The Magazine

An English Chill

Rediscovering the ghost stories of M. R. James.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By SARA LODGE
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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.

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