The Ghost Master
The supernatural affinity of M.R. James.
Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
James's scholars and antiquaries generally bring their fates down upon themselves, sometimes inadvertently but often because they give in to excessive passion. Not sexual, of course--heaven, forfend!--but rather the passions typical of the academic life: the allure of an arcane discovery, perhaps envy and spite or the desire for revenge, sometimes just the thrill of figuring out a riddle or solving a historical mystery. Anyone, of course, might wish to go after "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," some "ten thousand pieces of gold laid up in the well in the court of the Abbot's house of Steinfeld." The clever Mr. Somerton learns of their location by deciphering an elaborate cryptogram; quite mistakenly, however, he fails to pay sufficient attention to the full coded text, which ends with an enigmatic phrase warning that the abbot, a dabbler in the dark arts, has "set a guardian" over his wealth.
I've only mentioned a few of the 15 mini-classics collected in Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, edited and annotated by the well-known scholar of supernatural fiction, S.T. Joshi. It is the first of two volumes, reprinting James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious, as well as the various uncollected stories, will form the basis of a forthcoming volume two. But those later stories, with a few exceptions (such as "The Diary of Mr Poynter," and "An Uncommon Prayerbook"), are a notch below these in their artistry. Certainly none can match the perfection of "Count Magnus" or, that favorite of many readers, "Casting the Runes."
Atmosphere--James himself called it "mood"--is all-important to the cozy style of the English ghost story. Indeed, that nostalgia-laden period flavor is just what we now value most in fiction from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Don't we, after all, reread the Sherlock Holmes canon more for those scenes of the great detective and Watson snug in their flat at 221-B Baker Street than for the ostensible mystery? Virtually all those golden-age titles listed earlier now function as "comfort" books or "children's classics." They are the narrative equivalent to a warm blanket and a mug of hot cocoa, standbys of the fireside library.
So it may sound somewhat less than heretical to say that James's supernatural tales rarely actually frighten the modern reader. To begin with, they are elaborately framed, often set in the past, and laced with a dry humor. Moreover, the main characters are lightly sketched, and James never makes us care greatly about their fates. (In this regard, he's rather like Agatha Christie.) In truth, what we most deeply enjoy is the storytelling itself. Reading along, we do more than suspend disbelief, we happily surrender to the spirit of the game. As James deftly creates an atmosphere of suggestion and anticipation, we wonder just how and when his various hobgoblins will appear. He is, in fact, a great master of narrative reticence: Nothing gross or gruesome is described, only hinted at. Instead James will usually deliver a single short, sharp shock. Let me quote an example, but not from a story in this volume, and without giving away its title:
Then he dozed, and then woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over his arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him.
James's other gift is a flair for pastiche. In life, he was noted as a mimic, adept at replicating the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of his colleagues. His stories abound with fabricated documents, from every period between the Middle Ages and the present. In "Count Magnus" he mentions alchemical tracts convincingly titled "The book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words, book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba philosophum [Assembly of Philosophers]." (This last is real, by the way.) They all prepare his protagonist for the Liber nigrae peregrationis--the book of the Black Pilgrimage. When he needs to, James can set down a Puritan sermon as readily as an 18th-century squire's diary. Take "A Parable of this Unhappy Condition," a religious tract from the late 17th century, cited in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance." A man once ventured into a maze in search of a great treasure:
He went merrily on, and without any Difficulty reached the Heart of the Labyrinth and got the Jewel, and so set out on his way back rejoycing: but as the Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in; and that when he should stop, this Companion should stop also, which put him in some Disorder of his Spirits. And, indeed, as the Darkness increas'd, it seemed to him that there was more than one . . .
With similar virtuosity, James elsewhere imitates the bluff commonsensical talk of a British colonel, and the irritated pronouncements of a celebrated hanging judge; but his peasants, workmen, and servants may be his most Dickensian triumph. More often than not, they first sense the growing wrongness. Consider Mrs. Bunch in "Lost Hearts":
"Well,'' she said, "Master Stephen, it's a funny thing to me how them marks and scratches can 'a' come there--too high up for any cat or dog to 'ave made 'em, much less a rat: for all the world like a Chinaman's finger-nails, as my uncle in the tea-trade used to tell us of when we was girls together. I wouldn't say nothing to master, not if I was you, Master Stephen, my dear; and just turn the key of the door when you go to your bed."
James's tales aimed to elicit what he called "a pleasing terror," and this oxymoron aptly hints at his artistry. More precisely, he remains unrivaled in evoking not terror but anxiety and foreboding--and of how easy it can be to awaken the undesirable attention of things that should sleep quietly in their tombs or hiding places.
S.T. Joshi's new Penguin is a handsome volume, and it will be convenient to have all the stories available in two paperbacks, with useful annotation. But the confirmed fan of M.R. James will want more. Michael Cox's old Oxford paperback, Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, is worth seeking out for its long introduction and many notes; it selects from all the stories, and comes close to being a "best of" collection. Cox has also written M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, which presents an agreeable overview of Monty's life.
James's own Eton and King's: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, is utterly devoid of confession or introspection, but remains deeply enjoyable as high-table conversation, the old gent's reminiscences of his teachers and friends. It has just been reissued by Ash-Tree Press, which specializes in preserving the classic ghost-story tradition. (See their website for many other authors in the "school of James," including E.G. Swain, H.R. Wakefield, and E.F. Benson.) Not surprisingly, Ash-Tree brought out the sumptuous A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden). Alas, this highly sought-after volume--even the sometimes carping Joshi calls it "admirable"--is currently out of print, but will likely be reissued in the near future.
But why wait? After all, 'tis now the season for tales "of sprites and goblins," and there are none better than these by M.R. James. He is--to borrow an epithet usually bestowed on another James--the Master.
Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post Book World, is the author of two collections of essays, Readings and Bound to Please, as well as a memoir, An Open Book.