Saturday, November 27, 2010

Book Review: "The Haunted Dolls' House ..."

Way back when I read Michael Chabon's Maps and Legends (review) I noted that I'd have to hunt up some of the stories of M.R. James, which Chabon discusses in one of his essays. At least one reader emailed to encourage me in that, and when I saw a copy of James' The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories (the second volume of Penguin's "Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James") sometime later, I snatched it up. It finally made its slow way to the top of the pile, and I thought a nice long weekend would be the perfect time to dip into the stories. I was not disappointed.

While the editor calls the stories included here "generally inferior" to those in the other volume, which includes James' earlier stories (and which I've now ordered up), I quite enjoyed those between these covers. James captures supernatural visitations and unexplained events very well, and has a way of lending very creepy powers to seemingly benign, inanimate objects (among them are binoculars, fabric, and, as might be expected from the title, even a dollhouse).

All of the stories here are well worth reading, but if I had to pick just a few, I'd highlight "The Residence at Whitminster", "The Diary of Mr. Poynter", "Two Doctors," "The Haunted Dolls' House", "A View from a Hill," and "The Uncommon Prayer-Book" (which takes as its supernatural element a bibliographically-mysterious Commonwealth-period Book of Common Prayer). One of the things I really like (and I'm sure you'll be shocked, shocked at this) about James' stories is the inclusion of books, libraries, book auctions and antiquarianism in the plots (he was a medievalist and manuscript cataloger).

Some of my favorite Conan Doyle stories are his supernatural tales, and these reminded me (in a good way) of those. Creepy, but highly enjoyable, and very much recommended.


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