At the age when most children are being read The Tailor of Gloucester or ’Twas the Night before Christmas, my father took a very different approach to bedtime stories during Advent, and read me my first M.R. James story. I can’t have been much more than five years old, and he was probably a few sherries to the wind, but I can recall with the utmost clarity the sheer, tingling chill of being exposed to Number 13 at such a formative stage.
Number 13 tells the story of the nightly appearance and dawn disappearance of the eponymous room at an inn in Viborg, Denmark, and its unnatural guest, of whom all that’s ever seen is an emaciated arm, covered in long grey hairs, which claws its way out of the room when the protagonist and his companions investigate.
My mother was naturally apoplectic because of course once one has had a literary taste of the supernatural, it’s hard to go back to bunnies and Blyton. And thus a slight obsession was born. I’ve explored the genre fairly broadly and come to the conclusion that my father was absolutely right: there simply isn’t a writer of ghost stories out there to touch M.R. James, who veered away from the heavy-handedness of much gothic fiction to carve out a niche which at its best is erudite, elegant and above all subtle – suitable for the friends who would gather in his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge on Christmas Eve to hear them. Number 13 aside, his finest tales include A Warning to the Curious, A School Story, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, while my favourite remains the utterly terrifying Count Magnus.