Available now as an e-book from Ash Tree Press, this 1998 collection of short stories is an admiring pastiche of M.R. James’s style which contains 20 tales, mainly set between the two World Wars. Duffy is an award-winning writer, and the quality shows through in every story – not one is without at least one shiver, and as a whole the collection sticks loyally to James’s rules, particularly that ghosts should be malevolent, and furious at the living. Even A.N.L. Munby had some friendly phantoms – but not Duffy. All his spooks are meant to frighten. And all of them seem to have their roots in an older world of Pagan rituals and black magic, of curses and Faustian pacts, so that modern civilisation is never more than a thin veneer over something dark and unknowable.
The weakness of the collection is that it frequently wears its influences too heavily, which means the reader begins playing a game of “spot the James story” rather than enjoying Duffy’s prose on its own merits. So, for instance, ‘The Close at Chadminster’ is another ‘Episode of Cathedral History’, ‘The Last of the Scarisfields’ is apparently inspired by ‘Lost Hearts’, though with a neat twist, while ‘The Hunter and His Quarry’ is more or less a re-write of Count Magnus. Perhaps the best synthesis of James’s approach with Duffy’s Pagan monsters is ‘Figures on a Hillside’, which features antiquarians uncovering a hillside giant – and in so doing unleashing something awful, hunched and spidery.
Equally, the ghosts themselves owe an immense debt to James’s thin, spiderlike and hairy, and invariably thoroughly tangible, apparitions. And so in ‘The Vicar of Wryde St Luke’ – a story that is so indebted to ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book’ that Dennistoun is name-checked – the monstrous guardian of a grimoire is of the same genus as the beast in the James story. Elsewhere, the gaunt keepers of a cursed book that is more than it appears have the same cobwebbed, dessicated visages as the watcher of ‘The Tractate Middoth’. And occasionally Duffy’s turn of phrase is drawn directly from James, such as the publican found “dead and black” just like Sir Matthew Fell.
In general, though, Duffy is less adept as James at revealing his horrors. Though famed for his reticence, James’s most outstanding moments of terror are depicted with sudden, startling clarity – as a horrible shape in the shadows suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. We remember, for example, the vast brown, mewling spiders in ‘The Ash Tree’, or that intensely horrible face of crumpled linen. Duffy’s ‘Out of the Water, Out of the Earth’ has overtones of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ with its hellish horrors emerging from an ancient well. But while James gave us a few telling and lingeringly nasty details about the amphibian Guardian of his treasure, Duffy’s monsters are left vague and rather abstract, and so fail to stick in the mind after the story ends and the lights go out.
By contrast, the best stories – including ‘The Night Comes On’, with its muggy Egyptology and furiously vengeful monster, and ‘Running Dogs’ which features a memorably sinister isolated railway station and a rather Aickmanesque sense of oppressive doom – have an inter-war period style of their own, which nods to James without slavishly following him. ‘The Story of a Malediction’ by contrast takes James’s idea of visiting disproportionately harsh punishments on his hapless victims to an unforgettably horrifying extreme, as a bystander in a dispute with Satanist gypsies is hunted down by a phantom straight out of Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’. In its cold, unblinking perspective on an arbitrary, unfathomable universe, careless to the existence of human beings, it’s as bleak a tale as there can be.
I enjoyed this collection, and at his best Duffy probably comes closer than any of his contemporaries to successfully evoking the Jamesian style in any sustained way. Certainly, if you’re a fan of James you can’t help but enjoy this. And at about £5.00 the e-book is too good not to buy.