- The Ghosts of MR JAMES Part I

Oh Whistle & I'll Come To You by James McBride

Among the many great estates of the imagination, it has long been one of my own personal preferences to make frequent visits to that shadowed portion of the lands of fiction where the great manors and chases of the ghost story are to be found. Taking up residence as it does in the hinterlands that the curious wanderer discovers between the grimy ghettos of horror and the lofty dreaming spires of literature, the humble ghost story offers to the visitor a myriad of delights; not only may one find a wealth of edifices constructed by the hands of the great and good of the literature but also the ghost story proffers to the learned eye a plethora of imaginative architecture whose styles and influences may be traced back far into the antiquarian past.

But despite the notable additions to this cultural landscape designed by great authors such as Dickens, Hardy, and Kipling, not to mention the spectral contributions found in Shakespeare, the mantle of the greatest teller of ghost stories does not fall upon the shoulders of one of classic literature’s alumni. No gentle reader, that accolade must be awarded not to one who merely dabbled in spooks and spectres and midnight things, but to one whose canon was devoted to the pursuit of raising pleasing terrors. Now my own personal feeling on the matter is very clear; if indeed one may single out just one author to receive the title of master of the ghost story, then this should be bestowed upon Montague Rhodes James.

And while some may dispute my own nomination for this honour, proposing candidature for notable names such as Mr Algernon Blackwood, Mr Sheridan Le Fanu, or Mr EF Benson, it must be acknowledged that James is, at the very least, a titan of equal power and influence, and that among the three score and five tales he penned lies some of the finest exercises in supernatural fiction ever written.

Previously I have remarked before upon the remarkable legacy of this learned gentleman, and indeed have gone as far to continue the tradition of reading his tales aloud as part of the Christmas festivities here in the benighted halls of Hypnogoria Towers. And as many have remarked before, I have reiterated their opinion that one of the many reasons why the good Doctor’s tales have endured so long and have been an undoubtedly considerable influence upon the landscapes of the imagination, is his innovative and original conceptions and deployments of the ghosts themselves.

Now it should be noted that this in no mean feat as the ghost story may trace its line of descent back to the earliest forms of literature. And as any student of the architecture of the ghost story will know, many of the haunted houses and regions where phantoms walk are constructed with forms and tropes dating back to classical antiquity. Indeed the template for many stories detailing a haunting is a tale told in Roman times, reported by many ancient scribes including Tacitus, and perhaps best recalled in the letters of Pliny the Younger. A fine translation of the original text may be found here, however a brief synopsis will be presented for the sake of convenience...

There was a certain house in Athens beset with the dread apparition of an old man bound in fetters. And although the house was an attractive property, none could bear to live with the nocturnal disturbances for very long. However a philosopher named Athenodorus took up residence, and indeed just as the stories told, when night had fallen, the sound of chains was heard and the image of the distressed fellow appeared.

But being a man of learning, Athenodorus did not flee in terror but instead followed the ghost upon his nightly wandering and noted that the phantasm disappeared at a certain spot in the courtyard. The following morning, our hero summoned the authorities and the spot where the spirit had vanished was duly excavated, revealing buried bones swathed in chains. The remains of this fortunate were then given the proper funerary rites and a dignified burial and the hauntings ceased...

But also aside the laying of an unquiet soul, the foundation for the ghostly tales as a literary form was laid. For besides inspiring a chill of fear with the description of encountering forces from beyond the grave, the ghost story in structure owes as much to the mystery genre as it does horror fiction. And the tale of Athenodorus establishes this; unlike other macabre fiction where the conclusion of the tale reveals a final horror left to linger in the mind, the ghost story will usually offer a form of resolution where we discover to some reason or mechanism for the haunting.

It also enshrined the concept that ghosts appear in order to impart some message to the living, whether to right some wrong or give out a warning, and that their eternal rest is disturbed until they receive proper burial. And we see this structure repeated endlessly, with many of the famous ghosts of fiction adhering it, from Hamlet’s father to Jacob Marley and right up to the plethora of phantasms populating The Sixth Sense. I trust I need not give out further copious examples as this pattern is so widespread I am confident the reader may easily list dozens more.

However although it is true that many of James’ tales fall in line with this classical format, there is also considerable deviation from the standard template. While many show the aforementioned elements of the mystery, in that as when the tale concludes we discover something of the nature of the hauntings, not all end with neat resolutions which explain the origin of their spooks. For example, in one of Monty’s most famous tales, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, by the end we are no nearer discovering the nature or genesis of the being summoned by the whistle than at the outset, and similarly are in the dark as to its drives and purposes.

