Tag Archives: M. R. James

Naomi’s Room

We have all been there, so it’s not hard to conjure up the scenario. A bustling Saturday shopping afternoon, you try to manoeuvre yourself through the lagoon of people who bash past oblivious to anyone in their pathway. Basic manners and people skills: clearly two lessons that were eradicated from their upbringing. People who were not brought up, but rather brought down.

You clasp tight hold of the child’s hand by your side. But being an infant, this is no ordinary day, no day is ever ordinary when you are three or four. It’s a world of imaginative possibilities. An escalator is a runway to a sci-fi alien world, a conveyor belt to the land of robots. A discarded take away box is a trunk of treasure and then there are all the neon flashing distractions of window displays and other excitements.

You may lose your grip for a fraction of a second, look down and he or she is still there, look away and then back and the kid has vanished, gone! This is every adult who is responsible for a child’s absolute nightmare. Because adults know the darkness of the world we inhabit. In that fleeting moment, the amygdala does not just hijack the brain, it tortures it.

Generally a few seconds later the child re-appears, you catch sight of him or her and your heart returns back to its normal rhythm. You shout, an almost roar, out of sheer panic about wandering off and how it is naughty or some other disdainful reprimand. It doesn’t matter what you say, it’s just words, noise expressing your inner fear. And equilibrium is restored.

But what happens if the child does not re-appear?

This is precisely the dilemma that Jonathan Aycliffe throws at his reader in the beginning of the short tale of terror NAOMI’S ROOM. From the onset he establishes his tale in the land of comfortable academia. It’s domestic bliss with Charles, the main protagonist, aged 30, his wife Lucy, 26, and their daughter Naomi who is 4.

It’s a world of possibilities,

Your life seems so directed when you are thirty.

Charles is a published promising academic, with an acclaimed piece on Gawain and the Green Knight. The loving couple and their daughter live a charmed life and the action starts with the two prepping for Naomi’s first proper Christmas. Taking Naomi on a trip to London, on Christmas Eve, her mood is one of excitement.

Naomi’s sense of adventure was infectious.

This picturesque idyll is not so much shattered as completely decimated when Naomi goes missing.

Nothing bad happened to children on Christmas Eve.

Each chapter is crafted to keep you reading on with a suspenseful final paragraph. This tale is in the style of supernatural masters like M.R. James and Susan Hill. The sadistic style of writing that is unflinching in its descriptions, slashes the canvas of comfort and provides an engrossing narrative. It is horror writing at its best, suspenseful, chilling and occasionally gruesome.

I’d say you know it’s a captivating tale when you open the envelope it came in as you come home from a solid day of graft and decide to look at the first paragraph to realise you are 80 pages in and the last hour or two has gone by. It was only when I finished NAOMI’S ROOM that I actually looked at the cover in greater detail. Thankfully, I had not given it a glance as on reflection this could have put me off, a naff superimposed stock image of a spooky child clutching a doll over a staircase was about as sinister as athlete’s foot, but I guess that depends on the severity of the foot ailment!

naomis-room

If like me you choose to read this tale in a room of your own, I can guarantee that when you bed down in the evening, a light of sorts will have to be turned firmly on somewhere in sight of the naked eye. You will hope that the mind does not decide to work overtime and you will hope that Madam Sleep wrestles you quickly into unconsciousness.

It does amaze me the fixation that society seems to have with fictional horror and crime. The world is crammed with gruesome realities from IS to UKIP, yet we still have an innate fascination with atrocities from watching hangings in Elizabethan times to reading penny dreadful novels in Victorian days, the 1970’s slasher flicks to the bordering-on-snuff films of the SAW franchise.

Perhaps we are all just twisted souls?

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Whistle And I’ll Come To You

I thought Hallowe’en had come early last week, due to the ghastly media coverage of the mysterious disappearance of Renee Zellweger. The net and press were plastered with images and commentary. The words were downright vulgar and toxic, with one article featuring a microscopic facial autopsy of the plastic surgery supposedly undertaken. It seemed almost barbaric the way people critiqued this individual’s action. It led me to think that perhaps this Hallowe’en there is a new type of mask, that of celebrity.

It used to be the case that theatre held the mirror up to society, to highlight its hypocrisies, double standards and faults. Now it is apparent that the very representative of celebrity, the star him/herself is the mirror to society’s horrors. Essentially the contemporary world, with its fixation on the body and how we look, is the Dr. Frankenstein creating the fame monster. We are, it seems, one step away from the beauty enhancement explored in the dark comedy film, Death Becomes Her, although if Lucifer offered me the elixir of life in guise of Isabella Rossellini, I’d take it.

Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. JamesSo this Hallowe’en, there is no need to wear a zombie/demon/mask of horror, because the so-called ‘natural’ ones that people are choosing to don all year around – paying a surgeon to craft their ideal self – now, that is the real stuff of terror. However, being a traditionalist, on 31st October my choice to scare the bejeepers out of me will undoubtedly be to pick up a book, particularly the short story Whistle and I’ll Come to You by the master frightener, M. R. James.

