Ghostly horror and the scariest stories ever told

What is the essence of horror? A movement in the dark? A creak on the stair? A crazed serial killer? Don’t worry, there’s no right or wrong answer.

What is the essence of horror? A movement in the dark? A creak on the stair? A crazed serial killer? Don’t worry, there’s no right or wrong answer. Everyone has their own perception of horror; their own fears hidden in the recesses of their mind. 

That’s the reason for the variety within the horror movie genre. For every ‘Ring’ there’s a ‘Saw’, for every ‘Halloween’ there’s a ‘Night of the Living Dead’. Each kind of story has a distinct and different flavour of fear.
Like one, that on a lonesome road
Doth walk in fear and dread,
And having once turned round walks on,
And turns no more his head;
Because he knows, a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
For some time, I’ve been disillusioned with horror. The vital spark had gone. Time and time again, those ingredients of atmosphere and a well-managed crescendo had failed to come together. So I delved into my past.
I tried to think what it was about horror that’s always affected me so much. I’ve never been attracted to gore. Video nasties, or ‘gorenography’, have always been more comical than frightening. Zombies? Na, they don’t do it for me. And vampires? They’re usually too cool (Gary Oldman and David Boreanaz) or mopey (Brad Pitt) to be scary. Don’t get me started on ‘Twilight’. Shiny vampires, my arse!
No, my fear and love focussed on ghost stories. ‘So, come on, Jonnie,’ I hear you ask. ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ Oh…you didn’t ask that? Well, pretend…
Yes, I do believe in ghosts. If you want to laugh, I encourage you to. I’ve never tried, or wanted, to change people’s beliefs. No, I’m not a ‘spiritualist’. I don’t believe in psychics, auras and all that jazz. I flatter myself that I’m quite a normal, grounded person. And I believe in ghosts. I’ve always believed that the difference between the ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ is simply the difference in frequency of occurrence. And my young out-of-control imagination was always attracted to the idea of ghosts. It didn’t matter that part of me was frightened, I loved it. Now, let’s continue.
The best ghost stories are still the old ones I grew up with. Notable ones include ‘The Signal-Man’ by Charles Dickens, ‘The Phantom Coach’ by Amelia B. Edwards, and ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan James. The latter is probably my favourite book – hands down. All three tackle a lone person facing the unknown. ‘The Signal-Man’ is particularly poignant, with the use of the narrator as the eyes of the reader, on the edge of the tragedy involving the lonely signal-man.
Then when reading ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James (incidentally another excellent psychological ghost story, with two standout adaptations: ‘The Innocents’ and ‘The Haunting of Helen Walker’), I stumbled onto another writer named James.
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936). He is the man credited with dragging ghost stories out of the gothic and into contemporary settings. His ‘Jamesian’ style of ghost story still influences writers and filmmakers today. He described it himself, ‘Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and then into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.’
M.R. James became and still remains to this day, my favourite writer. He’s often referred to as being the finest ghost story writer of all time, as well as being one of the greatest English authors. Dear reader, if you enjoy ghost stories, I don’t encourage – I order you – to discover M.R. James and fall in love with his work, as I did.
There are so many stories waiting for you. There’s ‘Casting the Runes’, where Mr Dunning becomes the latest man to cross Mr Karswell. Why has the young orphan suddenly been taken in by an unknown relative in ‘Lost Hearts’? What is going on in hotel room ‘Number 13’? Who was laughing in the church in ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book’?. Take heed with ‘A Warning to the Curious’, and enjoy, perhaps M.R. James’ most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’.
Over the past few months, I’ve reread all of these tales and many others. My passion for ghost stories is back. And with it came a realisation. Hands up if you’ve read any M.R. James… I thought so, that’s about two of you. Now, hands up if you’ve even heard of M.R. James… And that’s about five of you. When planning to write this article, I conducted a wee survey. Out of 20 of my close friends (boys and girls, from 16 to 36), a total number of three had heard of M.R. James and only one had read any of his work. There’s nothing wrong with that and I certainly expected it. I blame cinema.
For some reason, there has only ever been one movie adaptation of a M.R. James story. In 1957, an adaptation of ‘Casting the Runes’ was released, renamed ‘Night of the Demon’. Yeah, I agree it’s a shit title. The film itself is quite good, though radically different from the original story. Then in the 60s and 70s there were a few TV adaptations of his work, only two of which still survive today – ‘A Warning to the Curious’ and ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’. But that was it, until Christmas 2010, when the BBC adapted ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’, starring John Hurt. While it was still atmospheric and spooky, it’s less an adaptation and more a re-imagining. It’s given a clever twist and creates a deeper psychological story, but I prefer the original.
That’s it as far as adaptations go. So it’s no wonder that so few people nowadays have heard of M.R. James, especially in comparison to similar writers like Edgar Allan Poe or H.P. Lovecraft. Maybe it’s an issue with the rights, but it’s a tragedy that James’ impressive catalogue of stories is all but lost to the modern generation. Dear reader, once again, I urge you to go out and read his work.
After all, no one pinpoints the essence of horror quite like Montague Rhodes James. It’s not blood and guts. Nor is it profound personal loss. It’s the vulnerability and loneliness of the unfamiliar. The essence of horror is simply facing the unknown.