Edited by Jane Mainley-Piddock
Foreword by Mark Gatiss
Unbound, 2023; Hardcover £25; kindle £15.99
Anyone expecting these letters to be in any way similar to those of H. P. Lovecraft or the recent Hippocampus collection of Clark Ashton Smith’s correspondence with August Derleth, in which, besides discussing subjects of particular interest to the writers, they write about their stories, may be disappointed that there is no mention within any of James’s letters about his ghost stories.
But, I hasten to add, don’t let this put you off, as they are an illuminating glimpse into the everyday life of the author, particularly helped by the notes added after every letter by Jane Mainley-Piddock, which, if anything, are even more interesting than the letters themselves, adding many much-needed background details and facts.
The letters are an easy read, usually written in a chatty, laid-back style. They start with his earliest letters in 1873 and go on to 1927, when he is Provost of Eton.
One of the longest notes goes on to discuss James’s fascination with Charles Dickens’s final, uncompleted novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood and his attempts to find a solution to it, as well as his fondness for detective stories, in particular Conan Doyle’s, which had an influence on the structure of his own ghost stories. Jane Mainley-Piddock’s notes, in fact, are worth the price of the book in themselves, with great insights into James and his stories.
Contrary to what I expected I read the entire volume of over 200 pages within just a few days and was never bored. Definitely something for anyone who loves the ghost stories of M. R. James and would like to read more by and about him.
It comes with a Foreword by James enthusiast Mark Gatis, and an Introduction by the editor.
Reviewed by David A. Riley
This review was read out by Trevor Kennedy on his weekly broadcast on Big Hits Radio UK on Sunday the 26th February 2023, and is also included in Phantasmagoria magazine, Spring 2023.