BoingBoing recently asked commenters to suggest the creepiest passage in literature (Cormac McCarthy and Iain Banks both rank highly), and one mention was this passage from “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” by M.R. James:
Well, I felt to the right, and my fingers touched something curved, that felt — yes — more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. There was nothing, I must say, to alarm one. I grew bolder, and putting both hands in as well as I could, I pulled it to me, and it came. It was heavy, but moved more easily than I had expected. As I pulled it towards the entrance, my left elbow knocked over and extinguished the candle. I got the thing fairly in front of the mouth and began drawing it out. Just then Brown gave a sharp ejaculation and ran quickly up the steps with the lantern. He will tell you why in a moment. Startled as I was, I looked round after him, and saw him stand for a minute at the top and then walk away a few yards. Then I heard him call softly, “All right, sir,” and went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck.
The author’s name didn’t seem familiar, but someone else mentioned the “face of crumpled linen” from another of his stories, which definitely rang a bell. I have indeed encountered him before, and you might have too. Montague Rhodes James was an English medieval scholar, but is best remembered for his ghost stories, which are considered to be amongst the best in the genre. His plots tend to reflect his antiquarian interests, in that the discovery of an old book or other ancient object is the catalyst for evil, and is thus regarded as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story.”
His four collections, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories, A Thin Ghost and Others, and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories are still in print, which is rather astonishing given that the latest one was first published in 1925. They’re available in a number of editions (his collected stories, Volume I and Volume II, or the Kindle M.R. James Megapack are good choices), but since they’ve long been in the public domain they’re also available online at Wikisource.
They’re a wonderful read, redolent of dusty libraries and dank crypts, and you can definitely see where James influenced later authors. Many of his stories were originally written to tell around the hearth on Christmas Eve, and reading them aloud to friends on a stormy evening still sounds like an excellent way to enjoy them.