Friday, February 19, 2010

Review of "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James

I've read some great horror fiction in my time. I thought I was in touch with horror. Then a friend sent me a copy of Casting the Runes, a collection of short fiction by M. R. James. I then realized I was missing an essential piece of the genre.

James' style is unique. The target audience of the stories is obviously educated men from a century ago. Each tale is told from the perspective of a university alumnus with a passion for history. Usually this alumnus is beckoned somewhere he ought not to be by his curiosity, attracting the attention of some malevolent being. James' attachment to this viewpoint is unwavering. He refuses to yield the POV to anybody less educated, even if the actual story occurs to somebody else! He uses Latin freely, expecting that his readers will know what it means. This perspective is part of what makes James' style special.

Apparently, James admitted in his lifetime that he had no use for ghost stories where the apparition is friendly or helpful. It shows. The handling of the supernatural is superbly creepy. The entities of these stories are at best angry and frightening, at worst directly dangerous.

One of my favourite aspects of his writing is that, for the most part, if anything overtly scary or supernatural occurs, it happens mid-paragraph. Most other writers put the frightening occurrance at the start of a paragraph to emphasize the fear. Not so with James. Many times my eyes slipped uncomprehending over the words and I had to do a literary double-take and re-read, mirroring the disbelief and shock of the characters in the story. It's a fascinating writing technique.

There is yet another aspect of these stories which blows my mind. Conventional writing technique tells us that writers of horror/fantasy/sci-fi have to fully explain fantastic events for the sake of suspension of disbelief. For instance, H.P. Lovecraft is a master of inserting his supernatural events in history and explaining, if not what evil force is at work, why the force is at work. James does not. Frightening events happen to the characters of his stories without explanation and end suddenly. Rarely are readers spoonfed the identity of a ghost or the reason that it is restless. Questions are always left unanswered. The forest is just haunted and nobody remembers why. The effect is unsettling.

These stories are a century old now and some readers may need time to adjust to the prose. However, the tales are worth the effort. They are unique and creepy. Don't expect the type of horror that splatters gore on shower walls. It's not his style. Instead, expect the type of terror you feel when you walk up a staircase from a basement and feel something rushing up behind you. Expect the terror of knowing that something angry is watching you from the woods.

4 1/2 heretical prayer-books out of 5