M. R. James: The Pinnacle of the Ghost Story - The Titans - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

M. R. James: The Pinnacle of the Ghost Story
The Titans
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

In one sense, it is exceptionally odd that M. R. James would become the leading twentieth-century author of ghost stories; in another sense—especially when we consider the sort of ghost stories James came to write—it seems eminently natural and inevitable. James led a double, perhaps a triple, life—first as one of the most distinguished scholars of mediaeval manuscripts and early Christianity of his time, second as a noted professor and administrator at Cambridge University and then at Eton College, and finally as a writer of ghost stories. It is no surprise that only that last body of work continues to attract the attention and fascination of readers worldwide: James’s scholarship, although fundamentally sound, has now been largely superseded, and in any event its audience is necessarily limited to a small cadre of the learned, whereas the ghost stories are of universal appeal and have never been surpassed by those many authors who have chosen to pay them tribute by imitation.

James’s ghost stories were manifestly an amusement of his lighter hours, although they need not be esteemed lightly on that account. We may date the commencement of his supernatural writing to the rather frivolous tale “A Night in King’s College Chapel” (probably written in 1892), but it was not long before he produced weightier work. A celebrated meeting of the Chitchat Society (a literary and social group at Cambridge) on October 28, 1893, saw James read his two earliest ghost stories, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” and “Lost Hearts.” Thus began a long tradition, extending well in the 1920s, when James would read drafts of his tales to a succession of friends, collegians, and other groups, usually at Christmastime. Although these first two stories were published in magazines in 1895, James would very likely not have considered book publication of his tales had not a close friend, James McBryde, undertaken the task of illustrating several of them. McBryde’s sudden death in 1904, after completing only four illustrations, appears to have led James to issue Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904) as a tribute to his friend’s memory. His next collection, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), appeared during his relatively unhappy tenure as Provost of King’s College. It was at this time that a struggle between the “pious” and the “ungodly” began to emerge for control of Cambridge’s intellectual culture; James, manifestly on the side of the “pious,” was notably uncharitable toward such of his “ungodly” Cambridge colleagues as James George Frazer and Bertrand Russell. The war years were particularly stressful: Cambridge seemed emptied of its finest youths, many of whom (such as Rupert Brooke, whose participation in Cambridge theatricals had attracted James’s admiration) left their bodies on the battlefields of France.

The return to Eton in 1918, this time as Provost, could only have been a relief. As Provost of King’s, James had been criticised for failing to be an intellectual pioneer; his scholarship seemed increasingly remote and unrelated to present-day concerns. A close friend, A. C. Benson, who had known James since his Eton days, wrote somewhat uncharitably in his diary: “his mind is the mind of a nice child—he hates and fears all problems, all speculation; all originality or novelty of view. His spirit is both timid and unadventurous” (Cox 125). Eton was, however, exactly the place for James: his instinctive empathy with the enchantments and travails of schoolboy life, the unaffectedly avuncular or even grandfatherly air he exhibited, and the prodigious learning that he carried so unassumingly were perfectly suited to the education of British youth. Administrative mundanities were safely in the hands of a Head Master; James, although he faced the terror of dining with the King and Queen once every year, could devote himself wholly to nurturing his charges with quiet encouragement.

It was during his provostship that his two final collections of ghost stories, A Thin Ghost (1919) and A Warning to the Curious (1925), appeared, followed by the gathering of all four volumes, plus a few additional tales, as The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1931). Such important works of scholarship as The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), and such popular works as The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts (1919) and Abbeys (1925), also appeared. James’s learning of the Danish language paid dividends when he translated some of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales into English in 1930.

It would be easy to pass off James’s ghost stories as light-hearted amusements; James himself lends some credence to this view in many of his own remarks. Indeed, many scholars on James have unwittingly belittled his work by asserting that “His stories are straightforward tales of terror and the supernatural, utterly devoid of any deeper meaning” (Penzoldt 191), or that “his fiction … was simply the bagatelle for an idle hour, the construction of a delicate edifice of suspense with which to entertain the young people whose company he so much enjoyed” (Briggs 125). To be sure, a more exhaustive study of James’s life and scholarly work will shed additional light on some of the telling autobiographical elements in the stories—his wide-ranging travels as the source of the authentic local colour in such stories as “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” and “Number 13”; his pathological fear of spiders in “The Ash-Tree”; the extraordinary re-creation of mediaeval Latin in the opening of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and of a seventeenth-century trial in “Martin’s Close”—but even this does not get us close to the philosophical thrust of the ghost stories.

Richard William Pfaff maintained, correctly, that “Writers on ghost stories … fail not so much in praising MRJ’s stories too little—indeed, it might be argued that if anything the tendency is to overpraise them as a whole—but in paying little or no attention to the really remarkable thing about them, the brilliance of the antiquarian background” (415). But Pfaff himself may not have been quite as precise in this formulation as one might wish; for it is not merely the “antiquarian background” (which, in one sense, is merely utilised to create a patina of verisimilitude) that is remarkable, but the purpose to which James puts it. James was sufficiently well-read in the traditions of supernatural fiction to know that terror is most effective when emerging from the depths of history. Where he differed from his predecessors—especially the Gothic novelists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, who actually set their works in the mediaeval era in order to enhance the reader’s suspension of disbelief in the supernatural manifestations they exhibited—was in suggesting the pervasiveness of the past’s influence upon the present: his tales, generally set only a few decades prior to their date of writing, establish a continuity between past and present in which the present is entirely engulfed and rendered fleeting and ineffectual in the face of the heavy cultural burden of prior centuries. Martin Hughes gets close to this idea when he writes: “the premiss of antiquarian stories is that records and relics are very important: when properly studied they are extremely revealing of all aspects of life in the past; moreover what they reveal is still important now” (81).

In conveying this conception, James’s protagonists are of central importance. It is a truism to say that James never engages in any detailed psychological analysis of the antiquarians who are the driving force of his tales: they are, in one sense, merely stand-ins for himself—uniformly male, scholarly, somewhat unworldly, and engaged in investigating the past largely to satisfy curiosity. Jack Sullivan has remarked of these figures:

The characters are antiquaries, not merely because the past enthralls them, but because the present is a near vacuum. They surround themselves with rarefied paraphernalia from the past—engravings, rare books, altars, tombs, coins, and even such things as doll’s houses and ancient whistles—seemingly because they cannot connect with anything in the present. (75)

There may not be sufficient textual evidence to support this interpretation, but it is provocative nonetheless. What has, however, gone largely unnoticed is that there is a subtle but unmistakable progression between these seemingly “innocent” characters (all of whom bring doom upon themselves by actively seeking to probe into ancient secrets that they know full well may be dangerous) and the avowedly “evil” figures who people some of James’s most memorable tales. The redoubtable Mr. Abney in “Lost Hearts,” who seeks prolonged life by eating the still-beating hearts of little children, is described as “a man wrapped up in his books” (Count Magnus 15), while Karswell, in “Casting the Runes,” is merely a scholar gone wrong—one who is so embittered at his failure to gain recognition as a man of learning that he turns to occultism as an act of revenge. It may be worth noting that the motif of supernatural revenge, very common in James’s stories, may itself have been a product of his own scholarly interests, specifically his interest in apocalyptic literature. Early in his career he had noted that this literature “operates on the principle that the punishment should fit the crime, with much attention to the often gory details by which this principle is worked out” (cited in Pfaff 109).

It is here, I believe, that James’s ghost stories, his antiquarian scholarship, and his religion become inextricably fused. Shane Leslie, a longtime friend of James, made the seemingly startling remark that “his belief in ghosts marched parallel with his religion” (45), although he does not elucidate the statement. Another friend, Stephen Gaselee, has portrayed James’s religion as follows:

He was a man of simple and deep religious feeling. Learned biblical scholar as he was, he did not think much of the “higher criticism”, at any rate when it was destructive; and I have heard him say that the biblical documents were subjected to criticism not only unfair in itself, but of a kind that no one would ever have dreamed of applying to the secular literary remains of antiquity. (429—30)

That last sentence is of the highest importance; for although James may not have been a dogmatic or fundamentalist Christian, his hostility to the intellectual ferment of his time in matters of religion—the shock-waves following Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859); the “Higher Criticism” that showed the evolution of Biblical texts over centuries and made it increasingly unlikely that they were direct revelations from God; the gradual but inexorable shift of intellectual opinion from unquestioned piety to agnosticism and even atheism—is evident. In his ghost stories, James uses such devices as occultism (the perversion of religion into impious magic and sorcery) and the misuse or misconstrual of Biblical passages as a warning on the dangers of straying from orthodoxy. The Bible’s own warnings on the dangers of being tempted by Satan are so frequent that it can easily lead the weak or the vicious—such as James Wilson, the redoubtable landowner of “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance”—into becoming one of the Devil’s party.

So much attention has been given to the technique of James’s ghost stories that insufficient attention has been paid to their deeper meanings. This is particularly the case with James’s ghosts. H. P. Lovecraft wrote pungently:

In inventing a new type of ghost, he has departed considerably from the conventional Gothic tradition; for where the older stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly through the sense of sight, the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy—a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man—and usually touched before it is seen. (S 86)

All this is very entertaining and, indeed, by no means off the mark; but Lovecraft fails to probe the true symbolism of James’s ghosts. They are “lean, dwarfish, and hairy” because they thus embody the primitivism that stands in stark contrast to the learned, rational, sceptical antiquarians who, for James, represented the pinnacle of human achievement. It is not insignificant that Somerton, in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “screamed out … like a beast” (Count Magnus 118) when encountering the horror in the well: contact with the primitive reduces even the most civilised to the level of the subhuman.

Related to this whole motif is James’s array of lower-class characters. The fractured and dialectical English in which these characters speak or write is, in one sense, a reflection of James’s well-known penchant for mimicry; but it cannot be denied that there is a certain element of malice in his relentless exhibition of their intellectual failings. The illiteracy of Somerton’s valet in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”; the malapropisms of the bailiff, Mr. Cooper, in “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance”; the ignorance of the hapless librarian in “The Tractate Middoth”—all these and other characters are made figures of fun, the butt of jests from a man whose own learning is unassailable. And yet, they frequently occupy pivotal places in the narrative: by representing a kind of middle ground between the scholarly protagonists and the aggressively savage ghosts, they frequently sense the presence of the supernatural more quickly and more instinctively than their excessively learned betters can bring themselves to do.

Another aspect of James’s characterisation is his women characters—or, rather, their virtual absence from his tales. Even in his own lifetime James, the lifelong bachelor, suffered from accusations of misogyny: in 1896 he opposed the granting of degrees to women at Cambridge, and in 1916—17 he attacked with unwonted viciousness a paper on comparative religion by Jane Harrison in the Classical Review that he regarded as disrespectful to Scripture. Several women appear to have pursued James for his hand in marriage, but he resisted each time. James’s defenders point to his cordial friendships with any number of women, notably Gwendolen McBryde, the widow of his friend James McBryde; but the world of James’s fiction is as devoid of significant female characters as H. P. Lovecraft’s. This need not be regarded as a flaw: James was not writing mimetic fiction that claimed to present a well-rounded portrayal of society at large. He was writing of what he knew—the world of (male) antiquarian scholarship. And yet, the sardonic view of marriage that we find in such a story as “The Rose Garden,” or the annoying Lady Waldrop in “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance,” seems to go a bit beyond mere whimsy. What, then, are we to make of the fact that several of the ghosts in James’s tales create fear through a hideous parody of affection? Who can forget the thing in the well in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” which “slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck” (Count Magnus 117; James’s emphasis)?

And yet, it may well be said that for James, as Austin Warren has observed, “It is places, not persons, which are hauntable” (98). In this sense, “Number 13,” otherwise as far as possible from the standard “antiquarian ghost story” that James initiated, is prototypical in its display of a haunted hotel room. Although the locus of horror in James is chiefly situated in cathedrals, abbeys, and other sites where centuries of religious tradition have engendered an inevitable backlash of unorthodoxy among a select band of heretics, horror can also manifest itself in any locale where the long reach of history has had free play—a rose garden, a hedge maze, even a library. The mundanity of these settings is vital to James’s methodology of the ghost story, which (as he wrote in the preface to his second collection) is designed to elicit the reader’s awareness that “If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!” (Count Magnus 255).

It is generally agreed that the tales in M. R. James’s final two collections of ghost stories, A Thin Ghost and Others (1919) and A Warning to the Curious (1925), to say nothing of the stories that he gathered only in his Collected Ghost Stories (1931) or did not collect at all, are generally inferior to those of his earlier volumes. And yet, for a writer as accomplished as James, even his lesser work—and this includes essays, fragments, and even letters—remains of compelling interest.

A Thin Ghost and Others appeared shortly after James became Provost of Eton in 1918. The war was over, much to James’s relief; there is some evidence that he felt a certain guilt at pursuing arcane scholarship at King’s College, Cambridge, while others were dying in the battlefields of Europe. Unlike the stories in his first two collections, which take for their settings a large segment of the European continent, from France and Germany to Sweden and Denmark, his later tales stay pretty close to home. All are set in England, most of them in out-of-the-way rustic sites where disproof of the supernatural phenomena on display is difficult. It is as if James himself, after spending much of his youth and early adulthood in wide-ranging travels for scholarly and antiquarian purposes, felt the need to re-establish his roots with the country of his birth—especially with the rural countryside, where he manifestly felt far more at home than in the frenetic megalopolis of London. The extraordinary felicity that James displayed in devising fictitious names for his settings is enviable: it requires a careful consultation of a gazeteer of England to determine that none of the sites mentioned in “A View from a Hill”—Fulnaker Abbey, Oldbourne Church, Lambsfield, Wanstone, Ackford, and Thorfield—have any existence except in James’s imagination.

But to say that the names of James’s locales are fictitious is one thing; it is a very different thing to say that they are purely imaginary. His extensive travels, by foot and by bicycle, throughout his native land had rendered every county familiar. It does not, perhaps, take much effort to determine that Seaburgh, in “A Warning to the Curious,” is a thin disguise for Aldeburgh, in Suffolk, or that, in “The Uncommon Prayer-book,” the imaginary towns of Stanford St. Thomas and Stanford Magdalene are probably based upon Stanford on Teme and Stanford Bridge, in Hereford and Worcester. What all this suggests is that James was becoming increasingly disinclined to mask the autobiographical details that form the core of genuine experience at the foundation of many of his tales. This feature may be exhibited most clearly in some of the tales he gathered only in his Collected Ghost Stories or did not collect, or publish, at all. It is scarcely to be denied that James himself is the narrator of “Wailing Well,” a tale that sent shivers through the Boy Scout troop to whom he read it in 1927. “The Fenstanton Witch,” although set in the eighteenth century, draws clearly upon James’s intimate familiarity with the history and topography of King’s College, where he was successively a King’s Scholar, Fellow, Dean, and Provost.

James’s later tales appear to display a fascination with the technique of the ghost story—specifically, with the attempt to render the supernatural plausible in light of the increasingly militant materialism and secularism that was dominating intellectual thought in his day. Naïve exhibitions of ghosts and vampires were clearly out of the question; extreme indirection now had to be employed. This focus on technique perhaps reaches its apex in “Two Doctors,” which even so devoted a partisan as Michael Cox calls “one of Monty’s least successful stories” (143). And yet, this story hardly deserves the bad press it has received, for it proves to be an extraordinarily clever supernatural detective story (James was devoted to mystery and detective tales, to the extent that in one of his articles on ghost stories he makes a casual and unexplained reference to Captain Hastings, the sidekick of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot) in which all the pieces of the puzzle are laid out for the reader clever enough to place them in their correct sequence and bestow upon them their correct significance. (For a plausible reconstruction, see Lance Arney’s article in Warnings to the Curious.)

Another device much used by James in his later tales to create verisimilitude, and to overcome the hard-headed sceptic’s natural incredulity in the face of the supernatural, was narrative distancing. This device is carried perhaps to excess in such a tale as “The Residence at Whitminster,” in which a first-person narrator, acting as a kind of editor, redacts the notes of a Dr. Ashton, letters by Mary Oldys (the niece of Henry Oldys, Dr. Ashton’s successor at the collegiate church at Whitminster), the diary of a Mr. Spearman (Mary’s fiancé), and other documents, all in the effort to present with the utmost indirectness, and with what politicians might later term plausible deniability, the supernatural phenomena on display.

It is possible that this obsession with technque was the result of James’s exhaustive study of the history and theory of the ghostly tale, a work chiefly undertaken in the 1920s as a concomitant to his fascination with one of the leading Victorian practitioners of the weird tale, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. James testifies that he pored through entire runs of such periodicals as the Dublin University Magazine and All the Year Round in the hunt for previously unattributed works by Le Fanu; and although he erred in a few cases, his work did result in the addition of several tales to the Le Fanu corpus, as exemplified by James’s landmark edition of Le Fanu’s Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923). It is very likely that this work led James to reformulate, or at any rate refine, his own nebulous views on what constitutes a ghost story and how it should best be told.

His first words on the matter occur in the brief preface to More Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary. Here, in a very short space, he manages to outline three principles of ghost story writing: 1) “the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day”; 2) “the ghost should be malevolent or odious”; 3) “the technical terms of ’occultism’ … tend to put the mere ghost story … upon a quasi-scientific plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than imaginative” (Count Magnus 244). In his later writings on the ghost story—such as his introduction to V. H. Collins’s Ghosts and Marvels (1924), “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories” (1929), and “Ghosts—Treat Them Gently!” (1931)—James does not so much revise as lend further nuance to these principles.

And yet, there is a question as to how faithfully James himself adhered to his own dicta when writing ghost stories. The notion of “familiarity,” especially as regards characterisation and setting (both of time and of place), was for James a matter of some elasticity. Although he remarks that a setting as remote as the twelfth or thirteenth century is not likely to induce a reader to remark, “If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!,” we quickly see that any number of James’s tales are set, or at least begin, in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or early nineteenth century. James of course does not require absolute contemporaneity: he does remark in the introduction to Ghosts and Marvels that

For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. “Thirty years ago,” “Not long before the war,” are very proper openings. If a really remote date be chosen, there is more than one way of bringing the reader in contact with it. The finding of documents about it can be made plausible; or you may begin with your apparition and go back over the years to tell the cause of it; or … you may set the scene directly in the desired epoch, which I think is hardest to do with success. (Haunted Dolls’ House 248)

It can readily be seen that James has adopted each of these options in his various tales. And yet, I believe that James’s own antiquarianism allowed him to believe that even the seventeenth century was a period of relative recency that requires only the citing of certain telling historical details to elicit the reader’s sense of vital reality. Whether the passing of another full century since the writing of James’s earliest ghost stories—and, perhaps more significantly, the collapse of historical learning even on the part of many readers who claim to be well educated—has rendered this conception a bit more dubious is something for which James cannot be held responsible.

But James exemplified brilliantly in his own work his corresponding principles of “atmosphere and a nicely managed crescendo.” He goes on to state: “Let us 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” (Haunted Dolls’ House 248). Here James may have been combating the luridness that he censured in many of the Gothic novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—a luridness whose recrudescence he would also censure in some of the pulp magazine fiction of the 1920s and 1930s.

Aside from Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, no writer of supernatural fiction has achieved such celebrity on such a relatively small body of work as M. R. James. Even the least of his ghost stories exhibits a craftsmanship and attention to detail that must be the envy of more hasty and prolific scriveners, while the fertility of conception that allowed him to ring so many ingenious changes upon the one topos of the ghost or revenant can only elicit our admiration. James and his disciples have attracted a small cadre of devotees intent on preserving their work, if only by means of the small press, and, more valuably, on explicating its smallest particulars. But James’s ghost stories are far more than the property of a coterie: by revealing to the full the possibilities of aesthetic achievement in the tale of supernatural horror, they become a contribution to the literature of the ages.

James would no doubt have been surprised at the literary legacy he fostered. This legacy is exhibited not so much in the work of those friends and colleagues of James who tended to produce uninspired pastiches of his style and manner as in certain other writers who used the antiquarian ghost story as the springboard for imaginative creations of their own. The three Benson brothers—A. C., E. F., and R. H.—all wrote supernatural tales, and E. F. was present at the legendary meeting of the Chitchat Society in 1893 when James read his first tales; but the tales of E. F. Benson, the best of the three, although not written with quite the meticulous precision of James’s, tend to be of broader range and theme. It can by no means be claimed that such writers as Walter de la Mare, L. P. Hartley, Oliver Onions, L. T. C. Rolt, Russell Kirk, or Robert Aickman are in any sense merely imitators of James; indeed, one suspects that the greater emphasis that many of these writers place upon the psychological analysis of ghostly phenomena, especially as they affect the victim of them, is a direct result of James’s apparent lack of interest in this regard. In any event, one would like to think that James—whose views of his predecessors and contemporaries in the realm of supernatural fiction were not always charitable—would have taken some pride in the tradition he instigated, for all his deprecation of his own work as merely an exercise in pleasant shudder-coining. There is much to be said for the scholarly reserve, indirection, and subtlety of James’s tales, so strikingly in contrast to the loud, brash, and frequently vulgar effusions that clutter the supernatural field today. That his stories have survived a century or more while those of his noisier successors seem destined to lapse into merited oblivion should itself be regarded as “a warning to the curious.”