MR James was a deeply learnt scholar of medieval history: his stories are a tapestry of clues in Latin, details about life of Cambridge dons, technical terms from philology; and a freewheeling imagination about creatures of the night.
Also, you can feel how James’ passion to write was mixed with humour: it does not surprise that his first audience was his family, to whom he read the stories aloud on Christmas Eve..
This may be the reason why the stories are short, like sketches, and never gory; the former feature is the main limit to my pleasure, for as soon as I am engrossed in one, the denouement is there.
These stories sometimes remind me of Clark Ashton Smith’s for their refinement, though are not so decadent and wholly belonging to the British ghost-story tradition.
Canon Alberic’s scrap-book.
Lost hearts. The best story. An orphan is adopted by a stern and lonely uncle, great erudite in late roman cults. He seems to be so generous as to have adopted two other children in the past. But why did they go amiss not long after? And what are those scratches on the boy’s door in the morning?
The Mezzotint. A charmed picture.
Number 13. A nearly humorous story about a room which wasn’t there.
“Oh, whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad!”. A professor, gone to the seaside to learn golf, will leisurely dig in a Templar ruin. What he finds will conjure up a creature as much improbable as it is terrifying.. though a valiant retired colonel will save him.
The treasure of Abbot Thomas. A hunt for treasure following hints in vellum books and glassworks leads to strange discoveries in a German abbey.