He was a prolific academic who redefined the ghost story for the 20th Century by scrapping many of the formal gothic cliché’s of his literary predecessors and setting his tales in more realistic contemporary locations. ‘Whistle’ is set in Barnstow, a seaside town on the east coast of England. Published in 1904, this tale focuses on an introverted academic on a golfing holiday, who explores a Knights Templar cemetery on the East Anglian coast. He happens upon an object, a whistle with a mysterious engraving etched on it, Quis est iste qui venit (who is this, who is coming?). Blowing the whistle brings a windstorm and an unwelcome guest.

James is an enigmatic master of the supernatural story. He stated his ambition,

If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

There is a fantastic black and white adaptation by Jonathan Miller.  Michael Horden plays the character with grimaces and mutterings. The whole ‘less is more’ approach to the drama creates a chill that strikes up the spinal cord.

James’ writing provides scares that do not just shock, but leave the reader with an aftertaste. Failing that, if his tales do not satisfy your horror fix, another suggestion would be to pick up a tabloid rag, like The National Enquirer and take a peep at the Celebrity Monsters gracing those pages. Fame, oh I would not wish it on my worst enemy!

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A dolly for Christmas

Settle down for Christmas Eve as John Maguire follows the Victorian tradition of a creepy tale…

Light the candle, perhaps cradle a mug of fiendishly delicious hot chocolate, or a generous measure of an Islay Malt throw a log on the fire, baton down the hatches and settle into your reading chair.

Pick up a ghost tale this Xmas eve,  just like Dickens, just like M.R James, perhaps pick up: Dolly by Susan Hill.

Dolly-by-Susan-Hill

With this story, the writer comes along and totally blows all other ghost story writers to hell and back, with her simple scare fest of a tale. The simplicity of the story is what makes the story. There is no need for superfluous character backlogs or divisions, her tale, does exactly what it should do, tells the tale.

Set in the damp and desolate landscape of the English fens. An unforgettable summer at Iygot house sees Edward Caley and his brat of a cousin share experiences that have a deep effect on them.

Every piece of syntax is necessary, every detail, reference, in order to lead the reader on a quest, to try to solve the ghoulish puzzle. Her writing is a rarity in that you can be reading and completely immersed without realisation.

Hill allows the reader to dive in to her words, swim calmly and before they realise almost drown, frantically come up for air and realise it is not real, it is in fact just a story.

John Betjeman boldly proclaimed, ‘M.R James is the greatest master of the ghost story, Henry James, Sheridan Le Fanu and H. Russell Wakefield are equal seconds.’ I would like to suggest that Susan Hill indeed needs to be put into this pantheon of terror.

susan hill

Her recipe for a chilling ghost story,

Start very quietly and go: one, two, three, jump. Or start with a jump and make it jumpier. But with a long story, it must have rises and falls. The Turn of the Screw describes it perfectly: you keep, turning and, just before the end, let go a bit so your audience relaxes and maybe have a description of scenery….for a false sense of security.

There is a word for this kind of artistry and it’s not one that can get thrown around too easily, in this case though it is true and the word is genius.
You must convey that you’re on the side of the innocent. Fighting malevolence…….the eternal battle between light and dark.

ghosts

So this yule time perhaps give the family a gift they will never forget, after all everybody loves a dolly.

victorian xmas

Sweet dreams.

 

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A Bibliophage in Eboracum (York)

We promised a return to our reviews of favourite bookshops and here is John Maguire, taking a trip across the Pennines to gorge himself on volumes…

When writer Neil Gaiman cited in his novel, American Gods,

What I say is a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore it knows it’s not fooling a soul,

he was absolutely correct.

Eboracum (if you were around in Roman 71 AD), otherwise known to the common traveller as York, is fortunate to have many subtle bookstores,  jewels in the city’s Crown of Architectural splendour.

I have visited York through the years. The first occasion notably was a stay at the former home of musical composer John Barry. I am always entranced by the season of autumn, but particularly in York. The city backdrop is a canvas painted with a thousand leaves.

autumn york

I guess the way a heroin addict needs to know a dealer is close by, an alcoholic the nearest place to purchase liquid poison, a fitness fanatic the gymnasium, so the book aficionado needs to know the precise location of a book emporium. This is how I first found my way to Fossgate Books and I have been re-visiting ever since!

Of course, a genuine bibliophage never really travels alone and my trusty vintage briefcase, (where I keep my notebook, pens and papers) always has a mini-library for emergencies. This past weekend I travelled with The Flaneur by Edmund White, the chilling House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill and I always have a copy of Jude the Obscure to hand. What a Bible is to a Roman Catholic, Hardy’s tale of self-education is to me. The religion of the written word is my chosen spiritual pathway, yet they never have that option to tick on the equality and diversity screening forms.

