Henry James couldn't write a ghost story (all you Jamesians out there, my apologies - I can't help saying that), but another James could. Not William. Not Alice. I'm talking about Montague Rhodes -- neither kith nor kin to the other three.
James was the fellow who impressed H.P. Lovecraft - an old Etonian, bachelor and textual scholar who never strayed very far from the world of King's College Cambridge. He straddled the old and new centuries - born in 1862, dying in 1936. He's one of many included in the fine new edition, just in time for Halloween, "The Big Book of Ghost Stories" edited by Otto Penzler (Black Lizard/Random House). Penzler includes an anthology staple, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" - a story that finely illustates the following rule: "If you ever discover an artifact in a pile of ruins, you'd best leave it where you found it."
Why, you ask? Simple: Somebody will want it back.
Still, there are so many other James stories that are even finer than that one - "Casting the Runes" (which gives us a fictional encounter with Aleister Crowley) and "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," which is a better tale of an ancient riddle than Dan Brown could ever write.
Ok, so, just a final word, before you set off in search of a collection of his stories (easily and inexpensively gotten in paperback editions from Penguin Classics) - James is a master of vague horror. He trafficked in the kinds of words that a writing teacher circles with a red pen: "thing," "something," "seemed," "appeared." Uncertainty isn't appreciated in most writing workshops; for M.R. James, however, it was a key to his art.
Here's a chilling moment from the above-mentioned story in the Penzler anthology, in which Parkins, the main character - who has absconded from a seaside ruin with a strange, little whistle - sees something coming behind him:
"...now there began to be seen, far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured and moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined. There was something about its motion which made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself toward the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the water-edge and back again..."
I love the fact that, no matter how many times we read this, we can't get a clear picture of what this menacing figure is. That's exactly the point: Who likes a ghost story that's fully explained? Aren't the gaps in the explanation what we crave, especially on Halloween?
Or, as M.R. James himself once advised, in a short essay on the topic: "Ghosts - Treat them Gently!"