The Victorian period featured a ridiculous amount of authors writing ghost stories and I have read that MR James was one of the last great ones. I don’t know nearly enough to know how much hyperbole was packed into that statement but I will say that he wrote some really fun ghost stories.
While I’m sure I read some of his stories in random collections and I watched Night of the Demon when I was quite young, I became aware of MR James as a specific author when I read that his stories ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘Martin’s Close’ helped inspire the Japanese horror franchise The Ring. I’m still not sure if that’s true but I did find the stories on Project Gutenberg and read them.
And then I read everything else I could find by MR James.
His stories tend to follow a basic structure. Person who is into old stuff discovers some sort of terrible secret. Bad stuff happens. Man, is anyone surprised that Lovecraft was a fan of this guy? And, yes, not every story follows that formula but at least half of them do.
If you were to read the outline of one of his stories, it wouldn’t seem that interesting. Someone buys a picture that shows a murder from beyond the grave and then they put it in a museum. Not a lot of action or complex plot.
But James does three things very well. He has a very conversational tone, no purple prose in sight. He is at good at including just enough details to make thing visceral without being graphic. And he makes it seem like it could happen to you. That all adds up to making his writing very engaging and accessible. His work has aged very well.
I think that MR James is a good read. And he’s also public domain and the individual stories are short so he’s easy to check out.