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.