Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories

Synopsis

When we think of ghost stories, we tend to think of cub scouts cringing by a fire, s'mores at the ready, as some aging camp counselor tries to scare them witless with yet another tale from the crypt. But as Michael Chabon's marvelous introduction reminds us, the ghost story was once integral to the genre of the short story. Indeed, as he points out, it can be argued that the ghost story was the genre. Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," Henry James's "The Turn of the Screw"--most of the early short story writers wrote ghost stories as a matter of course. And the best writer of ghost stories, the acknowledged master, was M. R. James.
InCasting the Runes, we have twenty-one tales that, in Chabon's words, "venture to the limits of the human capacity for terror and revulsion...armed only with an umbrella and a very dry wit." The stories here represent the best of James's work. They are set in the leisurely, late-Victorian, middle-class world of country houses, seaside inns, out-of-the-way railway stations, and cathedral closes, where gentlemen of independent means and antiquarian tastes suddenly find themselves confronted by terrifying agents of supernatural malice. But what these tales are really about, writes Chabon, "is ultimately the breathtaking fragility of life, of 'reality,' of all the structures that we have erected to defend ourselves from our constant nagging suspicion that underlying everything is chaos, brutal and unreasoning."
The tales inCasting the Runesare both chilling fun and, as Chabon concludes, "unmistakably works of art." Anyone who loves short fiction or who enjoys a good scare will find these stories an irresistible delight.

Excerpt

One writer dominates the modern English ghost story: M. R. James, without whom no anthology of supernatural fiction would be complete. Few authors in this small but fertile corner of English fiction have had James's ability to please both critics and enthusiasts. He continues to be packaged for popular consumption, mythologized as one of those 'masters of the macabre' like Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker, his stories having been adapted, usually unsatisfactorily, for television and the cinema and popularized, more successfully, through radio readings and recordings. All this would have amused—and probably surprised—him; for, somewhat like the fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, James's stories were written in the interstices of a busy academic life, and for James himself were incidental to more important work.

Montague Rhodes James was the youngest child and third son of Herbert James, a scholarly and genial Evangelical clergyman, and his wife Mary Emily (nee Horton), the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. in 1865, when Montague was 3, the family moved from his birthplace at Goodnestone next Wingham in Kent to the Suffolk village of Great Livermere, near Bury St Edmunds. the white-walled, slate-roofed rectory on the edge of Livermere Park appears in James's posthumously published ghost story 'A Vignette', whilst East Anglia in general provided settings for some of his most memorable tales—for instance, Burnstow (based on Felixstowe) in '“Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad”', or the fond evocation of Aldeburgh (called Seaburgh), where his grandmother had lived, in 'A Warning to the Curious'. the four children—Sydney, Herbert ('Ber'), Grace, and Montague—were brought up in what Sydney James called a 'devotional' atmosphere, which meant morning and evening prayers, a daily psalm and hymns, Bible study, and . . .

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