Spine chillers: disappointment and hope

The master of the English ghost story has to be (and acknowledged as such by writers like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell) Montague Rhodes James. Provost of Eton College, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, Bible scholar and Antiquary, he is remembered mainly for his outstanding collections of ghost stories.

Memorably dramatised by BBC TV in the 1970s, they date from the first part of the twentieth century, but hark back to the Victorian age with references to carriages, oil lamps and steam trains. Musty libraries and their staff also are a prominent feature and the usual protagonist is an elderly scholar who has pursued his studies into area that promises death or at least a damn good fright.

So it was with ravenous excitement that I chanced upon a CD of BBC radio dramatisations: Spine Chillers. However, pleasure soon turned to agony as these are lamentably amateur despite the presence of Derek Jacobi as the narrator. Gone are the Victorian settings of some, with the fifteen minute time span compressing the suspense. Thus the growing dread of something unpleasant about to happen disappears and when the spectre emerges, it has to be described at length to a third party. I suspect too that James, as a confirmed bachelor, would have been appalled at the feminine presence in the programmes.

What makes his stories suitable for re-reading is that the denouement is only a part of the appeal. For a better sense of James’ skill try the talking book (again read by Derek Jacobi). His lugubrious, measured tones are perfect for  conjuring up remote manor houses, branch lines, isolated inns and the horrors therein.

Alternatively, try these books by Chris Priestley who writes for the young adult market. Again an excellent talking book exists of Uncle Montague’s Tales of Terror, (surely the name must be a tribute to M. R. James?) read by Bill Wallis who captures the menace and darkness of Uncle Monty’s moral stories.  And I would love to see a collected edition of James illustrated by Priestley’s artist Andrew Roberts. Both books have a main narrative broken up by short stories with an uncomfortable twist at the end. The almost skeletal illustrations add to the uneasy feelings generated.

If you like stories of flesh eating snails, boys turned into apple trees that are about to be pruned or giant spiders lurking in abandoned pirate ships, Priestly is your guide.