M.R. JAMES - A CELEBRATION
Written by Ren Zelen
Montague Rhodes James, dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and later provost of Eton, was a very successful academic in his lifetime, known for his extensive work on biblical Apocrypha and the catalogues of medieval manuscripts. His ghost stories were initially composed to be recited on Christmas evenings (between 1892 and 1935) as a pleasant distraction for a coterie of colleagues, friends and students at King’s College.
The stories did not, as James wrote in the introduction to his first collection, “make any very exalted claim". However, he also went on to say, "If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable while walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.” I think it safe to suggest, the purpose was attained.
M. R. James’s stories are graced by a detached intellectual skill and an ingenuity of writing that eschewed the overwrought forms of the Gothic horror tale and endeavoured to generate raw supernatural horror from everyday settings and objects. They display a disarmingly calm tone, entirely different from the feverish hallucinations and macabre beauty achieved by Edgar Allan Poe, the diabolic grimness of Ambrose Bierce, the poetic nuances of Le Fanu, the psychism of Blackwood, or the frightful antiquities and otherworldly menaces of Lovecraft.
James’s style is precise and succinct and his phrasing noted for its clarity and incisiveness rather than for the shadowy overtones and visions found in the prose of more poetical writers. M. R. James’s stories set the benchmark for a rarer, but still haunted, literary form: the English Ghost Story. If the gothic tale aims to shock, horrify or astound, the English ghost story aims to infiltrate and haunt the psyche.
There is a perverse pleasure in reading James’s stories in succession and feeling their related terrors accumulate - from the “horrible hopping creature in white” “dodging about among the trees” in Casting the Runes, to the two cloaked figures waiting eagerly at the crossroads in Count Magnus, to the shambling humanoid shape, its head “covered with a whitish bag”, that runs a murderer to ground in The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance.
James gradually assembles events, forcing the reader to some frightful deduction; or cleverly begins a set of links, seemingly harmless in themselves, that result in a sudden turn or confrontation with some ghoulish discovery. A macabre, odd and inexplicable ‘thing’ begins to worm its way insidiously into the mundane and familiar.
Usually, there is a homely English setting – the library, the university common room, the cathedral close, the country church - with a background of folklore or history. His tales often centre on vacationing academics who discover old artefacts or manuscripts which hold occult subject matter and it is often the dogged scholarly curiosity of the protagonist that unleashes the horror itself.
Interestingly, given his own background, the pitfalls and dangers of academic inquiry is a motif throughout his tales. He was clearly amused by alarming his audience of scholars by grisly stories where the cosy detachment of academic life is torn away by unfathomable terrors. The central horror usually emerges out of the unknown depths of antiquity into the bright sun of the present day, shattering recognisable reality by its own incomprehensible ‘weirdness’. Take the unnamable thing in The Uncommon Prayer Book, which resembles "a great roll of old, shabby, white flannel," with a rudimentary face in the upper end, which lunges onto a man, burying its face in his neck like a fox attacking a rabbit.
Also, in Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance there is a form "with a burnt human face" and "black arms," that emerges from an inexplicable hole in the paper plan of a garden maze "with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple." Perhaps the most disturbing of these horrid encounters comes in Casting the Runes, on which the movie Night of The Demon was based - in which the protagonist, woken in the night, reaches under his pillow for his watch, only for his hand to find “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it” but ”not the mouth of a human being”.
Many of M.R. James’s stories were adapted by the BBC and shown on television on Christmas Eve. The most recent being an updated version of his classic ghost story Oh, Whistle & I’ll Come To You, My Lad. The updated version by writer Neil Cross, directed by Andy de Emmons, despite starring John Hurt, was utterly unmemorable and pointlessly turned the marvellously spooky original into a banal account of marital guilt. Its failure was even more acute because the most lauded adaptation of the M. R. James tale was the brilliantly unsettling 1968 version starring Michael Horden, where the images linger long after the film itself finishes. In that classic adaptation we had excellent acting, stark black and white photography, no soundtrack so that silence served to ramp up tension, and an apparition that chilled the marrow.
Sigmund Freud claimed that ‘the uncanny’ is characterised by how the apparently ordinary becomes progressively sinister and threatening. It suggests that within our notion of the familiar exists a concealed presence that disturbs and haunts us. This could almost be read as a summary of the disjunction between outwardly logical narrators attempting to deal with the increasingly ‘uncanny’ twists of James’s tales.
Freud maintained that the ‘uncanny’ represents our inability to escape the past. We should remember also, that ghosts are never just ghosts – they provide an insight into what haunts our culture - and ghosts never die. For James’s unlucky scholars, the past is indeed a dangerous place - it arises to haunt the present.
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