Halloween Haunts: Peculiar Genius–The Ghost Stories of M.R. James by Brad C. Hodson
“The peculiar genius of M. R. James, and his greatest power, lies in the convincing evocation of weird, malignant and preternatural phenomenon… It is safe to say that few writers, dead or living, have equaled him in this formidable necromancy and perhaps no one has excelled him.” -Clark Ashton Smith
When the leaves change color and the wind cools, we find ourselves imagining what could be lurking in the shadows, what could be waiting in closets and under beds and inside dank, dark spaces. It’s a time that, whether through tradition or the influence of pop culture, begins to conjure images of ghosts.
And, if you’re going to talk about ghosts, you have to talk about M.R. James.
Montague Rhodes James was a British antiquarian and medieval scholar who taught at Eton and King’s College. While still respected among academics for his work, it’s his ghost stories that horror fans should be interested in. While James has remained popular in the UK since his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published in 1904, somehow his name has become unknown even with diehard horror fans in the States. To call this a shame would be like calling a walking corpse “odd.”
His unique fiction was a major inspiration for horror icons like HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Ramsey Campbell, and was of a style that could only be labeled “weird.” His ghost stories were products of the age in which he lived, an age that rushed toward the future yet struggled to gaze into the past. As such, most of his protagonists were scholars who had gone in search of research materials or had discovered an ancient relic, any of which could bring about an unwanted visitation.
The ghosts he created are not floating around in bed sheets, rattling chains and moaning for peace. James envisioned the dead as horrid, incomprehensible beings that could barely be processed by the human mind, let alone described. They come in all sorts of twisted, diseased shapes, their forms driving their witnesses to the edge of madness.
And that’s just the ones that can be seen. James made brilliant use of the senses in his stories, his hauntings sometimes manifesting as rustling fabric and scratching across floorboards. If a character was unlucky enough to actually touch one of these things… well, those passages are better read in James than here.
One of my favorite weird ghost stories is “The Haunted Doll’s House.” In it, an antique dealer purchases an old doll house that comes to life every night and reenacts a series of horrific events that seem to have happened in the house it was modeled on. The following passage is but one of the eerie and unsettling things the antique dealer witnesses:
The door was opening again. The seer does not like to dwell upon what he saw
entering the room: he says it might be described as a frog – the size of a man – but it had scanty white hair about its head. It was busy about the truckle-beds, but not for long. The sound of cries – faint, as if coming out of a vast distance – but, even so, infinitely appalling, reached the ear.
James’s stories were filled with mystery and he never felt the need to provide all the answers. The facts of the other side are unknown and all the more frightening for it. Take, for instance, the story “The Mezzotint.” In it, a man comes into the possession of a picture of his home, a picture that changes slowly over time. While that basic idea has been recycled a hundred times since James, it has never been as frightening as the original, partly because of the mystery.
The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable – rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.
What this thing is, or why it’s crawling on all fours or has a cross on its back, is never fully explained. Its explanation is not the point and not knowing what it is takes nothing away from the story. Instead, it adds to the dread and lingers in the back of your mind, waiting for nightfall so that it can creep out into your dreams.
Then there are the horrifying things that reside in “The Ash Tree:”
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another – four – and after that there is quiet again.
And let’s not forget the face of the blind abomination in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad:”
Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumbled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.
Originally written to be read aloud on Christmas Eve (a traditional night for telling ghost stories), his short fiction has a conversational tone and an attention to detail that makes the reader feel the story actually happened, that the character relating the events was real. It’s this feel, along with the nightmarish and incomprehensible quality inherent to the dead, that leaves his fiction as frightening today as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century. James was the unparalleled master of the ghost story and, though many writers have tried, none have surpassed him.
Originally from the dark hills of Appalachia, BRAD C. HODSON is a writer living in Los Angeles. He is a history buff, enjoys lifting heavy things, and likes writing about himself in the third person. His first novel, DARLING, is available from Bad Moon Books (www.badmoonbooks.com). To read some of his odd ramblings or to find where to check out his short fiction or film work, please visit www.brad-hodson.com.
TODAY’S GIVEAWAY: Brad C. Hodson is offering one paperback copy of his book Darling. To enter post a comment in the section below or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and put HH CONTEST ENTRY in the header. Winners will be chosen at random and notified by e-mail.
