At a conference, I heard Peter Kemp of the Times talk about ghost stories, in particular those of M.R. James.
It made me realise what a great influence James has exerted on my writing. And also how much I’ve deviated from his golden rules regarding the genre. It was probably watching the ITV adaption of ‘Lost Hearts’ in 1966 which drew me into the world of supernatural horror. None of the subsequent versions come close in scareability. Apparently all copies of that production have been lost. It’s strange that the one feature I found most frightening was the long fingernails of the avenging victims.
James suggested that sex had no place in ghost stories, and that the spectres should be inhuman monsters. ‘Lost Hearts’ might have broken the second rule (if unlike me you can forget the length of the fingernails), but most of his supernatural creations are vile beings with no motivation other than to do harm. James’ protagonists tend to be academic bachelors—like himself, who meet their fate through curiosity or accident and it’s likely sex rarely if ever found a place in the life of MR James.
If ‘Lost Hearts’ wins the award for my scariest supernatural TV moment, the second would be the victim rising to the surface of a lake in the 1980 adaptation of Thérèse Raquin. Okay, you could argue the corpse was merely the figment of a guilt-ridden imagination, but…
James was wrong. A good writer can frighten the reader with sex and a blameless ghost. Where James got it right was the structure, the arc of his story, and it’s arguable no-one before or after has ever bettered him.