Monday, 19 July 2010

quick - make a list!

One of the constants throughout my childhood and adult years has been a need to make lists of books.  As a child, the lists involved the books that were in our house (and there were many, many books) that were used to play "library".

As I got older, the lists evolved into books that were to be read and books that had been read, as well as books that were for buying,  that were for ordering from the library or that were back catalogues of authors that I liked and were for exploring.  At university the lists of set texts were like manna from heaven and after university I became a bookseller for many years, which  was like being paid for something that you were doing anyway!  I worked in both a small independent and then a large national, both of which had their advantages and, sadly, neither of which exist any longer.  The large national was too much competition for the smaller shop and then, weirdly, proceeded to put itself out of business through over-expansion!  

Thankfully I had already moved on by then, onto a different career path, but still I have lists.  At the moment the lists are of the books that are to be read and also a list of books (both familiar and new) that I read throughout each year.  Looking through the list of books read so far this year, a couple caught my eye.  I thought I'd like to mention them; one of them is probably much better known than the other.

The lesser known title first.  If you have read Diary of a Nobody, the likelihood is that you will enjoy Augustus Carp Esq by Himself, being the autobiography of a really good man  (see the photograph above).

It was first published in 1924, and the copy I have is a reprint from 1985 - well read and rather the worse for wear but not for parting with!  Augustus tells his own story from the time of his birth to the birth of his first child.  To give an idea of the voice of Augustus, here is a quote from his description of his own beloved father, whom he resembles to an uncanny degree:

" father's eyes were of a singularly pale, unwinking blue, while in his massive ears, with their boldly outstanding rims, resided the rare faculty of independent motion."

A man of goodness - "sidesman, churchwarden, and President of the St. Potamus League for purity" - Augustus describes his childhood and adulthood in the voice of self-righteousness - "...when the heads of households, prefer the flicker of the cinematograph to the Athanasian Creed..."  in order to provide a moral example to an increasingly sinful world.

I think that the difference between this book and Diary of a Nobody is that while we have affection and some sympathy for Mr. Pooter, Augustus Carp is so priggish and morally certain, that we can laugh without feeling guilty.  The author has created the character very skillfully.  Augustus is not so obnoxious that we want to stop reading, but is too obnoxious to make us feel anything other than pleased when he gets his comeuppance.  

Robert Robinson called it "the funniest unknown book in the world".  It makes me laugh out loud each time I read it - it's a book that feels like an old friend.

The second title is "Collected Ghost Stories" by M.R. James.  A few years ago I went through a phase of reading lots of ghost stories and came across some that were excellent. Images from ghost stories by E.F. Benson are still in my head, and The Woman in Black by Susan Hill was incredibly spooky.  

Despite this, for me M.R. James is still the master of the ghost story.  Casting the Runes is  probably his best known story - it's terrifying and suspenseful, with a growing horror underlying the seemingly ordinary day to day activities of the main character.  It was filmed in 1958  as Night of the Demon, starring Dana Andrews and despite updating the setting and changing some of the story to include a romance, it is hugely suspenseful and manages to have me on the edge of my seat each time I watch it.

The Mezzotint, which is my favourite story, has images in it that can make it difficult to think of having any art work that has a "view of a manor house, early part of the century" in your home.  The gradual changes to a mezzotint aquired at auction spell out a horrific story, which is all the more frightening because the full story is never told, and the narrator remains rather distant.  It's like something only half glimpsed in a dream that's turning into a nightmare.

M.R. James' stories are very understated; there are no ghouls or bodies falling out of cupboards.  He creates a convincing place and time as a background and the characters are believable and ordinary.   There is also a surprising amount of humour in some of the stories.  But overall the suspense, fear and horror are like mist - they creep around you and envelope you as they grow.  

If you haven't read M.R. James, wait for a dark afternoon in winter, preferably with an open fire and a glass of wine or cup of tea, and most importantly, with other people in the house!


  1. I like this post as I'm a lifelong bookbuff and I'm always reading several books, fiction and non-fiction, at any one time!
    I worked, part-time, in a small, traditional bookshop for a couple of years not too long ago and really enjoyed it.
    I'm not much of a fan of ghost stories but have read, and enjoyed most of M.R.James books.
    Happy reading! Flighty xx

  2. I love books, Flighty and can bore for Northern Ireland on the subject. It's interesting that Waterstones are now trying to become "local" bookshops