Also absent in many tales, is any laying of the ghost. Should any of the supernatural manifestations in MR James’s tales come to a close, it is more often because the protagonists henceforth steer clear of its area of influence than any end to the manifestations being engineered at the story’s finale. And when there is a ceasing of the supernatural outbreaks, it is frequently because the unearthly agencies themselves have expended their purpose; usually having administered some much need justice or wreaked a violent revenge.

And these two points also highlight two other of James’ innovations – firstly that his hauntings are often not centred about a certain place but manifest through a particular object. Old books, pictures objects d’ar and antiques are all prone to become what modern psychical researchers would term ‘trigger objects’ or our forefathers would deem as accursed. In the world accorded to Monty, one may not guarantee one’s safety by merely avoiding those places or dwellings that that are deemed spiritually leprous, as some seemingly innocent object may bring with it most unwelcome guests. And hence the reader does not possess the standard fall back position of claiming ‘well I should not be so damned fool as to venture to such benighted places!’ for even something as innocuous as a fabric design may call forth things one would not relish to scamper about your rooms as the incidents in The Diary of Mr Poytner illustrate.

But secondly and possibly more importantly, his ghosts are ferociously malevolent. As James himself remarked in his preface to this second collection More Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1911) –

the ghost should be malevolent or odious; amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy stories or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story

And how fearsome they are! They torment and terrorises the innocent and guilty alike, for there is no common moral backdrop to James’ canon. The usual rubrics of the horror tale are not in place here – what we may call the EC Comics morality that the guilty will meet very bad ends indeed is not a code of conduct that Jamesian ghouls particularly adhere to. Only around half of his tales feature an element of punishment in the hauntings, with assorted villains and scrupulous types discovering that justice has exceedingly long bony arms. However even in some of these cases, it is the ghost itself which is suffering, condemned to walk abroad for their misdeeds in life.

Hence in the larger proportion of the canon, the innocent are just as terribly beset with dire hauntings. In some cases, it is a matter of the sins of the father being visited upon his descendants – see for example The Mezzotint and The Ash-tree, but more frequently it is simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or unwittingly encountering an object which harbours unsuspected supernatural dangers.

And while a case may be made that that some of James’ characters commit the sin of delving too far and consequently disturb things from the unquiet past, it is, I feel this is a distinctly different matter. For example, Mr Dennistoun in Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book may be said to pay the price for his fervour in acquiring rare manuscripts or that Professor Parkin in Oh Whistle is penalised for his sceptical certainties, it is also clear that these fellows are not wicked men who fully deserve their terribly fates like Lord Saul in The Residence At Whitminister or the eponymous murderer in Martin’s Close. It is true that some like Mr Paxton in A Warning To The Curious or young Stanley Judkins in Wailing Well, may have failed to heed the warnings given but again these are not characters driven by malice or moral corruption and I am sure many of us would have similarly ignored the talk of frightful spectres and dread curses and carried on regardless too...

So then as we draw toward the close of this first look at the beings that haunt the fiction of MR James, what conclusions are there to be drawn? In addition to the point we have duly noted above, we may discern a common strand or element in James’ treatment of this most venerable of story forms. And this shared trait is simply as follows: that by diverse methods James has elected to blur the cosy lines of the defining form we have inherited from accounts of the Athens haunting. And this bending and breaking of the typical rules of literary hauntings, open for the reader that curious door marked ‘uncertainty’, and while by its very nature none may know what lies beyond that portal, what is sure is that the draughts that issue from it are born of fear itself.

Simply living a proper and upstanding life is offers no protection from the denizens of the supernatural world, as just as there is not infallible natural justice, likewise James present an equally capricious and random supernatural world where ghostly ills may befall the pious and the wicked alike. Similarly good sense and wisdom, of the kind demonstrated by Athenodorus offer no margin of safety and in James’ fiction there is no sign of any of this Classical scholar’s descendants in attendance; his stories are bereft of ghost breakers like Hodgson’s Carnacki, mystical investigators like Blackwood’s John Silence and occult experts in the mould of Stoker’s Van Helsing. There are no white hat sages in evidence and equally there are not special incantations, prayers or relics to save the day and indeed your bacon. And finally nor will a good sense of geography and local lore steer one clear of spectral troubles, for Jamesian entities are not confined to obscure ruins or empty houses; one must be careful what one brings into the house for as Dr James observes in Stories I Have tried To Write “it may not be alone...”

In Part II of this exploration of MR James, we shall be taking a closer look at the nature of the ghosts themselves.

JIM MOON, 17th December 2010