Monday, April 30, 2012
THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #11: A review of "Casting the Runes" by M.R. James
Here we have another powerhouse of horror fiction, and this one has very much deserved its place in the history of the genre. Like its predecessors so far, it has a very British and proper tone to it; perhaps it has more of a stiff upper lip than the others so far. Yet James delivers something timeless to us, which makes it a much easier read than, say, Machen or Blackwood. More on that in a moment.
This is the story of a misanthrope by the name of Karswell. He definitely thinks he’s better than others, and when something happens to incur his wrath, he is very ready to step in and get his vengeance in a very mysterious way. For example, when the local children trespassed on his property, he went in to their school to give a presentation on fairy tales with a slide projector. While he told the most gruesome versions of these stories, he showed them realistic and horrifying images of monsters ripping apart children on land that looks suspiciously like his own.
This time, a man named Edward Dunning has offended him by not allowing a paper of his to be published. After going behind several backs, Karswell learns Dunning’s identity and sets his revenge in action. You see, he goes after his enemies by “casting the runes,” or passing them a magical piece of paper that will bring them terrible fortune and death. (And yes, James is clever enough to call it “the black spot” at one point, an excellent reference to TREASURE ISLAND.) Karswell has cast the runes on Dunning, but Dunning, a resourceful man himself, suspects that something is amiss when very strange things start happening to him. He looks into Karswell’s history and discovers that another of the sorcerer’s rivals, John Harrington, died shortly after critically panning Karswell’s alchemy book. After a lengthy discussion on the subject with Harrington’s brother, they both come to the conclusion that Dunning has been cursed, too, and he will die very soon if they don’t reverse the curse by handing the “black spot” back to Karswell.
What James does so well is to give us a really interesting villain. Let’s face it, who among us doesn’t know a Karswell? He’s a creep, and he overreacts to slights against him. And he delights in fucking with kids. Every town’s got one (but hopefully, they don’t know the arcane spells Karswell does), and as a result, James has given us something we can all identify with, even though his story is just over 100 years old (1911, if you’re keeping track).
There is just one small problem: the beginning. At first, it begins in an epistolary fashion, which was the style of the day. It’s an interesting bait-and-switch to pull on a reader familiar with other stories of the time. However, it leads in with a prologue between two characters, Mr. and Mrs. Secretary, who don’t really have much to do with the rest of the story. They do serve to introduce Karswell in an amusing fashion, and without Mr. Secretary, Dunning would have never read Karswell’s paper and thus earn his ire, but the story wouldn’t suffer from having this lengthy prologue removed and starting with Dunning instead, perhaps with a quick flashback as to why he is in this predicament.
A trifling matter. This story will always be remembered, and deservedly so. If you haven’t given it a try, what are you waiting for?
[This story first appeared in MORE GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY and can be read here.]