Raynham Place has been home to a number of mysterious occurrences. From its start as a battlefield through its time as a tuberculosis hospital and even in its current incarnation as an apartment complex, the grounds here have been awash in blood and instability. When two friends decide to move in to Raynham together, a wound that they share opens wide and threatens their sanity. But they’re not alone. Something is off here at Raynham, something that goes beyond the local legends of ghosts and serial killers and Black Hounds, something that gets inside of everyone who ever lives here. When a sacrifice is made, the first freely given in ages, the truth behind Raynham’s legends finally surfaces and the building fills to bursting with all the dreams of Hell…
Praise for DARLING
One of the creepiest settings I’ve ever experienced…DARLING is deeply unsettling, in your face horror.
–Nate Kenyon, Award-winning author of SPARROW ROCK and DIABLO: THE ORDER
Hodson delivers with passion and intensity.
-Scott Nicholson, LIQUID FEAR and THE RED CHURCH
Have you had the pleasure of meeting Brad C. Hodson’s work yet? His short stories in HORROR FOR GOOD and John Skipp’s WEREWOLVES anthology were amazing, and now here comes his first novel, DARLING. We should all hate him. Buy the books and read them first…then hate him.
–Lisa Morton, Bram Stoker Award winning author of CASTLE OF LOS ANGELES and THE HALLOWEEN ENCYCLOPEDIA
You know that feeling you get as the Bigwheel clicks slowly down the hall? Something awful is waiting just around the corner and your skin crawls with dread because you’re too scared to look away. Well, Brad Hodson knows how to scare you like that. Weird and unsettling, but hauntingly perceptive, Hodson’s DARLING is a rare accomplishment, a finely-honed study in mounting tension that keeps readers turning pages despite their fear. This is how you do it, folks. Hodson knows how to deliver the scares, and he’s got a nightmare just for you.
-Joe McKinney, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of FLESH EATERS and DEAD CITY
DARLING was a great read. It had all the elements I enjoy in a horror novel and Hodson has succeeded where many fail in that he’s managed to actually make it creepy. Like comedy, creepy (real creepy) is harder than it looks, but DARLING raised the small hairs on my arms a few times. Brad has a knack to unnerve and I’m officially a Hodson fan. I eagerly await his next book. Excellent debut.
-Michael Louis Calvillo, acclaimed author of I WILL RISE, AS FATE WOULD HAVE IT, and LAMBS
Bong, bong, bong.
Quasimodo, does that ring a bell?
How about Brad Hodson, does that ring a bell?
Hmmm…maybe, not sure.
Uh-huh, well check out my enthusiastic reaction to DARLING. The straight forward, reader accessible prose, with no downfield literary juking reminds me a lot of Richard Laymon. Simple, right? Uh-uh, don’t be fooled. Accomplished always looks easy. Hodson gets his simple effects by using precise language, including always picking the exact verb not the first serviceable, which eliminates the need for lots of adjectives and adverbs. His fast-paced plotting with no fluff makes for an engaging and compelling story arc, with great closure, perfect last line. Snag a copy of DARLING on my recommendation, read it, and then:
Bong, bong, bong
Brad Hodson, does that ring a bell?
You bet your sweet ass!
-Gene O’Neill, Bram Stoker Award winning writer and author of IN DARK CORNERS, THE BLUE HERON, and THE BURDEN OF INDIGO
Read an excerpt from DARLING
The light cutting through the drapes cast strange shadows across the room. Some of them looked liked snakes slithering across her walls, while others were more like long fingers reaching across her room towards her. The tiny bits of mid-afternoon light wedged between them stung her eyes.
Peggy crawled out of bed, still weak from the morning’s treatments, and stumbled to the window. She squinted hard as she approached to pull the drapes tighter, and then returned to the soft, cool space between her mattress and her “Justin Bieber” sheets. Her computer speakers crackled next to her, faintly playing some I-Tunes selection about boys and horses, and she rolled back onto her side.
The treatments were awful. She felt worse after every one. Sicker, really, even though the doctors and her mother claimed it made her better. She had a vague idea of what was wrong with her, but had heard so many new words tossed around recently, words like “keemo” and “cancer” and “remission,” (that last whispered with the same wishful tones that she sometimes spoke of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny), that she couldn’t decide how sick she really was.
Her door was cracked and she could see dark blue shadows dance in the hallway. She tried to listen to what her mother watched on television, but only heard dull murmuring. Her head throbbed, her stomach felt twisted and abused. She prayed she wouldn’t vomit again. She hated the way it tasted and how her mouth burned after. Her eyes were heavy and they fluttered close.
The phone rang, pulling her back. The blue shadows clicked off and she heard her mother say, “Hello?”
A pause, and then: “No, she’s sleeping.”
