday. JG Ballard once described the frightfully middle class science fiction of John Wyndham as cosy catastrophes. I’d say that James is one of a very few authors able to transport you from cosy to catastrophe in five or six pages!