M. R. James: Warnings to the Curious

Legend has it that Montague Rhodes James—late Victorian medievalist scholar, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and perhaps England’s most acclaimed writer of ghost stories—hated all forms of modernity. He considered James Joyce a “prostitutor of life and language”, and voted against women being allowed to receive degrees at Cambridge. I have no doubt that a good part of the legend is true, although I think it’s easy to get the man wrong. Or at least, it’s easy to paint him into the satisfyingly prudish and fearful Victorian that makes us all feel sexy and adventurous by comparison.

Firstly, I think his stories are frequently funny and self-aware. He can be happily rude about golf, and university life (particularly the habits of those at ‘another university’). And most of the victims of his ghost stories—dusty late-career academics and bachelors obsessed with all things historical—seem to be thinly-veiled self-parodies.

He is chiefly remembered as a ghost story writer, but I think he really writes about monsters. And this is the first wonderful thing about him: no one writes a monster like M.R. James. Be it the demon of King Solomon in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, or the child-killer in The Mezzotint, the blind hunter made from drapery in Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad, or the strange scarecrow-like beast in Rats. Or perhaps my favourite, the witch Mrs Mothersole and her terrifying blood-sucking children in The Ash Tree. Often, in revenge stories like Lost Hearts, the true monsters turn out to be not the ghosts but the people who murdered them, such as the elderly student of ‘the Dark Arts’ who tears out the hearts of lost children (whilst still living) to attain eternal life.

He is also remembered as a master of the genre because, even to this day, his work avoids most of the horror clichés, whilst still delivering the goods at the end. For example, much of the terror takes place in full daylight, albeit in sinister locations such as on empty beaches with the sea mist coming in. He is specifically known as the master of… that thing that you think you see from the corner of your eye, but when you look it’s gone. Most of the stories involve characters convincing themselves that all of these little disturbing events are just a series of coincidences.

That said, another great thing about his stories is that (generally) the characters aren’t stupid. They generally do the same things you would do. (Assuming, of course, that you would risk eternal damnation just to be the first person to lay your hands on an Anglo-Saxon crown.) One thing that his characters frequently do, which happens so rarely in horror writing, is that when it’s clear that something supernatural is going on, they tell someone else, and the people that our heroes tell generally believe them. Or, at the very least, they find the heroes’ fear credible and they usually try to help.

And underpinning all of this is M.R. James’s clearly vast professional knowledge of ancient artefacts and folklore. Which doesn’t hurt. (Or it doesn’t hurt the reader, at least.)

Like so many male late-Victorian/early-Edwardian English writers, however, I don’t think he could write women (although some disagree with me on this). I suspect that he had little to no interest in them. (Although, like Rudyard Kipling, every once in a while he puts in a sympathetic female character, in a way that to me feels like it’s done purely to show that he is capable of doing it.)

One of the things that might make him seem quaint a modern audience, I think, is his determination to avoid writing about sex, which he says ruins the story. I actually quoted him in a previous Eulogise This article, in which I left the crucial bit out, so let me add it again:

“Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.”

When I first read that I put that down to a prudish Victorian sensibility. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with him. Something that I find refreshing about his stories is that none of the (frequent and often gruesome) violence is sexualised. Because none of his characters are sexualised. Even slightly. (And, of course, there are Freudians who disagree, but disciples of Freud interpret everything as being sexualised, and, y’know, blah.)

I remember watching a parody of a slasher film in CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (a future Eulogy, hopefully) when for me the penny dropped: the reason why horror is the only Hollywood genre that virtually always has strong female leads who survive to the end (e.g. Halloween, Friday 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, It Follows… even Alien and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) becomes apparent when you start comparing how the men die (quickly, and you don’t see much) versus how the women die (slowly, often very slowly, and you get close-up after close-up of their fear and agony). Without the strong female lead, it would become obvious that, however intelligent the writing might be, these stories are built around torture porn for a male audience in just the same way that old Fred Astaire films were built around musical numbers. And compared to that trend, I find there’s something charming about the fact that pretty much every victim of an M.R. James story seems to be some sort of reimagining of James himself.

So, I’m clearly a big fan of him. But what is it that marks him above being a very good genre writer, and makes him, in my opinion, one of the greats?

Well, I don’t think all his stories are great. Having recently gone back over them I found A View From a Hill so muddled, unrealistic and frankly boring that it made me wonder whether either (a) it was the first story he ever wrote or (b) he didn’t even write it, and someone else took credit for it.

But exceptions are few. I think nearly all are masterpieces, and what specifically makes him so great is that even though the monsters, and indeed the victims, all seem fairly similar (if it’s a good formula, why mess with it?) the actual stories themselves, and the way he writes them, are very different, and very original. In each story, I get a sense fairly early on where the menace is going to come from, but when it finally arrives I’m always surprised and impressed by the… well, execution.

One of his weirdest stories is called The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance. It is a series of letters written by a man to his brother, who has been called away to search for their uncle, an unpopular clergyman who is missing. You think the story could go a number of ways, but it takes a very twisted and disturbing turn. On Christmas Eve, the narrator has a dream. And it goes like this:

“Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness, but in front there was a sufficiency of light. I was ‘strung up’ to a high degree of expectation and listened every moment to hear the panpipes and the Roo-too-too-it. Instead of that there came suddenly an enormous—I can use no other word—an enormous single toll of a bell, I don’t know from how far off—somewhere behind. The little curtain flew up and the drama began. […] There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face—it was yellowish white, I may remark—peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying […] But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality. 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 foot-board and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same.”

The story that has all of my favourite M.R. James elements, however, is A Warning to the Curious. Two academic friends (the narrator and his friend Henry Long) are staying by the seaside, and are approached by a man who is, in James’s inimitable turn-of-phrase, “in rather a state of fidgets or nerves”. Desperate for someone to talk to, this man (whose name is Paxton) confesses that he has dug up an artefact of such archaeological significance that it could make him a household name. “[A]nd the worst of it is,” he says, “I don’t know how to put it back.” Of course, the two academic friends can’t imagine why he would want to put it back. Until Paxton explains what happened when he dug the tunnel on the hill, and became aware of the ‘presence’ there, that ‘has some power over your eyes’. Eventually, Paxton persuades them to help him at least try to put it back, even though he knows that this… thing… won’t forgive him.

Needless to say, it doesn’t end well for poor Paxton. And I won’t spoil the ending. But here is a classic piece of M.R. James trickery, from when they have just returned the artefact to the tomb it was removed from, in the middle of the night, and are now returning home.

“We were a couple of hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly said to him: ‘I say you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do. See?’ And I certainly did see it—the long dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been. Paxton had not stopped, however: he only shook his head, and held up the coat on his arm. And when we joined him, he said, without any excitement, but as if nothing mattered any more: ‘That wasn’t my coat.’ And, indeed, when we looked back again, that dark thing was not to be seen.”