M.R. James

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M.R. James

Montague Rhodes James, (August 1, 1862June 12, 1936). A noted medieval scholar and Provost of King's College, Cambridge, he is best remembered today for his ghost stories. These were published in a series of collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), A Warning to the Curious and other Ghost Stories (1925). Following an English tradition, many of the thirty or so tales were penned as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to gatherings of friends.

The stories perfected several key elements of the classical ghost story. These include plot elements: a bucolic setting in a small village, rural community or venerable university; a nondescript and rather naive gentleman scholar as protagonist; and the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow calls down the wrath, or at least unwelcome attention, of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave. James also perfected the literary technique of the genre: narrating supernatural events principally through inference and suggestion and letting his reader fill in the blanks; and focusing on the quotidian details of his settings and characters in order to throw the horrific and bizarre elements into greater relief. H. P. Lovecraft was a great enthusiast, extolling the stories as the peak of the ghost story form in his definitive essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1925-27). Another relatively well-known fan of James in the horror and fantasy genre was Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote an essay on him. Author John Bellairs paid homage to James by incorporating plot elements borrowed from James' ghost stories into several of his own juvenile mysteries.

There have been numerous radio and television adaptations of James stories, mostly in Britain. Two of the best-known and most highly reputed of these TV dramas, "Whistle and I'll Come to You" (1968) and "A Warning to the Curious" (1972), are available on DVD from the British Film Institute. The BBC, in a long-standing tradition, used to broadcast a reading of an M. R. James story each Christmas. Notable BBC and other TV adaptations include:


The monster from Curse of the Demon (1957 film)...

The only notable film version to date has been a British adaptation by Jacques Tourneur of "Casting the Runes," under the rather more attention-catching title of Night of the Demon (U.S. title: Curse of the Demon (1957 film)). While somewhat more literal than the original story, which was loosely based on the foul reputation of Aleister Crowley, the film is generally considered one of the high points of the horror film genre. Opinion is, however, divided on the merits of the rather un-Jamesian decision (allegedly against Tourneur's wishes) to explicitly show a special effects demon with a bulb-fingered design inspired by medieval woodcuts.

Whilst M. R. James is best remembered for his ghost stories, his output of medieval scholarship was phenomenal. He catalogued many of the manuscript libraries of the Cambridge and Oxford colleges. Among his other scholarly works, he wrote The Apocalypse in Art, which placed illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts into families. He also translated the New Testament Apocrypha.

The stories of M.R. James have influenced many of todays great supernatural writers, including Stephen King (The Shining etc), Ramsey Campbell (Ancient Images) and Stuart Neild (A Haunted Man).

H.P. Lovecraft on M.R. James

At the opposite pole of genius from Lord Dunsany, and gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life is the scholarly Montague Rhodes James, Provost of Eton College, antiquary of note, and recognised authority on mediaeval manuscripts and cathedral history. Dr. James, long fond of telling spectral tales at Christmastide, has become by slow degrees a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank; and has developed a distinctive style and method likely to serve as models for an enduring line of disciples.

The art of Dr. James is by no means haphazard, and in the preface to one of his collections he has formulated three very sound rules for macabre composition. A ghost story, he believes, should have a familiar setting in the modern period, in order to approach closely the reader’s sphere of experience. Its spectral phenomena, moreover, should be malevolent rather than beneficent; since fear is the emotion primarily to be excited. And finally, the technical patois of "occultism" or pseudo-science ought carefully to be avoided; lest the charm of casual verisimilitude be smothered in unconvincing pedantry.

Dr. James, practicing what he preaches, approaches his themes in a light and often conversational way. Creating the illusion of every-day events, he introduces his abnormal phenomena cautiously and gradually; relieved at every turn by touches of homely and prosaic detail, and sometimes spiced with a snatch or two of antiquarian scholarship. Conscious of the close relation between present weirdness and accumulated tradition, he generally provides remote historical antecedents for his incidents; thus being able to utilise very aptly his exhaustive knowledge of the past, and his ready and convincing command of archaic diction and colouring. A favourite scene for a James tale is some centuried cathedral, which the author can describe with all the familiar minuteness of a specialist in that field.

Sly humorous vignettes and bits of life-like genre portraiture and characterisation are often to be found in Dr. James’s narratives, and serve in his skilled hands to augment the general effect rather than to spoil it, as the same qualities would tend to do with a lesser craftsman. 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. Sometimes the spectre is of still more eccentric composition; a roll of flannel with spidery eyes, or an invisible entity which moulds itself in bedding and shews a face of crumpled linen. Dr. James has, it is clear, an intelligent and scientific knowledge of human nerves and feelings; and knows just how to apportion statement, imagery, and subtle suggestions in order to secure the best results with his readers. He is an artist in incident and arrangement rather than in atmosphere, and reaches the emotions more often through the intellect than directly. This method, of course, with its occasional absences of sharp climax, has its drawbacks as well as its advantages; and many will miss the thorough atmospheric tension which writers like Machen are careful to build up with words and scenes. But only a few of the tales are open to the charge of tameness. Generally the laconic unfolding of abnormal events in adroit order is amply sufficient to produce the desired effect of cumulative horror.

The short stories of Dr. James are contained in four small collections, entitled respectively Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others, and A Warning to the Curious. There is also a delightful juvenile phantasy, The Five Jars, which has its spectral adumbrations. Amidst this wealth of material it is hard to select a favourite or especially typical tale, though each reader will no doubt have such preferences as his temperament may determine.