Peggy rolled over and exited iTunes. She rolled back and listened.
“As good as can be expected, I guess. Hmmm? I’ve lost count, really. Yes, yes it is. It’s just… hard, you know?”
She heard her mother sniff and recognized it as the forerunner to a wave of tears. Peggy had become very familiar with her mother’s sounds lately.
“I mean, after Derrick left I… yeah. Well, Charlie isn’t even out of diapers yet, and it’s just me, and my insurance doesn’t cover all of Peggy’s… oh, Mom, I can’t ask you to do that.”
Peggy had to bite her lip to keep from yelling Let her do it, Mommy! Please! But she knew how it would go. Her grandmother lived in Florida and her mother had too much pride to ask for help. It was killing her. Peggy hated to see her mother’s face so pale and puffy and the dark circles that lined her eyes. The worst part of it all was that Peggy knew it was her fault and the guilt kept her up at nights.
“Yes, Mom. I know.” Her voice quivered. Another sniff. “Thank you. Yeah. I love you, too. Tell Dad I said ‘hi.’ Later.”
A click, then silence. It was long and drawn out and Peggy wondered what her mother was doing. Then she heard the soft shuffle of feet moving through carpet and the bathroom door closed. A few moments later the metallic hum of water moving through pipes passed through her room. Her mother always did her best crying in the tub.
She rolled over and stared at the ceiling. The weak light struggling into the room barely lit up the constellations that her mother had painted over her bed. She stuck her arm up over her face and closed one eye. With her index finger she traced the lines of the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Orion the Hunter. As she did she whispered into the dark of her room, “God, please send my Mommy the remission. I don’t want her to cry no more.”
The water stopped running at the other end of the apartment. Peggy rolled over and clicked “Sleep” on her computer. The screen went black and the white light in the lower corner pulsed slowly. It served as a nightlight, casting a small bit of light every few seconds while allowing enough darkness to take root in the room for Peggy to sleep.
The faint rhythm of her mother’s sobbing drifted down the hall. She tried to ignore it, but couldn’t. It made the muscles around her eyes quiver. She rolled over and stretched her hand toward the door. Her fingertips just barely touched the edge and she gave it a hard push. It swung closed with a soft click.
She shut her eyes again. The image of her on the scale in the doctor’s office came into her mind. She stood on the cold, black thing as Dr. Brady slid the metal block back and forth, frowning. Her white gown with pink dots was open in the back and the skin of her thighs and butt was covered in goose bumps. Why is there a mirror here? That’s just mean, making me look at myself. Her skin was sallow and clung close to her bones. There were bruises here and there, purple splotches like spilled finger paint. She could easily see the bones of her elbows and knees jutting out, and pockets of loose skin flapped from her arms.
She shook the memory away. At least no one could call me Porky Peggy anymore. The thought almost made her smile. That was one torture she would never have to deal with again. Now she had others.
She stole a quick glance at her closet and shut her eyes again.
Her brother let out a short, sleepy cry from her mother’s bedroom. It was the prelude to a full-blown fit. The way sound carried in the apartment, it was like Charlie was at the foot of her bed every time he cried.
Shut up, she thought, and then felt guilty. She loved her brother.
She heard the bathroom door open and close and her mother stomp down the hall. A few moments later and Charlie had quieted.
The silence was far from comforting. Peggy tried to sleep, tried to will it to come to her, but every tiny noise in her room was amplified. The wind whistled past her window, rustling the leaves of the magnolia trees that grew against the walls of the building. A horn honked somewhere. Kids yelled and laughed in the distance, their words little more than murmuring. The pulse of the white light from her sleeping computer shined against her lids and her brain manufactured a low rhythm to accompany it.
Stop it. That computer don’t make no noise when it’s sleeping.
She envied it suddenly, its ability to sleep at the push of a button.
She rolled over again and winced at the loud crinkle of her sheets.
The closet door cracked open.
Her breath caught in her throat.
She had heard that, right? Of course she did. It was unmistakable.
She thought that maybe she should turn on the light, or open the door, or yell for Mommy, or even just hide under her covers. But she couldn’t move. She just lay there like a rock, her eyes clamped shut, her breath held inside her so long that her lungs ached.
There was a soft thump and Peggy opened one eye halfway to peek. A doll had rolled out of the closet and onto the floor. It lay there face down, its pink dress hiked up in the back like it was mooning her.
The door creaked open a little further.
She yanked the covers over her head.
She listened, hoping she wouldn’t hear the rustle of feet through carpet. Her breath was warm underneath the blankets and she was already damp with sweat.
