Reviews: Collected Ghost Stories (M.R. James), Kwaidan (Lafcadio Hearn)

Collected Ghost Stories book cover

Collected Ghost Stories (1931) is an anthology of Victorian-era supernatural stories, written by M.R. James. I picked up this book because of its reviews, and I was not disappointed. For a book written almost 90 years ago, it’s surprisingly accessible. You might need a dictionary for a few words, and the ‘British archaeologist visiting scary foreign lands’ theme has since been played to death, but the important bits, the scary bits, still work well.

The stories are slow burns, and leave a lot to the reader’s imagination. This is what makes these stories so effective. The narrator visits an old European town, searching for ancient Catholic Church manuscripts, and they discover a horrific secret in the process. They find their host’s disfigured body in the hallway the next morning. Or the protagonist unearths an ancient artifact with the help of their friend, who disappears the next day, leaving only a chilling note behind.

It’s up to you to fill in the blanks. Maybe some things don’t have an explanation.

It was a high, thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly. It was a really horrible sound, and Anderson felt that if he had been alone he must have fled for refuge and society to some neighbour bag-man’s room.

The landlord sat open-mouthed.

Just then came an impatient knock at the door, and the knocker entered, without waiting to be asked. It was the lawyer, in deshabille and very rough-haired; and very angry he looked.

‘I beg pardon, sir,’ he said, ‘but I should be much obliged if you would kindly desist —’

Here he stopped, for it was evident that neither of the persons before him was responsible for the disturbance; and after a moment’s lull it swelled forth again more wildly than before.

‘But what in the name of Heaven does it mean?’ broke out the lawyer. ‘Where is it? Who is it? Am I going out of my mind?’

‘Surely, Herr Jensen, it comes from your room next door? Isn’t there a cat or something stuck in the chimney?’

This was the best that occurred to Anderson to say, and he realised its futility as he spoke; but anything was better than to stand and listen to that horrible voice, and look at the broad, white face of the landlord, all perspiring and quivering as he clutched the arms of his chair.

‘Impossible,’ said the lawyer, ‘impossible. There is no chimney. I came here because I was convinced the noise was going on here. It was certainly in the next room to mine.’

‘Was there no door between yours and mine?’ said Anderson eagerly.

‘No, sir,’ said Herr Jensen, rather sharply. ‘At least, not this morning.’

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Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904) is another 18th-century supernatural story collection, except Lafcadio Hearn focuses on traditional Japanese stories. Some stories probably require you to understand Japanese traditions, and others aren’t scary or unsettling, just strange. But there are some gems in there. There’s something captivating about reading a ghost story from the Edo period. Hearn also thankfully includes translations for many Japanese words in the book, along with explanatory footnotes for each story.

It’s no Stephen King novel, but this book will creep you out if you let it. Give it a shot, since it’s free!

After dark the priest and the acolyte went away; and Hoichi seated himself on the verandah, according to the instructions given him. He laid his biwa on the planking beside him, and, assuming the attitude of meditation, remained quite still,—taking care not to cough, or to breathe audibly. For hours he stayed thus.

Then, from the roadway, he heard the steps coming. They passed the gate, crossed the garden, approached the verandah, stopped—directly in front of him.

"Hoichi!" the deep voice called. But the blind man held his breath, and sat motionless.

"Hoichi!" grimly called the voice a second time. Then a third time—savagely:—


Hoichi remained as still as a stone,—and the voice grumbled:—

"No answer!—that won’t do!… Must see where the fellow is."…

There was a noise of heavy feet mounting upon the verandah. The feet approached deliberately,—halted beside him. Then, for long minutes,—during which Hoichi felt his whole body shake to the beating of his heart,—there was dead silence.

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