If one were to build the archetype of a reactionary, it would probably look a lot like Montague “Monty” Rhodes James. Born in the village of Goodnestone, Kent, James grew up in an environment surrounded by history and legend. His father, the Reverend Herbert James, was an Anglican curate and the rector of Livermere, Suffolk. As he grew older, Monty developed an interest in the medieval world—its cathedrals, manuscripts, and, most importantly, its ghosts.
For the majority of his working life, James was a scholar specializing in apocryphal writings from the middle ages. This specialty earned him positions including director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum (1893-1908), Provost of King’s College (1905-1918), Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University (1913-1915), and Provost of Eton, a position he held until his death in 1936. A sturdy Anglican with a highly credentialed name, the real M.R. James seems as much a character taken from a Little England novel or an Agatha Christie mystery as a real man.
What separated James from the rest, however, were his ghost stories. A master of the particularly English Christmas ghost tale, James wrote what he termed “antiquarian” ghost stories—subtle, Gothic stories that usually pitted an academic protagonist against ancient evils. A fine example of the antiquarian form is James’s “An Episode in Cathedral History,” which details the unintentional release of an entity from a sealed tomb inside of the Cathedral of Southminster. In typical Jamesian fashion, the story is more about creeping dread and suggestion that outright horror.
Although James was quite capable of producing ghastly short stories (see for example “Lost Hearts” and its spectacularly gruesome reveal), his legacy is primarily defined by his old-fashioned ghost yarns. In this way, James can be regarded as the 20th century progenitor of the conservative ghost story.
Like James’s tales of disquiet, the modern conservative ghost story can be defined by a few key elements:
1. The conservative ghost story is first and foremost about the past—the troubled past, the evil past, the lost past
2. Conservative ghost stories predominately take place in time-worn surroundings, from ruined castles to New England homes from the 17th or 18th century
3. Conservative ghost stories are rarely about politics. Rather, they are about diseased traditions and the role of individual in correcting that malignancy
4. Conservative ghost stories usually show their disfavor with the modern world by hardly presenting it all
Not unsurprisingly, the conservative ghost story has been adapted by a wide assortment of talents from all along the right’s spectrum. Some of the best-known practitioners merely dabbled in the sub-genre, while others used it exclusively. Take for instance, the two very different writers: H.P. Lovecraft and Russell Kirk.
Lovecraft’s interest in the antiquarian ghost stories of M.R. James stemmed from a much more personal concern. Namely, as the son of a once prominent Rhode Island family that had descended into what he would’ve termed “degeneracy,” Lovecraft held closely to the idea of a dying New England aristocracy and thus a formerly golden, but now lost New England. This is the heart of Lovecraft’s much-maligned racism—he was an English-American Anglophile and a Tory who resented his country’s Whig-led Revolution and the culture that succeeded it. As such, Lovecraft preferred the 18th century to the 19th and the 20th; small New England towns instead of immigrant-heavy metropolises like New York; and older forms of storytelling rather than anything that smacked of modernity. When he sat down to write his own stories, Lovecraft looked to men like Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and M.R. James for inspiration. In a March 6, 1935 letter to science fiction writer Emil Petaja, Lovecraft praised James for “his way of weaving a horror into the every-day fabric of life & history.” From James, Lovecraft also took a propensity to use professional and amateur academics as his protagonists.