After a long silence, she slowly lowered the covers.
The room was empty.
She took a deep breath and exhaled. It turned to a soft, white mist as it left her mouth. She realized how cold the room had become. She looked over to the closet-
-and saw that the door was open completely.
She held her breath and dove back under the covers. She laid there, motionless, quiet, hoping that it thought she was still in the hospital.
A faint rustle. Tiny feet moving slowly through carpet.
A creak from her bedsprings as something pressed down on the edge. It had never come out this far before.
And then the mattress pressed down further and she felt it above her. She could feel its steaming hot breath against the outside of the sheet as it leaned close to her.
I’m not here. If I don’t move and don’t make no noise it won’t know I’m here. It will think I’m still at the hospital or-
“I can hear you thinking,” it said. Its voice was playful and gravelly. It was always like that, the voice of a child who wanted to play and an adult who wanted nothing more than to hurt you all rolled into one melodious sound. It made Peggy’s bones tingle.
“Leave me alone,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to make your brother cry,” it whispered. “Not this time, anyway.”
Please, God and Jesus who are in Heaven, hollow be thy name, thy Kingdom come-
It laughed, a sound like brittle twigs snapping. “Their names are hollow, aren’t they? Hollow, meaningless things.”
She shook her head furiously beneath the sheet as it leaned closer. She could feel its cheek press against hers through the sheet and her bladder let go.
It whispered to her the way her father used to when tucking her in for the night. Its hot breath pressed the sheet tight against her face and she could feel little flicks of spittle splatter against it.
“Come with me, Peggy. Step into the closet with me. There are wonders in there, dark and bloody, that will stay with you for years.”
She screamed louder than she ever had in her entire life. It made her temples ache and flashed stars in front of her eyes she screamed so hard. Her throat felt raw and bloody and her stomach lurched forward with the first stirrings of vomit, but she kept screaming. She heard its feet rustle through the carpet and back to the closet.
The closet door slammed shut.
Her bedroom door swung open, her light came on, and she pulled the covers from over head. Her stomach jerked hard to the right, then the left, and she leaned over and vomited into the trashcan that her mother had placed next her bed.
Her mother was at her side, pulling her hair out of the way and rubbing her back.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Shhh… it’s okay.”
Peggy collapsed into her, let those great, comforting arms envelope her, and tried to cry. She shook and moaned and snot poured from her nose, but no tears came from her eyes. After a few moments, she pulled away.
“I think I need some water,” she said.
Her mother nodded and left the room. Peggy stared at the closet door.
It was closed. For now, anyway.
Was that thing still behind it?
She was more afraid of it now than ever. It had never ventured more than a foot or two from the closet. It never seemed like it was able to before, like something kept it tied to the darkness in there. But if it could get to her bed now, what was next?
She placed one foot onto the floor, then the other. She had to hold the bedpost to get a sense of her balance but, once she did, she was moving to the door.
Her heart pounded in her chest so loud that it sounded like drums, like the ones they played at the football games she used to go to before she was sick, when Mommy and Daddy still loved each other. The carpet was moist and clammy against her bare feet. She knew she was in its trail, its wet, cold feet leaving a little something in between the threads of carpeting.
She reached a hand for the doorknob. Gripped it. It, too, was cold. She turned it and opened the door.
It was dark, darker than it should have been with her bedroom lights on. It was like the closet refused to let the light into it. She could see the vague outline of her clothes hanging on the rod, her toys and shoes piled up in the base, boxes on the top shelf. And somewhere behind everything, between it all, lying in the spaces between spaces, was a shifting, white shape. It moved around slowly in the cracks between those boxes, in the crevices of her toys, in the creases of her shirts. It watched her, studied her, but refused to come out into the light.
“Honey?” Her mother was behind her with a glass.
She took it and sipped it slowly. It was cool and refreshing trickling over her chapped lips, across her dry tongue, and down her cracked throat.
Her mother patted her head. “You’re welcome, sweetheart. Did you have a bad dream?”
She glanced back over her shoulder into the closet and nodded.
“Wanna sleep in my room?”
Peggy shook her head. It didn’t matter where she was. It had already been in her mother’s room, anyway. Had already made Charlie cry.
“Okay. Do you want me to leave a light on for you, then?”
“Okay.” Her mother clicked on a small lamp in the corner. “Let me know if you need anything else.” She gave Peggy another hug and left.
Peggy stared into the black, watching the pale shape move away from the light, and wondered if things wouldn’t be better if she just gave in, if she just stepped inside.
The thing in her closet laughed.