This is a 2-cd set with two stories per disc. The second disc has a couple of frighteners from E F Benson; the first contains a particularly interesting M R James effort but leads off with the famous (or anyway once famous) Dickens short story The Signalman. In listening to the four tales I took them in the order they are given, and that is what I would recommend anyone else to do.
The Yuletide is coming on again. It has to share its dates with the Christmas season, but it is a pagan observance, and its special atmosphere of godless threats and unsanctified suspense has thankfully not been lost, because it is a lot of fun over Christmas in the northern hemisphere. These stories also revive the tradition of being read to. I used to read M R James to my own children, but here we are taken back a century and more to the era before electronic media or even radio, and it all evokes the atmosphere of dimmed lights, a crackling log fire and listeners enjoying the unthreatening thrill of preternatural threats to men and women long ago, all with the television switched off and beakers of steaming mulled wine or hot toddy to keep us warm against the December chill now banished outside the double glazing.
It all calls for quality - quality in the story-writing and quality in the reading. The reader is Andrew Sachs, who apparently was Manuel in Fawlty Towers. His voice is urbane and beautiful, and he does not overdo effects or impressions, although he does particularly well with the persona of Julia Stone in The Room in the Tower. If you ask me (or even if you don't) stories such as these are far more effective than, say, Steven King. I am almost tempted to say that the less outright horror they purvey the greater the atmosphere and suspense there is. Benson is a good writer, James is a very good writer indeed, but the king of them all (no pun intended) is Dickens himself. For sheer suspense this narrative would be hard to beat, especially nowadays when a visit to a lonely signalbox at 11 p.m. would spoil the effect because it could not itself be taken as innocent or harmless.
The James piece is particularly interesting in one way. I was reflecting that the story reminded me of his famous The Mezzotint when James himself sent us a message via his narrator that we might be reminded of The Mezzotint but that he hoped we would find enough in The Haunted Doll's House to excuse that. It's fine by me, but I can't recall hearing or reading this story before, and it is my experience that among `complete;' editions of James some are more complete than others. Apart from that, it only remains to compliment the choice of music, which is particularly atmospheric. A good spooky show all round.