Here’s a treat – a boxset of chilling tales, perfect for dark and stormy nights….
I’m cheekily regarding this as research for the ghost story I’m currently attempting to write, rather than an indulgent curl up on the sofa with a glass of wine luxury… But it has been both a delight and a lesson in how to terrify, so both will do. This is the 6-disc set of the classic tales which were a bit of a Christmas tradition, and as Mark Gatiss is resurrecting that tradition on Christmas Day this year with an adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, I’m doubly thrilled.
This collection contains both the 1969 and 2010 versions of Whistle and I’ll Come To You, one of the most unsettling of M. R. James’s supernatural tales. This is a study in the uncanny, and the sense of isolation and unease that permeates this simple story is unparalleled. Both Michael Hordern and John Hurt in the role of the haunted man give magnificently understated performances and this is rightly a classic. There are five further tales from M.R. James adapted in the 1970s – The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash Tree. My favourite is Lost Hearts, a vampiric tale which is properly disturbing, although the baby-faced spiders from The Ash Tree give it a run for its money. There’s also an adaption of Dickens’s The Signalman, which is far more of a conventional tale but the figure haunting poor Denholm Elliott is very, very creepy.
Two more 1970s stories, Stigma and The Ice House, have modern settings so strike a different note. Stigma is possibly the story that has stayed with me the most – a family are moving some standing stones in order to create a new garden, but the wife suddenly starts bleeding with no apparent wound. This was a wonderfully atmospheric and dark story, all the more so for being in the light of normal modern-day life. The slightly ambiguous ending with the daughter freaked me out! The Ice House is the weirdest tale in the collection; an intriguing story, but the dialogue and delivery was very stylised, which struck a wrong note with me – I’m undecided about this one.
The stories of M.R. James were resurrected in 2005 and 2006 with A View from a Hill and Number 13 respectively. The former is a brilliant idea and the ending is chilling; Number 13 is a traditional tale but very effective.
If you like ghost stories, this is a must-have collection. There are also lots of extras to enjoy with Christopher Lee and Robert Powell re-telling the tales. Now if only I could write like M.R. James….