I love being read to. I could pretend it’s because it takes my mind away when I have a migraine or because it allows one to appreciate the aural poetry of writing—and that would be partially true. But the appeal is more elemental, more regressive. When you’re being read to, you’re being taken care of.
Perhaps by the same token, something scary can be magnified in the hearing. Ghost stories are meant to be told orally, after all, and when you are listening to something recorded, you have the option of doing so in the dark. When October comes, no matter if it’s more Indian summer than crisp fall, I want nothing so much as the occult and creepy. And so I walk through the city or work in the kitchen or stand on line at the bank, with M. R. James playing in my ears.
James is known as the master of the Victorian ghost story, and his books make for good late-night reading. But a tale like “A School Story” or “A Warning to the Curious” comes into its own when heard—even when paraphrased or plagiarized. Indeed, the same rather unvarying Jamesian structure that can make these stories a bit tedious to read silently works well when they’re related aloud, establishing a creepy rhythm. It becomes almost incantatory, a reassuring framework within which anything might happen, so long as it is scary. Sir John Betjeman recalled first hearing James at school:
In the year 1920 I was a new boy at the Dragon school, Oxford, then called Lynam’s, of which the headmaster was C. C. Lynam, known as “the Skipper.” He dressed and looked like an old Sea Salt, and in his gruff voice would tell us stories by firelight in the boys’ room of an evening with all the lights out and his back to the fire. I remember he told the stories as having happened to himself … they were the best stories I ever heard, and gave me an interest in old churches, and country houses, and Scandinavia that not even the mighty Hans Christian Andersen eclipsed.
James’s work has often been recorded, first for radio and later for audiobooks. Many of his stories can be found for free, too. This version of “Casting the Runes” is long—it got me through the worst of a bout of food poisoning, in fact—but perfect for a lazy night in. I envy anyone who has not yet listened to James the unfettered pleasure of doing so.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.