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M.R. James

Michael Chabon writes about the British ghost story writer M.R. James (from the recent essay collection Maps and Legends), contrasting James with his better-known American counterpart H.P. Lovecraft:

The contrast is particularly stark when it comes to their portrayal of the unportrayable. Lovecraft approaches Horror armed with adverbs, abstractions, and perhaps a too-heavy reliance on pseudopods and tentacles. James rarely does more than hint at the nature of his ghosts and apparitions, employing a few simple, select, revolting adjectives, summoning his ghosts into hideous, enduring life in the reader's mind in a bare sentence or two.
I must admit that the purported simplicity of James' prose attracts me, as I increasingly find myself drawn to literary understatement and the left-unsaid. So when Chabon further claims that James' "Oh, Whistle, I'll Come to You, My Lad" (available here) is "one of the finest short stories ever written" I really had no choice but to check out that story, which I finally read this morning.

My take? Yes, the prose is nicely understated - no histrionics, no drooling and blood-curdling beast, and the horror might well be nothing more than a figment of the protagonist's overactive imagination - and it's a pretty good tale, but one of the finest short stories ever written? Sorry, no.

October 27, 2008 in Books | Permalink


I enjoyed the story.

Posted by: Brandon at Oct 28, 2008 8:14:52 PM