Fossgate’s was scribbled purposefully in my itinerary for the weekend, which also included a visit to Castle Howard, the setting of the television rifacimento of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It was Fossgate’s that started my collection of vintage covered Penguin Classics; here I purchased a battered copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I now seek such Penguin Classics like a pig sniffing out truffles. Every trip to a book palace is like a search for hidden treasures.

lady-chatterleys-lover

One of the great charms York offers is that some of the streets do NOT adhere to the flat pack style of high street planning that is rampant across the United Kingdom. The one size fits all model, the universality of non-uniqueness. The Body Shop, Carphone Warehouse, Subway etc. etc. etc,  I am sure are present but they are not rammed in your face like most UK cityscapes. It is also quite nice to not to have every other shop be a Tesco Express, as the case in my home town, the Pool of Life. You are never more than five yards away from a rat in a bustling metropolis, but in Liverpool it’s the exact same statistic for the good ship Tesco Express. Every little apparently does help!

Perhaps, the downside to York is the multitude of ghost tours on offer. Some may say there are more ghouls than people, with every homestead and dog kennel having an alleged ‘haunting’. The supernatural is to York what The Beatles are to Liverpool, a cash cow that is indeed milked completely and well and truly slaughtered.

What treasure did I find this time in Fossgate’s to feed my appetence? A hardback M.R James Ghost Story collection with crafted illustrations. My heart was elated when I asked the proprietor if he had any M.R James in stock and I was impressed that in the catacomb of books he could also give me the exact location of it upstairs.

It is the scent of the written word that slaps you in the face when you enter through the door of Fossgate’s. The cocktail of aromas, hard to define, undisturbed dust blended with aged paper. A stockhouse of the whole gamut of human experience. It’s then when the fragrance hits me, I know I may not be in my native dwelling place, but I am without a doubt home.

fossgates

So when in York, seek out this little temple of knowledge, it would be felonious not to.

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A Hallowe’en Tale: The Signalman by Charles Dickens

Vintage spooks from chilling tales, brought to you this All Hallows’ Eve by John Maguire

Halloa! Below there,

So begins Charles Dickens’ short tale of the supernatural, The Signalman.

A ghost story of quality should be simple and use language to create atmosphere, tension and generally – to coin a cliché – raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. Dickens delivers with a chilling compact example of a classic ghost story; a shocking account of one man’s haunting amidst rails and tram noises.

The tale first appeared in the Christmas edition of the magazine All Year Round, in 1866. It is believed that the master wordsmith used personal experience from his direct involvement in the Staplehurst Rail Crash of 1865. After surviving the tragedy, he nursed other victims, some of whom passed away whilst he was with them. Dickens suffered what would now be known as post-traumatic stress syndrome, losing his voice for two weeks.

staplehurst

From that day onwards he sought other means of transport when travelling. In a letter to an old school friend Thomas Mitton, he conveyed his feelings.

I am a little shaken, not by the beating and dragging of the carriage in which I was, But by the hard work afterwards in getting out the dying and the dead which was most horrible.

The celebrated author even risked his life after the derailment to clamber back into the carriage to retrieve his working manuscript of Our Mutual Friend. Some say he never got over this tragedy and five years after the crash, he died on the anniversary of the day it had occurred, 9th June 1870.

The location of a railway line for a ghost story is quite unsettling. Places that are usually bustling and busy when completely still and empty can convey an unnameable terror; think of an open plan office after hours, a desolate 24 hour supermarket with its lonely aisles, or a completely empty swimming pool. Dickens cleverly taps into the public collected subconscious, the unnerving attitude to the transitional times of industrialisation. (Rail travel was relatively new in Victorian England). He also very cleverly preys on one of humankind’s universal traits, that of curiosity.

the signal man

The story unfolds through the eyes of the narrator and the Signalman is never given a name, which creates a cold distance from the onset. He had fixed eyes and a saturnine face. The reader shares with the narrator’s bewilderment at the strange behaviour of the signalman.

The monstrous thought came into my mind….that this was a spirit not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind.

The troubled signalman keeps staring at a bell that only he can hear ring, this everyday object is used as a menacing instrument to scare.

There is a celebrated TV adaptation of the piece by Andrew Davies, first broadcast in 1976. This seminal work stands alongside the 1968 adaptation of M.R James’ Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad, both outstanding examples of the less is more school of horror. (The latter was re-made in 2010 with distinguished actor John Hurt playing the protagonist).

Charles Dickens and M.R James recognise that ghost stories work at their best when the reader is taken on a journey, questions and has to fill in the blanks with their imagination. It is not necessarily what is said, but what is not, the unknown that gives that all important shiver factor. You know a story has worked when you quicken the speed when passing an open door to a darkened room in your familiar home, you awake and rapidly seek the light switch and when bedroom objects take on a monstrous guise, a simple coat and hat stand can appear as a hooded shadowy figure.

So this Hallowe’en, read by candlelight either alone or out loud to friends and family, a simple ghost story. This will indeed, I promise be more of a fearful experience than sitting down to watch SAW 14 or another similar gore fest.

Good night and sleep tight!

the signal man 2

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