The Magazine

The Ghost Master

The supernatural affinity of M.R. James.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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During his lifetime, M.R. James (1862-1936) was the greatest English authority on the New Testament apocrypha, a bibliographer of medieval manuscripts, an amateur expert on early church architecture and decoration, a Cambridge don, and, eventually, the Provost of Eton. An entire biography of 460 pages, by R.W. Pfaff, has been written, focusing largely on his accomplishments as a textual critic, editor, and translator. Even "Monty" himself, in the charming reminiscences set down in Eton and King's, virtually passes over his 30 or so "ghost stories of an antiquary."

These, it's been rightly said, are to horror and the supernatural what Sherlock Holmes's adventures are to the mystery. In particular, they stand virtually unchallenged as after-dinner entertainment for those melancholy evenings between Advent and Twelfth Night. Oh, at this time one can and should also turn back to Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," set just after Christmas day, or to P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit." But James intended virtually all his stories to be enjoyed as Christmas treats. After the seasonal feast and good cheer, he would read one or two aloud to his friends at Cambridge and, later in his career, to the boys at Eton. By a single candle, after all other lights had been extinguished, the bespectacled scholar would effortlessly create a sense of unease, of growing eeriness. Sometimes he would open with a leisurely bit of scene-setting, as in "The Ash-Tree."

Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller country houses with which it is studded--the rather dank little buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong attraction . . .

Other stories start even more casually, often when a middle-aged bachelor, typically a don, visits an ancient church or country house, or takes a holiday in Denmark or France, and there stumbles across something from the past--an old diary or piece of correspondence, an enigmatic inscription on a tomb, strange symbols in stained glass, an odd 18th-century maze in which one never feels quite alone. In "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," for instance, Mr. Dennistoun spends an afternoon of his holiday abroad sketching the interior of a decaying French cathedral. Toward evening, he notices that "the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises--muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day--seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent."

Invariably, James's heroes shrug off what at first only seems "curious." Who wouldn't? Those muffled sounds must be some odd echo or sympathetic vibration from the thick stone walls, that shadow a trick of the light, and the unexpected nervousness of the locals a normal response to a stranger in their midst. And yet could it, perhaps, just possibly, be something else? There is that old legend . . .

No matter what the exact circumstance, the past eventually reaches into the present, and the most seemingly ordinary object or discovery may serve to summon up the horror. (James once said that even a Christmas cracker has its possibilities "if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it.") An old print, for instance, can serve as a peephole into the uncanny. In "The Mezzotint," Mr. Williams orders a view of an English manor house, one that seems disappointingly ordinary and unimaginative--apart from the hideous skeletal figure crawling on all fours across the front lawn. Taking a vacation at Barnstow, Professor Parkins strolls along the beach and almost literally stumbles upon the ruins of a Templar preceptory. There among its crumbling tombstones he, unfortunately, makes a small discovery:

It was of bronze, he now saw, and was shaped very much after the manner of the modern dog-whistle; in fact it was--yes, certainly it was--actually no more nor less than a whistle. He put it to his lips. . . . He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round.

Yes, quite a nice little archaeological find, with a bit of Latin on it, too. Parkins can only make out part of the inscription. Something about somebody coming. Back in his hotel he decides to blow the whistle again: "Goodness! What force the wind can get up in a few minutes! . . . It's enough to tear the room to pieces." The story, one of James's supreme masterpieces, takes its deliciously ominous title from a slightly modified line of Robert Burns's: "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad."