The Ghost Master
The supernatural affinity of M.R. James.
Jan 2, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 16 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories
Eton and King's Recollections, Mostly Trivial
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.
During his lifetime, M.R. James (1862-1936) was the greatest English authority on the New Testament apocrypha, a bibliographer of medieval manuscripts, an amateur expert on early church architecture and decoration, a Cambridge don, and, eventually, the Provost of Eton. An entire biography of 460 pages, by R.W. Pfaff, has been written, focusing largely on his accomplishments as a textual critic, editor, and translator. Even "Monty" himself, in the charming reminiscences set down in Eton and King's, virtually passes over his 30 or so "ghost stories of an antiquary."
These, it's been rightly said, are to horror and the supernatural what Sherlock Holmes's adventures are to the mystery. In particular, they stand virtually unchallenged as after-dinner entertainment for those melancholy evenings between Advent and Twelfth Night. Oh, at this time one can and should also turn back to Sherlock Holmes in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," set just after Christmas day, or to P.G. Wodehouse's "Jeeves and the Yuletide Spirit." But James intended virtually all his stories to be enjoyed as Christmas treats. After the seasonal feast and good cheer, he would read one or two aloud to his friends at Cambridge and, later in his career, to the boys at Eton. By a single candle, after all other lights had been extinguished, the bespectacled scholar would effortlessly create a sense of unease, of growing eeriness. Sometimes he would open with a leisurely bit of scene-setting, as in "The Ash-Tree."
Everyone who has travelled over Eastern England knows the smaller country houses with which it is studded--the rather dank little buildings, usually in the Italian style, surrounded with parks of some eighty to a hundred acres. For me they have always had a very strong attraction . . .
Other stories start even more casually, often when a middle-aged bachelor, typically a don, visits an ancient church or country house, or takes a holiday in Denmark or France, and there stumbles across something from the past--an old diary or piece of correspondence, an enigmatic inscription on a tomb, strange symbols in stained glass, an odd 18th-century maze in which one never feels quite alone. In "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook," for instance, Mr. Dennistoun spends an afternoon of his holiday abroad sketching the interior of a decaying French cathedral. Toward evening, he notices that "the church began to fill with shadows, while the curious noises--muffled footfalls and distant talking voices that had been perceptible all day--seemed, no doubt because of the fading light and the consequently quickened sense of hearing, to become more frequent and insistent."
Invariably, James's heroes shrug off what at first only seems "curious." Who wouldn't? Those muffled sounds must be some odd echo or sympathetic vibration from the thick stone walls, that shadow a trick of the light, and the unexpected nervousness of the locals a normal response to a stranger in their midst. And yet could it, perhaps, just possibly, be something else? There is that old legend . . .
No matter what the exact circumstance, the past eventually reaches into the present, and the most seemingly ordinary object or discovery may serve to summon up the horror. (James once said that even a Christmas cracker has its possibilities "if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it.") An old print, for instance, can serve as a peephole into the uncanny. In "The Mezzotint," Mr. Williams orders a view of an English manor house, one that seems disappointingly ordinary and unimaginative--apart from the hideous skeletal figure crawling on all fours across the front lawn. Taking a vacation at Barnstow, Professor Parkins strolls along the beach and almost literally stumbles upon the ruins of a Templar preceptory. There among its crumbling tombstones he, unfortunately, makes a small discovery:
It was of bronze, he now saw, and was shaped very much after the manner of the modern dog-whistle; in fact it was--yes, certainly it was--actually no more nor less than a whistle. He put it to his lips. . . . He blew tentatively and stopped suddenly, startled and yet pleased at the note he had elicited. It had a quality of infinite distance in it, and soft as it was, he somehow felt it must be audible for miles round.
Yes, quite a nice little archaeological find, with a bit of Latin on it, too. Parkins can only make out part of the inscription. Something about somebody coming. Back in his hotel he decides to blow the whistle again: "Goodness! What force the wind can get up in a few minutes! . . . It's enough to tear the room to pieces." The story, one of James's supreme masterpieces, takes its deliciously ominous title from a slightly modified line of Robert Burns's: "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad."
James's scholars and antiquaries generally bring their fates down upon themselves, sometimes inadvertently but often because they give in to excessive passion. Not sexual, of course--heaven, forfend!--but rather the passions typical of the academic life: the allure of an arcane discovery, perhaps envy and spite or the desire for revenge, sometimes just the thrill of figuring out a riddle or solving a historical mystery. Anyone, of course, might wish to go after "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," some "ten thousand pieces of gold laid up in the well in the court of the Abbot's house of Steinfeld." The clever Mr. Somerton learns of their location by deciphering an elaborate cryptogram; quite mistakenly, however, he fails to pay sufficient attention to the full coded text, which ends with an enigmatic phrase warning that the abbot, a dabbler in the dark arts, has "set a guardian" over his wealth.
