Tuesday, December 12, 2000

M.R. James & the Horrors of Christmas

It may seem incongruous at first to be discussing ghost stories at Christmastide. A little reflection, however, will render it perfectly natural. After all, 'tis the season of the most Holy Ghost story of all. But even excepting that, literary tradition provides exceptional groundwork for such a discussion -- beginning with not just one of the most famous ghost stories ever written in English, but perhaps the most famous, most copied, most adapted piece of fiction (short or long) in any language: Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol (1843). The three principal ghosts of that tale are part of our Literary Subconscious, and though at least two of them differ from the traditional specter -- the modern day versions of which have roots in the Gothic Tradition of the late 1700s -- they do represent, for good or ill, what we all hope for at this time of year--to receive a blessing, a message, a revelation from the Great Beyond.

Actually, few 19th century readers saw an incongruity with ghost stories during the Advent season. Magazines were a flourishing medium and many featured, in their popular Christmas issues, tales of spooks and goblins. Though some of these followed a maudlin sub-genre of "heartwarming" horror stories (pale imitations of Dickens at best), many were more typical of the Gothic stylings of Elizabeth Gaskell or Henry James's The Turn of the Screw -- a tale told "on Christmas Eve in an old house." And it was tradition on the campus of King's College for a small group to gather in the Provost's chambers to hear M.R. James premiere his latest ghost story...

Montague Rhodes James was born on August 1, 1862 in Goodnestone parsonage, Kent, where his father was the curate. He died 74 years later, in 1936. He was a precocious child, developing an early taste for reading and for old books -- he would rather examine dusty library volumes than play with children his own age. The story may be apocryphal, but it's certainly interesting: at the age of 6, James became ill with bronchitis and while recovering, bedridden, he wished to see a 17th century Dutch Bible that he had previously perused in the library of a friend of his father's, Bishop Ryle. When the book was sent, James reportedly sat up in bed for the first time in days so that he could examine it more closely.

When in better health, young Montague Rhodes spent time wandering the low, flat landscape of County Suffolk, playing in the fields beneath pressing cloud-cover and visiting in the huddled villages, certainly an apt environment for one inclined to think in ghostly terms. In fact, such inspiration did take place early on, as he related to the Evening Standard in 1931: "What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams."

James didn't plan his interests in life around any sort of writing other than that which would concern research. After mastering the classics and several languages first at Temple Grove School, then at Eton College, he graduated to King's College, Cambridge, where he was quickly elected a Fellow. He spent some time as an assistant in classical archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Following his dissertation, titled The Apocalypse of St. Peter, James began lecturing in divinity, and eventually became dean of the college in 1889. He was a Bibliophile in an age when that term carried a professional connotation -- these days he would probably be called a "Library Scientist" -- that particular guy lurking in the dusty back room of the university library, tending the special collection, the rare and fragile volumes which students are rarely, if ever, allowed to touch.

He was a distinguished medievalist, specializing in illuminated manuscripts and apocryphal Biblical literature. His training and skills as a linguist and biblical scholar, along with an uncommonly keen, near photographic memory, enabled him to write copious reviews, translations, full-fledged works on bibliography, paleography, and other antiquarian studies. In addition to editing numerous volumes for specialized bibliographical and historical societies, James endeavored nearly forty years to catalog the many manuscript collections in Cambridge. And his translation of the Apocryphal New Testament in 1924, widely heralded at the time, is in print to this day. In 1905 James was installed as provost of King's College; later he served as vice-chancellor of the university from 1913 to 1915. In 1918, James left the halls of King's to accept the post of Provost of Eton College where he continued to study and catalog medieval manuscripts. He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1930, remaining active until his death in 1936.

For someone so busy, so intensely researching the past, James exhibited none of the expected gloomy traits of the scholarly recluse. Biographers paint him as an extrovert, very social, and though he never married (the archetypal confirmed bachelor, perhaps), he maintained a number of quality friendships. His research often required him to travel abroad, which he did enthusiastically -- these journeys formed the backgrounds to several of his tales. (His impressions of Sweden, for example, provide the atmosphere and setting for his story "Count Magnus," and the title character is based on a real historical figure, a 17th century count which James uncovered during his research.)

Yet for someone so dedicated to his work and so respected in his time as a scholar of antiquaries, M.R. James is chiefly remembered -- even best represented -- to us by off-hand stories written during his leisure hours. Indeed, most scholars of the field consider James to be not only the best of the Victorian period ghost-story-tellers, but to have essentially invented the modern horror story. His stylings and structures show their influences in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Shirley Jackson, and Joyce Carol Oates, and resonate all the way into latter-day X-Files and Blair Witch investigations. ("Casting the Runes," published 1911, was the inspiration for Jacques Tourneur's 1958 film Curse of the Demon.)

The stories which James read during Christmases a century past have never left print. Following their oral premieres, many of the tales were first published in the Cambridge Review and like magazines. These were later collected in the volumes Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious (1925). He also wrote a short supernatural fantasy novel for children, The Five Jars (1922). In 1931 the first edition of the Collected Stories appeared, which included a brief but informative preface, and an afterword entitled "Stories I Have Tried To Write" -- a handful of uncollected stories written for special occasions (such as "Wailing Well", written in 1927 for a campfire reading for the Eaton College Boy Scouts) were also included. [Depending on how the fragments are counted, James wrote between 35 to 40 ghost stories -- slightly more than the 31 to 33 which are usually anthologized into "complete" editions.]

