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A Life without a Jolt

Ferdinand Mount: M.R. James

26 January 2012
Collected Ghost Stories 
by M.R. James.
Oxford, 468 pp., £14.99, October 2011, 978 0 19 956884 0
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... He always comes on his own, this bachelor of antiquarian tastes. Sometimes he is a book dealer, more often an academic. He is a dry, crotchety character, not particularly sympathetic. He is usually on holiday, in East Anglia or an old town in France or Denmark. He is staying in an inn or a hotel, an ...

At the Fitzwilliam

Ian Patterson: A tidying-up and a sorting-out

10 August 2016
... in 1816, he owned about ten thousand printed books, 130 illuminated manuscripts, musical scores (most famously the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book), paintings by Veronese, Titian, Rembrandt and others, and more than forty thousand prints. All these he bequeathed to the university ‘for the purpose of promoting the Increase of Learning and the other great objects of that Noble Foundation’, along with a ...

Midges

J.I.M. Stewart

15 September 1983
M.R. JamesAn Informal Portrait 
by Michael Cox.
Oxford, 268 pp., £14.50, June 1983, 0 19 211765 3
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... For M.R.James it is Eton and King’s that are gardens – incomparable gardens which are, however, precisely made for thus exclaiming about as one sits in their created shade. With the exclamation itself nobody ...
17 November 1983
The Woman in Black 
by Susan Hill and John Lawrence.
Hamish Hamilton, 160 pp., £7.95, October 1983, 0 241 10987 6
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Legion 
by William Peter Blatty.
Collins, 252 pp., £8.95, October 1983, 0 00 222735 5
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The Lost Flying Boat 
by Alan Sillitoe.
Granada, 288 pp., £8.95, October 1983, 0 246 12236 6
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Snow, and Other Stories 
by Antony Lambton.
Quartet, 134 pp., £6.95, September 1983, 0 7043 2407 5
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New Islands, and Other Stories 
by Maria Luisa Bombal, translated by Richard Cunningham, Lucia Cunningham and Jorge Luis Borges.
Faber, 112 pp., £8.50, October 1983, 0 571 12052 0
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The Antarctica Cookbook 
by Crispin Kitto.
Duckworth, 190 pp., £7.95, October 1983, 0 7156 1762 1
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Sole Survivor 
by Maurice Gee.
Faber, 232 pp., £7.95, October 1983, 0 571 13017 8
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... 1960s, it might have seemed as if the genre had become canonical and almost complete. A long and distinguished line led back, through such expert modern practitioners as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, to the definitive achievements of M.R.James, Stevenson and Le Fanu, and their Gothic predecessors. The ghost story, or original tale of the supernatural, was essentially a short story, delicately ...

At Eton

Charles Hope

7 March 2013
... works had the upper row on each side eliminated before he was stopped. The surviving scenes were then obscured by wooden stalls until 1923. Only then, through the efforts of the provost of Eton, M.R.James, now best known for his ghost stories, were the paintings once more revealed and restored, in the first of several such campaigns. Although they have been known to specialists (and Etonians) since ...

Playing the Seraphine

Frank Kermode: Penelope Fitzgerald

25 January 2001
The Means of Escape: Stories 
by Penelope Fitzgerald.
Flamingo, 117 pp., £12.99, October 2000, 0 00 710030 2
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... the oldest first published in 1975, the most recent in 1999; so they punctuate the entire, brief career of a writer who never yielded to the temptation to go on until there seemed to be nothing more to say. Her novels are exactly long enough. They accommodate her unique ability to imagine and record all the necessary authenticating detail of her settings: Cambridge before the Great War, Germany ...

Diary

Jeremy Harding: Ash Dieback

6 December 2012
... agrees that once it’s taken hold in a tree of any age it can’t be eliminated. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have known what an ash tree looked like but I knew that such a thing existed from M.R.James. ‘The Ash Tree’ is a sinister tale, set at the end of the Restoration, about a woman found cutting twigs from an ash tree, tried as a witch, hanged and buried: she migrates back to the veteran ...

A Dreadful Drumming

Theo Tait: Ghosts

6 June 2013
The Undiscovered Country: Journeys among the Dead 
by Carl Watkins.
Bodley Head, 318 pp., £20, January 2012, 978 1 84792 140 6
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A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof 
by Roger Clarke.
Particular, 360 pp., £20, November 2012, 978 1 84614 333 5
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... veridical’ English ghost stories, recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon in Yorkshire in the 1190s. It’s a tale Bram Stoker could have used, one that could feature in the more old-fashioned sort of horror film even today. A local man who became convinced that his wife was unfaithful hid in the rafters of their bedroom; when her lover arrived and the man’s fears were ...
19 July 1984
Swallow 
by D.M. Thomas.
Gollancz, 312 pp., £8.95, June 1984, 0 575 03446 7
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First Among Equals 
by Jeffrey Archer.
Hodder, 446 pp., £8.95, July 1984, 0 340 35266 3
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Morning Star 
by Simon Raven.
Blond and Briggs, 264 pp., £8.95, June 1984, 9780856341380
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... reality. For instance, his fictional ‘Peter Morrison’, the decent Conservative MP, has nothing to do with the real-life Peter Morrison MP but was inspired by boyhood memories of the real-life James Prior. The fictional ‘Peter Morrison MP’ reappears in Morning Star, the first volume of Raven’s new novel sequence, but now he seems nothing like James Prior MP. We are more likely to think of ...

