Every Christmas Eve, M. R. James (1862-1936), the celebrated scholar of medieval literature and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, enacted a strange ritual. After participating in the Christmas service at King’s College Chapel—that miracle of 15th-century Gothic architecture whose soaring vaulted ceiling resembles vast skeletal hands clasped overhead—he repaired with a select group of scholars to his college room. Spiced ale and wine were quaffed as they settled by the fireside. Then all the candles but one were snuffed out. And James began to read from a handwritten paper: his latest tale of supernatural terror.
James understood, you see, the vital importance of atmosphere to the ghost story: the necessity of the reader to not be entirely in control of the effect that it might have upon him; the unnerving possibilities of a placid, jog-trot domestic setting occupied by a scholarly figure—not the type to let his imagination run wild—whose research brings upon him something indistinctly visible but palpably evil: a buried violence that erupts into the present with undiminished rage.
American readers are likely to be less familiar with Montague Rhodes James than they are with Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce. Yet his tales richly repay reading, not only for the shivers they induce, but for what they reveal about the British sensibility. What frightens us is a vital indication of our character, a clue to our dangerous desires as well as to the defenses we establish to repress them. In M. R. James’s work, the overriding fear and desire is that the past is not over—that it is still moving, swarming under the sheets of consciousness, in the books and buried objects we daily disturb. In a letter, James marveled that the ink of some medieval missals was “as black & the staves as fresh as if they had been laid on yesterday, and yet hundreds of years have passed since they laid down the pen.” The imminence of the past overtakes his fictional protagonists, too—often with the force of a blow to the head.
James grew up in a very devout family: His scholarly father was an Anglican clergyman in the parish of Livermere in Suffolk. As a child, Monty was preoccupied by imagined visions of the Last Judgment, and this interest in apocalypse and divine retribution would become an adult research interest: James specialized in biblical apocrypha. His home life seems to have been relatively happy, but when he was sent, aged 11, to board at a preparatory school, which led to Eton—the most famous, and perhaps fearsome, of English public schools—he would have experienced the exquisite torments of ragging (physical japes that might turn violent) and fagging (acting as a servant to older boys). Letters home confess that he cried in bed every night.
To the modern eye, it seems as if James, at first an unwilling prisoner in the all-male educational enclave, became so institutionalized that he never left. At Cambridge, he moved seamlessly from being a student, to becoming a fellow, and then provost. After World War I, he returned to Eton to become provost there. James’s ghost stories belong to the same cloistered environment he inhabited, of lone male archivists whose inwardness arouses both our sympathy and our suspicion. The shadowy yet vicious horrors that stalk them are creepier for the fact that they emanate ambiguously from outside their sheltered lives, or from within.
In “Rats,” for example, Mr. Thomson, a Cambridge scholar, is staying at an old inn in Suffolk. His landlords treat him with warm hospitality. It is spring, an unusually warm and sunny April, and Mr. Thomson reads in the mornings and later goes out walking for the good of his health. But one afternoon, he does not go out walking: He reads on. So do we. Alone in the establishment, Mr. Thomson decides to take a look around the unoccupied rooms on his floor. Three are unremarkable. The fourth is locked. Idly curious, Mr. Thomson tries the key of a neighboring room and it fits. Inside, the floor is bare; there is only an iron bed with a mattress and a bluish check counterpane:
As featureless a room as you can well imagine, and yet there was something that made Thomson close the door very quickly and yet quietly behind him and lean against the window-sill in the passage, actually quivering all over. It was this, that under the counterpane someone lay, and not only lay, but stirred. That it was some one and not some thing was certain, because the shape of a head was unmistakeable on the bolster; and yet it was all covered, and no one lies with covered head but a dead person; and this was not dead, not truly dead, for it heaved and shivered.
The grotesque dead-alive figure that Mr. Thomson’s curiosity has awoken turns out to belong to the history of the inn: The landlord knows that this room can never be opened. But the reader cannot help but feel that the terrible contents of the bed also belong to Mr. Thomson’s subconscious. The unnatural aspect of the scholar’s confinement in the inn on a bright, sunny day strikes us as ominous. He has been perversely inhabiting the interior (his room, his mind), and the horror he unlocks is the stronger for arising from a guilty impulse to explore what has been deliberately repressed. Like Bluebeard’s wife, he finds an image of death all the more hideous for its parody of sexual arousal.
