Montague Rhodes James brings the classic British understatement to the field of horror stories and makes them terrifying beyond imagination. His writing is without any frills; there is very little by the way of atmosphere-building; and the stories themselves seem to be an odd form of reportage. By going against convention, M. R. James creates a nightmare world which is more frightening than that of any of his more traditional contemporaries. He is helped in this by his encyclopaedic knowledge of Church History.
James' ghosts are most exclusively European, mostly British. They emanate from the Celtic woodlands of pre-Roman Britain, and inhabit the wooded copses and cavernous churches of the English countryside. Often the protagonist is a scholarly enquirer who stumbles upon unwelcome and potentially dangerous knowledge in the course of his enquiries, and his journey, along with the story, slowly descend into a madness equalling that of Lovecraft, but in a gentlemanly, English way.
I would rank Casting the Runes
at the very top of these gems. This story has given me delicious nightmares ever since I first encountered it during my teens. "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"
is another story which stays in the mind. Mind you, that does not mean the others are lesser-these are just personal favourites.
Curl up in your favourite corner during a rainy night, listen to the wind howling in the rafters, and read these stories preferably in dim light. That is, if you dare...