During his days at King's, James fell in with a gathering known as the Chitchat Club. In October of 1893 he was asked to write a ghost story for the purpose of reading before one of the group's gatherings, slated for the week before Christmas. By the sole illumination provided by firelight and a few flickering candles, James read two stories: "Lost Hearts" and "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook." He was apparently a terrific orator, adept at mimicking voices and providing Dickensian accents for the minor characters; the club was so taken that he was invited to make a tradition of his story-telling each year at Christmas.

Many writers of the time (following Poe's example, presumably) worked out formulas for the creation of their stories, and James was no different. He cites three general guidelines in the introduction to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the First being: "The Setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters, and their talk, should be such as you may meet or hear any day…" As with all these rules, James practiced what he preached. His stories were inspired by and derived from his interests and surroundings -- and are thereby filled with exactly the kind of droll, meticulous detail and scholarly asides that you might expect of a tweed-elbowed professor prattling on about a research project which, by the way, uncorked a rather nasty chain of events… and this does give them a definite ring of authenticity.

Suitably, the plots most often revolve around a single character who, in a quest on behalf of a college or museum for a curious or rare artifact, stumbles across something extraordinary. This allows James to pepper his tales with his own knowledge of archaic matters. Ghost stories are often considered as atmospheric pieces, but James was more an artist of incident and arrangement, and of verisimilitude -- appealing first to intellect and reason, then to emotions. Without foreclosing supernatural events, the stories begin with his subjects going about their business in their usual ways… and then things begin to go slowly awry.

Secondly, according to James, "the ghost should be malevolent or odious…" Even better, he never completely reveals his creatures -- he's happier with a few horrible suggestions, thereafter leaving the rest up to the reader's imagination. His few specific evocations serve only to make his ghosts "inconsistent with the rules of folklore." Actually, few of his creatures resemble what we typically think of as a floating sheet-like specter; these expectations are a holdover from Gothic tales, where ghosts were more often than not linked to the principal characters via a bloodline, either overt or forgotten. James's spirits behave more like an invoked curse: they are cause-and-effect manifestations, everyone is vulnerable, and their behavior predicates in many ways modern-day poltergeist theories. As such, though they may be described with restraint, these beings are anything but polite. He seems to have a predilection for swarthy, dwarfish, hairy creatures. Several stories also feature, in James's own term, "dreadful spiders." Traditional Gothic ghosts were first seen, or heard, at some safe distance; an M.R. James ghost would more likely brush up against you before you knew it was in the room.

His third element concerned the "technical terms of 'occultism'; if they are not very carefully handled, [these] tend to put the mere ghost story upon a quasi-scientific plane…" James was actually careful not to extend any explanation to the events in his stories, be they current or ancient. His ghosts and goblins, thanks to his meticulous detail, do appear to be obeying some Hidden Law, which is best interpreted simply: There Are Certain Things Left Alone. At some point, reasonably intelligent and alert persons should become aware that the time has come to obey this Law -- the title of one of James's more famous stories embodies this creed quite well: "A Warning to the Curious."

James once said, in putting forth an explanation of the fantastic, "It is sometimes necessary to keep a loophole for a natural explanation, but I might add that this hole should be small enough to be unusable." This is his MO in the story "Number Thirteen," in which a cousin of the narrator, traveling in Denmark in order to research Roman Catholicism in the country, takes a room at an inn which has a disappearing and reappearing room numbered 13. This room exists only at night, and is apparent only in the shadows thrown from its window -- strange dancing figures projected onto the wall of the building across the street. At the climax of the story, an attempt is made to forcibly enter the room, but dawn breaks and the door vanishes under the blows of the crowbars. All this would seem utterly without explanation were it not for some documents uncovered by the main character in the course of his (seemingly unrelated) research, which recount the story of a man accused of witchcraft and treachery to the church, and mention is made of land he may or may not have owned in some undisclosed sector of the city. The reader is thereafter left to make any connections he sees fit.

His perhaps most famous story, and by far the simplest in terms of structure, is "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come To You, My Lad." The tale evokes a sense of Kismet -- no matter what the motive under which a person commits an action may be, he will receive apt consequences in return. A certain Professor Parkins takes a holiday during which, in the act of doing a little scouting around for an anthropologist friend, finds himself caught in a series of bizarre events involving vague distant figures and howling winds, the epicenter of which seems to be a silver whistle he finds in a decrepit burial ground. A fellow vacationer translates a cryptic inscription on the whistle as "Who is this who is coming?" Professor Parkins, unfortunately, feels compelled to blow the whistle and find out. In the events that follow, James uses a common, spectral figure, but escapes stereotyping in its very boldness: "Now it began to move, in a stooping posture… it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion… Parkins described… a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not, or would not, tell…" The floating, immaterial bedsheet-ghost is of course a crude and timeworn image, but James manages to transcend it, making it both obvious and uncanny, as the supernatural force possessing (as it were) the bedsheet is not the moaning, chain-clanking spook of Gothic romance, but rather a malevolent creature bent on strangling Professor Parkins...

As to whether or not M.R. James himself believed in ghosts, the question is vexed. Some scholars maintained that he definitely did not believe; James on the other hand appears to at least have been open-minded: "I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me." Still, there is no evidence that such an acceptance was ever made, and James apparently exhibited no interest in the contemporary activities of the Society for Psychical Research. (His last tale, "A Vignette," is perhaps an attempt to capture in fiction a childhood experience which James may have believed to be truly supernatural.) I think James may well have agreed with Samuel Johnson's observation on the subject of ghosts: "All argument is against it, but all belief is for it."

On that note: Merry Christmas.

Originally presented at the Fairhope Public Library Tuesday Book Review and Lecture Series, December 12 2000