M.R. (for Montague Rhodes) James was a scholar, an antiquarian, and a ghost story writer. A fair number of his stories were written for Christmas productions of various kinds. One ("Wailing Well") was written for the Eton Boy Scouts and read at their campfire in 1927. How many writers nowadays do _that_? Still another ("The Haunted Doll House") was originally written as a miniature book that was placed in a doll house presented to Queen Mary in 1924.
The style of James's stories is always polished (if a bit old-fashioned), and his plots are always understated and low-key: "You will naturally suppose that a skeleton-- say that of Mag. Nicolas Francken-- was discovered. That was not so" (62). Yet frequently, by the end of the story, you find that James has managed to convey a sense of dread and evil.
There was a concrete quality to James's writing that gave his stories a feeling of realism. He knew about French Gothic cathedrals, cyphers hidden on stained glass windows, various _things_ that lurk in ancient wells, the evil imbedded in 600 year old ash trees, and the dangers of silver whistles.
Perhaps one of the best stories to start with is "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'". It is probably James's best known and most frequently reprinted ghost story. One character suggests that the haunt might only have frightened the living had it had the chance. But you cannot be sure, can you? Equally good are "The Haunted Doll House," which has a deceptively innocuous title; "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," with a puzzle that leads to a horror; "Casting the Runes," an account of a writer, an editor, and the devil; and "Count Magnus," which dramatises how travel books and talking to oneself can lead to terrible consequences. Not quite as good but still well worth reading are "The Ash Tree," "A School Story," and "The Rose Garden." Some of the later stories like "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" and "Rats" are very minor and obvious tales.
Different critics have different opinions about the status of M.R. James as a writer of the classical supernatural tale. I do not rank James in the same league as Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Henry James, Edith Wharton, or Robert Aickman. But I would readily put him alongside Ambrose Bierce, Algernon Blackwood, Oliver Onions, and Russell Kirk. Certainly that is pretty good company.
I recommend this book with a few qualifications. It is best read in small doses, a few stories at a time. If you tackle a lot of the stories all at once, they may blur together. James wrote his stories slowly and carefully, and they should be savored in the same manner.