The Magazine

The Ghost Master

The supernatural affinity of M.R. James.

Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories

by M.R. James, edited by S.T. Joshi

Penguin, 288 pp., $16

Eton and King's Recollections, Mostly Trivial

by M.R. James,

edited by Rosemary Pardoe

Ash-Tree, 206 pp., $47.50

SHAKESPEARE WROTE THAT "A sad tale's best for winter," especially one "of sprites and goblins." In The Winter's Tale Hermione invites Mamilius to tell such a story and, as she says, to "fright me with your sprites." He sits down next to her and quietly begins, "There was a man dwelt by a churchyard . . . " We settle back. What could be better for a cold dark night?

Sadly, Shakespeare gives us no more than this spooky first sentence, though he obviously possessed a taste (and flair) for the supernatural: Just think of the Weird Sisters in Macbeth or the vengeful spirit of Hamlet's father. During the Renaissance ghosts appear regularly in both literature and history. In the 17th century, the antiquary John Aubrey records numerous spectral appearances, including one of an apparition that disappeared "with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang." A generation later, Daniel Defoe published his sensational, and still frequently reprinted, pamphlet, "A True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal, the Next Day After Her Death."

But only with Queen Victoria does the concisely told ghostly tale come into its own. By then, the excesses and Grand Guignol of late 18th-and early 19th-century Gothic fiction have died down. No more castles of Otranto and mysterious monks or bleeding nuns, no more lengthy extravaganzas like Melmoth the Wanderer. After Dickens begins to publish Christmas stories in Household Words, every magazine editor naturally wants tales of haunters and the haunted for his December issue. And prolific writers like Bulwer Lytton and Wilkie Collins, or somewhat later Mrs. J.H. Riddell and Mrs. Oliphant, soon supply them aplenty. However, none of them equals Sheridan Le Fanu, who, over in Dublin, steadily perfects the chilling shocker with a succession of classics such as "The Familiar," "Green Tea," and that finest of all vampire stories, "Carmilla." Indeed, Le Fanu stands unrivaled in the history of the ghost story--until 1893, when a young scholar named M.R. James reads "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" to the Chitchat Society at Cambridge.

M.R. James's career as a writer of ghost stories almost exactly mirrors the golden age of what one might call light reading, escape literature, or popular storytelling. In Europe and America, literacy had finally come to people of all classes, popular magazines like the Strand and Harper's Weekly were supplying fiction for every taste, and the distractions of radio, movies, and television were hardly gleams in the eyes of a few visionaries. This is the era of fantasy-adventures that everyone knows, at least by title: Treasure Island, King Solomon's Mines, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Time Machine, A Journey to the Center of the Earth, Alice in Wonderland, Dracula, The Prisoner of Zenda, Five Children and It, Tarzan of the Apes, Peter Rabbit, Peter Pan.

The backdrop of these wonderful, wonder-filled stories is the long summer afternoon of the Pax Britannica, when there was still consensus about what civilization should mean. A lady or gentleman believed in service and duty; life was regulated by loyalty, devotion to family, honor, and sacrifice. How Victorian! Yet these aren't merely the ideals of the Christian bourgeoisie; they are also the characteristic virtues of the hero, and so nearly all the great popular stories of the era are ultimately about the heroic. Only after the Great War, and its blood sacrifice of an entire generation, could Western culture no longer wholly believe in civilitas and nobility. Our age of irony had been born, its unhappy hour come round at last.

The classic ghost story, in particular, thrives best against just such a starting-point of solid, Biedermeier reality. "Let us," writes M.R. James in a preface to an anthology called Ghosts and Marvels, "be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage." In this gradual, carefully calibrated appearance of ominous things--whether revenants, hungry demons, or spectral guardians--James set his stamp on English literature.