Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Haunted Dolls' House: Review

The Haunted Dolls' House by M. R. James is a collection of pleasantly creepy short stories.  Just the sort to read on a brisk October evening when the days are drawing closer, ever closer to Halloween. His stories then to be set in a picturesque little village in England--or Sweden or France.  He also likes a good university or abbey or church as the backdrop.  His characters tend to be gentlemanly scholars or just plain gentlemen who come across an obscure bit of knowledge with a supernatural connection that they just can't resist figuring out. Or who run into a curse or a mysterious treasure guarded by a ghost or a maze that's been shut up for years--but no one knows why.  Almost always, the gentleman/scholar discovers some ancient book or object that brings the wrath of the otherwordly down upon him.

As with most short story collections, this is a mixed bag.  There are some outstanding stories such as the title story--which tells about a Gothic dolls' house where a deadly drama is enacted each night at 1 am.  The newest owner believe he's gotten a bargain when he buys the house at a bottom dollar (bottom pound?) price.  But he soon finds out his mistake. There is also "Casting of the Runes" which, if nothing else, gives academics the perfect revenge against those publishers and journal editors who refuse to print their work.  A nice runic curse is just the thing to prove that your life's work is nothing to trifle with.  Just be sure it doesn't come back to haunt you. The creepiest story by far is "Lost Hearts"--I won't ruin it, but let's just say that if you're alone in the world and under 21, then you don't want Mr. Abney taking pity on you and offering you a home.  Really.  Go live in the woods and eat berries.  It'd be way better.  "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is the first story in the collection and probably the most well-known.  I've seen it several times in collections and it never ceases to give me a chill or two.  A professor goes on a golfing holiday combined with an intent to get some scholarly work done.  His colleague asks him to check out a possible archeological site in the area and let him know if it would worth setting up a dig.  When he does, he discovers a metal pipe that looks like some sort of ancient whistle.  He learns that you should be careful when you blow on whistles.  You never know what might answer your call.

The story which I found least interesting was "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance."  The story of the haunted maze just didn't evoke the same sense of the supernatural as the others in the collection.  The atmosphere doesn't quite work as well.  Which is unfortunate because of all the stories, it's the only one I snagged any quotations from--but they are both about books (see below).  Over all, this is a fine bunch of spooky stories to while away an evening.  A high number of excellent stories, a few that are good, and just a couple that aren't quite up to standard.  Three and a half stars.

I've always taken a keen interest in literature myself. Hardly anything to my mind can compare with a good hour's reading after a hard day's work.... ~Mr. Cooper (p. 159)

The library was the obvious place for the after-dinner hours. Candle in hand and pipe in mouth, he moved round the room for some time, taking stock of the titles of the books. He had all the predisposition to take interest in an old library, and there was every opportunity for him to make systematic acquaintance with one....There were probably treasures to be found, too: even manuscripts, if Cooper might be trusted. (p. 161)


Stefanie said...

I've read a few M.R. James stories but not a whole collection. This one sounds like fun.

Ryan said...

This sounds like so much fun..... I need to read it.