"Count Magnus (fiction)" is assuredly one of the best, forming as it does a veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion. Mr. Wraxall is an English traveller of the middle nineteenth century, sojourning in Sweden to secure material for a book. Becoming interested in the ancient family of De la Gardie, near the village of Råbäck, he studies its records; and finds particular fascination in the builder of the existing manor-house, one Count Magnus, of whom strange and terrible things are whispered. The Count, who flourished early in the seventeenth century, was a stern landlord, and famous for his severity toward poachers and delinquent tenants. His cruel punishments were bywords, and there were dark rumours of influences which even survived his interment in the great mausoleum he built near the church—as in the case of the two peasants who hunted on his preserves one night a century after his death. There were hideous screams in the woods, and near the tomb of Count Magnus an unnatural laugh and the clang of a great door. Next morning the priest found the two men; one a maniac, and the other dead, with the flesh of his face sucked from the bones. Mr. Wraxall hears all these tales, and stumbles on more guarded references to a Black Pilgrimage once taken by the Count; a pilgrimage to Chorazin in Palestine, one of the cities denounced by Our Lord in the Scriptures, and in which old priests say that Antichrist is to be born. No one dares to hint just what that Black Pilgrimage was, or what strange being or thing the Count brought back as a companion. Meanwhile Mr. Wraxall is increasingly anxious to explore the mausoleum of Count Magnus, and finally secures permission to do so, in the company of a deacon. He finds several monuments and three copper sarcophagi, one of which is the Count's. Round the edge of this latter are several bands of engraved scenes, including a singular and hideous delineation of a pursuit — the pursuit of a frantic man through a forest by a squat muffled figure with a devil-fish’s tentacle, directed by a tall cloaked man on a neighbouring hillock. The sarcophagus has three massive steel padlocks, one of which is lying open on the floor, reminding the traveller of a metallic clash he heard the day before when passing the mausoleum and wishing idly that he might see Count Magnus. His fascination augmented, and the key being accessible, Mr. Wraxall pays the mausoleum a second and solitary visit and finds another padlock unfastened. The next day, his last in Råbäck, he again goes alone to bid the long-dead Count farewell. Once more queerly impelled to utter a whimsical wish for a meeting with the buried nobleman, he now sees to his disquiet that only one of the padlocks remains on the great sarcophagus. Even as he looks, that last lock drops noisily to the floor, and there comes a sound as of creaking hinges. Then the monstrous lid appears very slowly to rise, and Mr. Wraxall flees in panic fear without refastening the door of the mausoleum. During his return to England the traveller feels a curious uneasiness about his fellow-passengers on the canal-boat which he employs for the earlier stages. Cloaked figures make him nervous, and he has a sense of being watched and followed. Of twenty-eight persons whom he counts, only twenty-six appear at meals; and the missing two are always a tall cloaked man and a shorter muffled figure. Completing his water travel at Harwich, Mr. Wraxall takes frankly to flight in a closed carriage, but sees two cloaked figures at a crossroad. Finally he lodges at a small house in a village and spends the time making frantic notes. On the second morning he is found dead, and during the inquest seven jurors faint at sight of the body. The house where he stayed is never again inhabited, and upon its demolition half a century later his manuscript is discovered in a forgotten cupboard.

In "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (fiction)" a British antiquary unriddles a cipher on some Renaissance painted windows, and thereby discovers a centuried hoard of gold in a niche half way down a well in the courtyard of a German abbey. But the crafty depositor had set a guardian over that treasure, and something in the black well twines its arms around the searcher’s neck in such a manner that the quest is abandoned, and a clergyman sent for. Each night after that the discoverer feels a stealthy presence and detects a horrible odour of mould outside the door of his hotel room, till finally the clergyman makes a daylight replacement of the stone at the mouth of the treasure-vault in the well — out of which something had come in the dark to avenge the disturbing of old Abbot Thomas's gold. As he completes his work the cleric observes a curious toad-like carving on the ancient well-head, with the Latin motto "Depositum custodi — keep that which is committed to thee."

Other notable James tales are "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", in which a grotesque carving comes curiously to life to avenge the secret and subtle murder of an old Dean by his ambitious successor; "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'", which tells of the horror summoned by a strange metal whistle found in a mediaeval church ruin; and "An Episode of Cathedral History", where the dismantling of a pulpit uncovers an archaic tomb whose lurking daemon spreads panic and pestilence.

Dr. James, for all his light touch, evokes fright and hideousness in their most shocking forms; and will certainly stand as one of the few really creative masters in his darksome province.

- H.P. Lovecraft, "Supernatural Horror In Literature"

M.R. James on Weird Tales Style Fiction

It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person. Elementals and such-like do not come under this rule. Roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer.... And be it observed that the setting in [certain] classic examples is contemporary and even ordinary.... But there are exceptions to every rule. An ancient haunting can be made terrible and can be invested with actuality, but it will tax your best endeavours to forgo the links between past and present in a satisfying way. And in any case there must be ordinary level-headed modern persons - Horatios - on the scene, such as the detective needs his Watson or his Hastings to play the part of the lay observer. Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

Must there be horror? you ask. I think so. There are but two really good ghost stories I know in the language wherein the elements of beauty and pity dominate terror.... On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence. There is a series of books I have read, I think American in origin, called Not at Night (and with other like titles), which sin glaringly against this law. They have no other aim than that of Mr Wardle's Fat Boy.

Of course, all writers of ghost stories do desire to make their readers' flesh creep; but these are shameless in their attempts. They are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption. And if there is a theme that ought to be kept out of the ghost story, it is that of the charnel house. That and sex, wherein I do not say that these Not at Night books deal, but certainly other recent writers do, and in so doing spoil the whole business.

- M.R. James, "Ghosts - Treat Them Gently"

External links

Original Wiki source: Wikipedia