Things

Karl Miller

2 April 1987
The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories 
by Michael Cox and R.A. Gilbert.
Oxford, 504 pp., £12.95, October 1986, 0 19 214163 5
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The Ghost Stories of M.R.​ James 
by Michael Cox.
Oxford, 224 pp., £12.45, November 1986, 9780192122551
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Supernatural Tales 
by Vernon Lee.
Peter Owen, 222 pp., £10.95, February 1987, 0 7206 0680 2
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The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural 
edited by Jack Sullivan.
Viking, 482 pp., £14.95, October 1986, 0 670 80902 0
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Ghostly Populations 
by Jack Matthews.
Johns Hopkins, 171 pp., £11.75, March 1987, 0 8018 3391 4
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... sheeted, but never in any circumstances nude. The last of these superstitions is commemorated in a story by A.E. Coppard, chosen for the Oxford Book, in which a dressy female revenant performs a more than usually disappointing strip-tease. She is also taking part in a literary jeu d’esprit. The editors claim, oddly, that ‘the working class and those in trade are generally too busy to concern ...
7 August 1986
A Taste for Death 
by P.D. James.
Faber, 454 pp., £9.95, June 1986, 0 571 13799 7
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A Dark-Adapted Eye 
by Barbara Vine.
Viking, 300 pp., £9.95, March 1986, 0 670 80976 4
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Dead Men’s Morris 
by Gladys Mitchell.
Joseph, 247 pp., £9.95, April 1986, 0 7181 2553 3
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Laurels are poison 
by Gladys Mitchell.
Hogarth, 237 pp., £2.95, June 1986, 0 7012 1010 9
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Dido and Pa 
by Joan Aiken.
Cape, 251 pp., £7.95, June 1986, 0 224 02364 0
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... The epigraphs of P.D. James (now that she has taken to using them) are important. ‘There’s this to say for blood and breath,’ runs the latest one, from A.E. Housman: ‘They give a man a taste for death.’ Are we being ...

Three Minutes of Darkness

Theo Tait: Hari Kunzru

26 July 2017
White Tears 
by Hari Kunzru.
Hamish Hamilton, 271 pp., £14.99, April 2017, 978 0 241 27295 4
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... on the guitar with the weirdest music I had ever heard. Musical historians have seen Handy’s rambling guitarist as the archetypal Delta bluesman, a precursor to Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson: vagrants, rounders, always on the move – pursued, as Handy put it, by ‘suffering and hard luck’, conceiving their music ‘in aching hearts’. Hari Kunzru’s new novel is ...

The Obdurate Knoll

Colin Kidd: The Obdurate Knoll

1 December 2011
Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan 
by Jeff Greenfield.
Putnam, 434 pp., £20.25, March 2011, 978 0 399 15706 6
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11.22.63 
by Stephen King.
Hodder, 740 pp., £19.99, November 2011, 978 1 4447 2729 6
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... The cultural consequences of 22 November 1963 are far more interesting than the events of the day itself. Historians like me tend not to find much of interest in the killing of one person by another, especially when the killer seems to have been a ...

Suffering Souls

Marina Warner: Ghosts in the middle ages.

18 June 1998
Ghosts in the Middle Ages: The Living and the Dead in Medieval Society 
by Jean-Claude Schmitt, translated by Theresa Lavender Fagan.
Chicago, 290 pp., £26.50, May 1998, 0 226 73887 6
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... the clergy’s bid to control secular lives and property: many a ghost who appeared to a priest confirmed the efficacity of churchmen’s offices, or expressed a wish that his family should bequeath more money or land to continue the monastic task of intercession. The French title of this book was simply Les Revenants, and ‘revenant’ catches better than ‘ghost’ the author’s view that the ...

Browning Versions

J.I.M. Stewart

5 July 1984
Oscar Browning: A Biography 
by Ian Anstruther.
Murray, 209 pp., £12.50, October 1983, 9780719540783
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... overwhelming. O.B. had preserved approximately one hundred thousand private papers. This was daunting in itself, yet something with which common sense and judicious sampling could probably cope. A more formidable difficulty lay at the very core of the project. As a recognisable character, an integrated personality, O.B. simply refused to add up. Faced with the need to describe him, friend and enemy ...

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