M R James is generally considered to be one of the best ghost story writers ever, though these days he is also probably more quoted and written about than actually read. He appears to be more favoured by the academics than by the general horror loving fandom. His stories, in lots of ways, are often very pedestrian and haven’t necessarily aged always all that well. Let’s face it, the climax of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad involves an invisible ghostly being gaining material form by putting on some white bed sheets. Can this get any more clichéd? And unhorrific for modern readers?
James also has a funny habit of often not being very forthcoming with explanations. True, at times this stance of letting the reader’s imagination come up with those can and does work rather well, but equally often, one can’t help but feel that this may also be considered an easy way out of actually coming up with a proper ending.
Last, not least, James is also prone to add plot elements that go absolutely nowhere. The villain in Lost Hearts, for instance, mysteriously focuses on the young boy’s birthday date, yet at the end, that date had no connection to his devious plot. And Oh, Whistle includes a strange four-syllable message that never gets explained and has no bearing on the story whatsoever.
But none of that really matters all that much as these stories are not meant to be analysed too deeply, but savoured on an atmospheric level. A lot of these were initially told by James to his friends and colleagues of the Kings College Choir School. Incidentally, this was also the set up that was chosen by the BBC when they cast Christopher Lee as the author in some of his adaptations for TV a few years back.
So when I heard about the BBC Audio CD featuring Derek Jacobi (Cadfael), I was looking forward to switching off my lights, turning on the fire (or at least some candles), leaning back and enjoying some old fashioned atmospheric bits of classic storytelling while sipping on a glass or three of whisky.
My alarm bells, however, started ringing when I noticed that, despite the fact that Jacobi was heavily promoted on the cover as “starring” in those productions, the actual inside sleeve also revealed a number of other actors in various roles and Jacobi only in the role of M R James. Strictly speaking, none of the source stories feature James, but generally an anonymous third person narrator. As they are very much narrator focused, it would, of course, have made sense to have Jacobi actually narrate the bulk of the stories, with some additional contributions by the other voice actors for the dialogue sections.
Alas, it wasn’t meant to be.
See, all those chillers (Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, The Tractate Middoth, Lost Hearts, The Rose Garden, Number 13) are not actually readings, but 15 minute long, often heavily revised adaptations with Jacobi just showing up to speak a one-minute introduction to all those stories and then give way to an entirely dialogue driven main story featuring the less illustrious voice talents.
Or in case I didn’t manage to bring my point home well enough: Derek Jacobi, the alleged star of the production, appears in barely 5 minutes of the entire 75 minute running time!
Forgetting about Jacobi, how did the stories fare apart from this?
Well, not all that well.
Let’s face it, none of the original stories were all that long to start with. The shortest of those is a bare nine pages in the Wordsworth Classics edition, the longest still only a mere 17. So it cannot be all that difficult to adapt those faithfully within the format of a short radio drama, yet here we are with entire passages being deleted or more passive characters all of a sudden becoming active players just to fit into a dialogue driven format that really wasn’t around in the first place and that actually makes the initially quite simple plots at times overly hard to follow. I dare say that, unless you are already familiar with the original stories, you are bound to have a few head scratching moments waiting for you.
Spine Chillers is unfortunately a missed opportunity. Despite an overall professional approach, good voice acting and sound effects (on par with what you’d expect from the BBC), these short radio dramas are anything but spine chilling and can only just serve as a general reminder of what the stories had been about and as an encouragement towards reading them in their original format. After all, James’ ghost stories in book form are easily available for a fraction of the price of the CD.