Despite the title, there are no rats in this tale. Since the reader is looking for them to appear, they become a cipher for something else: a fear without a name—of dirt, of invasion, of what perverse desire may disclose. Mr. Thomson will have to take one more look inside the forbidden room; dreading what may befall him, we scuttle across the page.
In another story, “A View from a Hill,” the academic protagonist has come to visit a friend, a country landowner. The visitor borrows some old field glasses so that he can scan the local landscapes for church spires and other sites of archaeological interest. He is delighted to see the tower of Fulnaker Abbey. His host tells him that this is impossible: The abbey is a ruin; he must be looking at Oldbourne Church. But he isn’t: The scholar is staring back through time. These unholy “dead men’s eyes” are a classic M. R. James artifact. They offer an extraordinary temptation: to see intact the glories of the past. In gazing, however, the viewer exposes himself to retribution. The angry eyes of the dead look in upon him in return, and he will have to fight his way back from their insistent grasp.
James learned his art from the Victorian ghost stories he read in the magazines of his childhood during the 1860s and 1870s. This was the high noon of the genre, and every Christmas brought new thrills, from Charles Dickens’s “The Signal-man” to F. Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth.” It is notable that the era when the ghost story flourished was both the heyday of spiritualism and the period that saw the birth of psychoanalysis: Both a sense of the possible reality of ghosts and of their possible origins in the human psyche inspired specter-collectors. James’s favorite author of suspense was the Irish novelist Sheridan Le Fanu, whose leisurely style and skill at “touching in the effective detail” he especially admired. Edgar Allan Poe, he felt, was too blatant and extreme in his effects. He disliked the theatrical orgy of horror, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, in which “the butter is spread far too thick.”
James’s style, by contrast, is marked by reticence. He is a master of the withheld. Even in his autobiography, Eton and King’s, James informs us bluntly that there will be no details of his family history or evidence of “the expression of emotions with which I may be reasonably believed to be familiar.” It is as if love—parental, brotherly, or sexual—is the undershirt and pants of the speaker’s inner wardrobe. We can assume their presence, but ought not to seek to know more about items so ubiquitous, so embarrassing.
Never was author so firmly and so obviously closeted. All the recorded details of his life suggest homosexual longings, whether fulfilled or not. But James will not write of sex, a topic which he regards as “a fatal mistake . . . tiresome enough in novels. . . . As the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.”
The result of James sternly avoiding this particular backbone—if you will—is that its unstated presence is everywhere in his work. Apertures, bedclothes, hair, and mouths recur as motifs in the retributive terror that follows his protagonists back to their most vulnerable space: the bedroom. However, much is achieved by indirect means, by omission and suggestion. The tranquil, sometimes mildly comic, tone with which the stories begin lulls us into an easy confidence in climbing the narrative, until we reach the broken step that will plunge us into something horrible. If the form of the sonnet requires a “volta”—a turn in the argument—the form of the ghost story requires a lurch. In James, this is typically a moment when the abstracted hand reaches to touch something familiar and finds it horribly changed, threatening—breaching the boundaries that regulate the separateness of the self.
M. R. James was a medieval scholar and cataloguer of manuscripts first, a ghost-story writer second. Some of his 33 tales are underdeveloped or have weaknesses, as when he is attempting a working-class voice. But the best continue to exert an uncanny hold over the British imagination: They have achieved cult status. This is partly because many have been adapted into 45-minute BBC dramas, some of which are themselves classics of the genre.
Last year, to celebrate James’s 150th birthday, Oxford University Press produced a new edition of the stories, with a helpful introduction and notes by Darryl Jones. Additionally, a box set has been released of the BBC adaptations from 1968 to 2010. Both are enjoyable. Jonathan Miller’s loose film adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s version of A Warning to the Curious (1972) are particularly menacing. The box set also includes a recording of Christopher Lee reading some of the tales. Lee was interviewed for admission to Eton by M. R. James, and it is tempting to suppose that some instinct for the sinister passed between them.
Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.