Poster by T.A.
A brief survey of the short story part 14
Originating as tales to be read by candlelight to fellow dons, the stories of MR James remain subtle, scholarly and scary
Wednesday 4 February 2009
Ghost stories, like detective stories, are a mixture of conservatism and anarchy. Practitioners of both forms obey certain rules because their readers demand specific satisfactions. These generic cousins lie top to tail, however: the detective brings chaos to order, while in the ghost story an orderly situation is overturned, either suddenly or by degrees.
The ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James, products of exquisite reticence, favoured the latter pace. "Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way", he wrote in 1924. "[L]et us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings … 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."
The "ominous thing" in James's stories, written between the 1890s and 1930s, might be a sheeted ghost (Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad), a corpse crawling from its grave (The Mezzotint), or something grotesque and tentacular (The Treasure of Abbot Thomas). Whichever form it takes it will be malevolent and capable of killing. There are no Caspers to be found here.
James, who attended and became provost of both Eton and King's College, Cambridge, was a divinity scholar of repute. Despite his supernatural fiction finding a wide audience during his lifetime many of his stories originated as tales to be read by candlelight to fellow dons at Cambridge. Like Lewis Carroll and Tolkien, he viewed fiction as an enjoyable diversion from more important work.
Much of James's skill as a writer resides in his talent for evoking a sense of place - particularly when writing about the East Anglian countryside he knew as a child – and an often perfect judgment of what to reveal and when. The stories thrive, too, on their scholarly depth and his knowledge of folklore. His characters are for the most part antiquarians who, through intellectual curiosity, stumble into the unknown. Frequently James will wrap a web of quotations, footnotes and references to historical documents – both fictional and real – around his stories (he begins one with a block of Latin), giving them not only an air of authenticity but also an essay-like quality, so that the expertly handled intrusion of horror arrives all the more powerfully.
They are often elaborately framed, too. Indeed, in some of James's later works this framing actually seems to take precedence over the stories' supernatural elements. In The Residence at Whitminster, for example, the present-day narrator reconstructs the story of the death of two boys in 1730 and a subsequent haunting by way of notes written by the children's guardian, letters written a century later by a young woman, her beau's diary, and assorted other documents.
While this approach attests to the care with which James constructed his stories, however, and despite his publicly stated dislike for excess in supernatural fiction (what he called "the weltering and wallowing"), numerous examples show that he could, in his phrase, "use all the colours in the box". Even in restraint, however, he can terrorise. Consider this passage from The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, one of his best stories, describing a dream in which the narrator has witnessed a Punch and Judy show where the murders appear real:
"The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the footboard and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered ..."
James's writing is not without its faults. He is weak on character, and although capable of humour (frequently golf-related, oddly enough) his condescending approximations of working class speech grate, and carry an echo of whiskered men glugging port in a senior common room. Terrifying enough in its own way.
There is no psychology explicit in James's stories, although psychologists would demur. Opposing camps debate whether he was a repressed homosexual or simply celibate. Certainly his relationship with James McBryde represented the great love of his life, whether sexual or not, and McBryde's death in 1904 had a profound effect. For my part I don't think that interpreting his stories as coded outpourings of subconscious frustration adds anything to them, but that's not to say they don't warrant serious analysis. I'd be particularly intrigued to read a certain university paper I learned of recently: '"I shall most likely be out on the links": Golf as Metaphor in the Ghost Stories of MR James.'
039 William Trevor
040 JD Salinger
040 JD Salinger