I've only mentioned a few of the 15 mini-classics collected in Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, edited and annotated by the well-known scholar of supernatural fiction, S.T. Joshi. It is the first of two volumes, reprinting James's Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. A Thin Ghost and Others and A Warning to the Curious, as well as the various uncollected stories, will form the basis of a forthcoming volume two. But those later stories, with a few exceptions (such as "The Diary of Mr Poynter," and "An Uncommon Prayerbook"), are a notch below these in their artistry. Certainly none can match the perfection of "Count Magnus" or, that favorite of many readers, "Casting the Runes."
Atmosphere--James himself called it "mood"--is all-important to the cozy style of the English ghost story. Indeed, that nostalgia-laden period flavor is just what we now value most in fiction from the late Victorian and Edwardian era. Don't we, after all, reread the Sherlock Holmes canon more for those scenes of the great detective and Watson snug in their flat at 221-B Baker Street than for the ostensible mystery? Virtually all those golden-age titles listed earlier now function as "comfort" books or "children's classics." They are the narrative equivalent to a warm blanket and a mug of hot cocoa, standbys of the fireside library.
So it may sound somewhat less than heretical to say that James's supernatural tales rarely actually frighten the modern reader. To begin with, they are elaborately framed, often set in the past, and laced with a dry humor. Moreover, the main characters are lightly sketched, and James never makes us care greatly about their fates. (In this regard, he's rather like Agatha Christie.) In truth, what we most deeply enjoy is the storytelling itself. Reading along, we do more than suspend disbelief, we happily surrender to the spirit of the game. As James deftly creates an atmosphere of suggestion and anticipation, we wonder just how and when his various hobgoblins will appear. He is, in fact, a great master of narrative reticence: Nothing gross or gruesome is described, only hinted at. Instead James will usually deliver a single short, sharp shock. Let me quote an example, but not from a story in this volume, and without giving away its title:
Then he dozed, and then woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over his arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him.
James's other gift is a flair for pastiche. In life, he was noted as a mimic, adept at replicating the mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of his colleagues. His stories abound with fabricated documents, from every period between the Middle Ages and the present. In "Count Magnus" he mentions alchemical tracts convincingly titled "The book of the Phoenix, book of the Thirty Words, book of the Toad, book of Miriam, Turba philosophum [Assembly of Philosophers]." (This last is real, by the way.) They all prepare his protagonist for the Liber nigrae peregrationis--the book of the Black Pilgrimage. When he needs to, James can set down a Puritan sermon as readily as an 18th-century squire's diary. Take "A Parable of this Unhappy Condition," a religious tract from the late 17th century, cited in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance." A man once ventured into a maze in search of a great treasure:
He went merrily on, and without any Difficulty reached the Heart of the Labyrinth and got the Jewel, and so set out on his way back rejoycing: but as the Night fell, wherein all the Beasts of the Forest do move, he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in; and that when he should stop, this Companion should stop also, which put him in some Disorder of his Spirits. And, indeed, as the Darkness increas'd, it seemed to him that there was more than one . . .
With similar virtuosity, James elsewhere imitates the bluff commonsensical talk of a British colonel, and the irritated pronouncements of a celebrated hanging judge; but his peasants, workmen, and servants may be his most Dickensian triumph. More often than not, they first sense the growing wrongness. Consider Mrs. Bunch in "Lost Hearts":
"Well,'' she said, "Master Stephen, it's a funny thing to me how them marks and scratches can 'a' come there--too high up for any cat or dog to 'ave made 'em, much less a rat: for all the world like a Chinaman's finger-nails, as my uncle in the tea-trade used to tell us of when we was girls together. I wouldn't say nothing to master, not if I was you, Master Stephen, my dear; and just turn the key of the door when you go to your bed."
James's tales aimed to elicit what he called "a pleasing terror," and this oxymoron aptly hints at his artistry. More precisely, he remains unrivaled in evoking not terror but anxiety and foreboding--and of how easy it can be to awaken the undesirable attention of things that should sleep quietly in their tombs or hiding places.
S.T. Joshi's new Penguin is a handsome volume, and it will be convenient to have all the stories available in two paperbacks, with useful annotation. But the confirmed fan of M.R. James will want more. Michael Cox's old Oxford paperback, Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, is worth seeking out for its long introduction and many notes; it selects from all the stories, and comes close to being a "best of" collection. Cox has also written M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, which presents an agreeable overview of Monty's life.
James's own Eton and King's: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, is utterly devoid of confession or introspection, but remains deeply enjoyable as high-table conversation, the old gent's reminiscences of his teachers and friends. It has just been reissued by Ash-Tree Press, which specializes in preserving the classic ghost-story tradition. (See their website for many other authors in the "school of James," including E.G. Swain, H.R. Wakefield, and E.F. Benson.) Not surprisingly, Ash-Tree brought out the sumptuous A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden). Alas, this highly sought-after volume--even the sometimes carping Joshi calls it "admirable"--is currently out of print, but will likely be reissued in the near future.
But why wait? After all, 'tis now the season for tales "of sprites and goblins," and there are none better than these by M.R. James. He is--to borrow an epithet usually bestowed on another James--the Master.
Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic for the Washington Post Book World, is the author of two collections of essays, Readings and Bound to Please, as well as a memoir, An Open Book.