Thursday, January 12, 2012

Middle Shelf Selection: The Collected Stories of M.R. James

Allow me to offer a modest proposal: If you want to understand horror, you need to read the stories of M.R. James.

I doubt that many of the contemporaries of Montague Rhodes James ever imagined that the bookish bachelor would go down in history as an author of British ghost stories. A scholar and administrator at King's College, Cambridge, in the late-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, he made his name by chronicling church history and translating the Apocrypha. Hardly hair-raising stuff. But history doesn't always preserve what we expect it to, and most of James' scholarship has faded over time. What remains in popular memory are his spectacularly spooky stories, of which he penned usually one per year and then recited it for students and friends on Christmas Eve.
St. Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of the Pyrenees, not very far from Toulouse, and still nearer to Bagnères-de-Luchon. It was the site of a bishopric until the Revolution, and has a cathedral which is visited by a certain number of tourists. In the spring of 1883 an Englishman arrived at this old-world place -- I can hardly dignify it with the name of city, for there are not a thousand inhabitants. He was a Cambridge man, who had come specially from Toulouse to see St. Bertrand's Church, and had left two friends, who were less keen archaeologists than himself, in their hotel at Toulouse, under promise to join him on the following morning.
One only has to read a few of James' tales to see how closely they hew to a particular pattern. They typically feature a scholarly male protagonist with an interest in dusty artifacts of some sort, perhaps literary curio ("Canon Alberic's Scrap-book") or obscure objets d'art ("The Mezzotint") or a historical cypher concealing the hiding place of ancient wealth ("The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"). Often these protagonists prove benign in their aims, but some possess sinister motivations. Two academic fellows seeking unearthly power seek an encounter with "The Fenstanton Witch." In "Lost Hearts," a country lord's munificence masks murderous aims. And despite the affable manner of a teacher in "A School Story," he harbors a dark secret deep in his past. But whether through curiosity, cupidity or cruelty, these characters always cross paths with some monstrous supernatural being.

"Monstrous" being the key word.
And as noiselessly as possible he stole to the door and opened it. The shattering of the illusion! He almost laughed aloud. Propped, or you might say sitting, on the edge of the bed was -- nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room. ... Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if ever so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?
James earned the admiration of none less than H.P. Lovecraft with his diabolical creations. Commenting on them, Lovecraft wrote, "Where the older [gothic] stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly though 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." A few stories include the quotidian idea of the dead breaking from their graves to wreck havoc on the living ("Wailing Well," "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard"), but many of James' monsters feel entirely original even now. A cursed carving among "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" comes to life at the touch of a doomed Archdeacon. "Casting the Ruins" has the nasty shock of a character putting "his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow" and discovering "a mouth with teeth, and with hair about it, and ... not the mouth of a human being." Even when James made his antagonists incorporeal, he always threw in a wrinkle. In "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" he twists the conventional idea of a bedsheet-wearing ghost, having a spirit get tangled amongst bedclothes so that it wears "a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen." My favorite James story, "The Malice of Inanimate Objects," finds a vengeful spirit making creative use of everyday things to torment an antagonist.
"I suppose I shall have to translate this," said the antiquary to himself, as he finished copying the above lines from that rather rare and exceedingly diffuse book, the "Sertum Steinfeldense Norbertinum." "Well, it may as well be done first as last," and accordingly the following rendering was very quickly produced.
For all his influence in the horror field, no one can say that James produced a perfect oeuvre. Some stories run on interminably ("Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance") or lack a fully realized plot ("A Vignette"). A few are simply difficult to read. James' voluminous learning colored his narratives, and their erudition may strain 21st century genre fans. Unless you have passing knowledge of Anglican ecclesiology, medieval Latin, British archetectural fads, the common law tradition, Shakespeare, numerology and obscure biblical texts, you really should pick up an annotated copy of the stories. Penguin Classics has published two worthy volumes, Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories and The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories, and Audible has also produced many of the tales in audiobook format. Challenges aside, though, James' work deserves our attention not only because of its lasting influence, but also it still sends gooseflesh racing up one's spine.


Chestertonian Rambler said...

"Unless you have passing knowledge of Anglican ecclesiology, medieval Latin, British archetectural fads, the common law tradition, Shakespeare, numerology and obscure biblical texts, you really should pick up an annotated copy of the stories."

Huh. I *knew* I should have studied British architectural fads more.

Loren Eaton said...

Yeah, I thought of you when I wrote that. You could probably do pretty well without an annotated edition.