This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch
At this time of year, we all enjoy a good ghost story. To be more precise, the period between Halloween and New Year is a time when BBC TV and radio schedulers assume that bunging out a few spooky dramas or readings will go down reasonably well. This is a venerable tradition; Dickens seized upon it and made it his own with 'A Christmas Carol' - though it's a pity about the less successful (and today, almost unreadable) Yuletide stories that he felt compelled to produce as encores. Dickens’ other great venture into the supernatural, ‘The Signal-Man’, tends to crop up in the winter, too.
But Dickens has to share the stage when it comes to spooks. The one other writer whose ghost stories are almost always favoured by the dear ol' Beeb over Christmas is M.R. James. This year, admittedly, BBC4 has suffered a rush of blood to the wallet and commissioned a new three-parter by Mark ‘League of Gentlemen’ Gatiss. But Gatiss is on record as admiring M.R. James, so I suspect (and hope) that the three linked ghost stories in ‘Crooked House’ will have many ‘Jamesian’ ingredients.
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) remains one of the most admired and influential authors of supernatural fiction. To ask why his works are frequently dramatised is like asking why so many theatres put on stuff by Shakespeare. James was a superb short story writer with a gift for delineating character and incident, and an approach that combined dry wit with a genuine capacity to surprise.
Then there's the nostalgia factor. 'A ghost story by M.R. James' just sounds right. And the more you know about him, the righter it sounds. He was Provost of King's College Cambridge, later Provost of Eton College (his old school) and a noted expert on church history (though not a theologian, despite the plaque at the church in the lovely village of Great Livermere, Suffolk, where James grew up). The image of the ghost story as a slightly stodgy and harmless form of old-time entertainment goes well with Monty James the Edwardian scholar, puttering among his dusty tomes.
So that's all right. We like a bit of a scare in the winter months, and a harmless ghost story penned – or maybe even quilled – by a bookish codger from a bygone era seems to fit the bill. But there's a little more to it than that. Perhaps those programme editors don't quite realise what they're letting into the homes of Middle England. Because M.R. James' fiction - when you examine it closely - is not at all cosy or reassuring.
While James revered Dickens and other Victorian chain-rattlers, especially J. Sheridan Le Fanu, his approach was markedly new. Indeed, many of his tales don't feature ghosts in the conventional sense at all. Some do, and are very effective - 'Lost Hearts', with its spectral children, has a nastily modern feel, despite the Regency setting. But other stories, such as 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book' and 'Casting the Runes', are about entities that are utterly inhuman. (Jacques Tourneur's superb film Night of the Demon is based on 'Casting the Runes'.)
Most stories fall between these extremes. While they feature ghosts, they are not conventional spooks. A standard ghost (especially the ‘real’ sort featured in the sort of TV shows that are a gift to Harry Hill) is simply a human soul that's been disembodied by death and is somehow still interacting with the living. The American conservative philosopher Russell Kirk, an admirer of M.R. James and himself the author of several volumes of rather good ghost stories, claimed that he wrote them 'to remind you and myself that we are spirits in prison'.
M.R. James was the son of a rural clergyman and was expected to take orders himself. Yet his Low Church Anglican faith did not lead him to create ghosts of this standard, 'Kirkian', kind. Far from it. In 'Martin's Close' a murdered peasant girl returns as a repulsive, amphibious entity. In 'The Uncommon Prayer-Book' a vindictive woman's spirit manifests itself as a kind of snake. In 'The Diary of Mr Poynter' a Restoration hellraiser becomes a freakish, hirsute entity that a character mistakes (on touching it unseen) for his pet spaniel. In ‘The Ash-Tree’ an executed witch gives birth to – well, I won’t spoil that one. Read any collection of James' works and you will agree that many of his ghosts are sub-human, more bestial than ethereal.
Oh yes, far, far down there was a movement, and the movement was upwards -- towards the surface. Nearer and nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one dark hole. It took shape as a face -- a human face -- a burnt human face: and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared to clasp the head that was bending over them.’
From ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance’, in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
There's more than one way to interpret this sort of thing, assuming we feel the urge to interpret at all. Admirers of M.R. James' work can be roughly divided into two camps - Tweedies and Trendies. The Tweedies value the stories for their entertainment value and their redolence of a supposedly more civilized and gentler era. Trendies insist on bringing some theory or other to bear.
About thirty years ago Nigel Kneale upset the Tweedies when he wrote a Freudian introduction to the Folio Society edition of M.R. James. In brief, there are 'things' - hairy and/or moist - in the stories and characters touch them; in the dark; with a shudder of awful recognition. Oo-er, missus. As a confirmed Trendy (as if you ever doubted it) I'm not convinced by this. Freud's stock has been wiped off the board, and there is no evidence that M.R. James was especially interested in sex in any form; hairy, moist or otherwise. But we can be sure that he was very interested in death. One of his earliest experiences was being shown mummified corpses in the crypt of a Dublin church and his expert knowledge of church matters naturally involved a study of graves and crypts, which he clearly enjoyed – see his entertaining Suffolk and Norfolk (1930).
M.R. James lived through a period of intense social, political and intellectual upheaval, much of which he regarded with fastidious distaste (although he did like two 20th century innovations - crosswords and moving pictures). He rejected the application of comparative mythology to the Bible. He detested the young Aldous Huxley, who taught briefly at Eton. The one political issue James took an interest in was Irish independence, which he opposed. Indeed, he was a conservative quietist to the point of selective deafness and blindness. During the Battle of the Somme, when so many of his former pupils were killed, James left blank pages in his diary.
Does any of this explain why his 'ghosts' are so often bestial in appearance? I think it might. James could hardly have been unaware of the prolonged intellectual ferment that followed the publication of Darwin's ideas. The great debate spanned the early decades of James’ life. As a Christian by upbringing and inclination, M.R. James believed in the immortal soul. Yet as a man of his time – and a very intelligent one – he could not have been untouched (untainted?) by the materialistic outlook of the new science of biology. Disraeli said the question was whether Man was an Ape or an Angel and famously came down ‘on the side of the Angels’. James does not seem so sure, in his fiction at least. He offers us spirits that are bestial, yet still in a horrible way human – human enough to be dangerous, with just enough mind to nurse a grievance.
Are we 'mere' animals for whom death means oblivion, or immortal souls clad temporarily in flesh? Many of us would rather not see things in those stark terms, and even if we do we would rather not have to accept one viewpoint outright. Even those of us who think we have chosen wisely would not be human if we did not have moments of doubt. A hundred years ago, M.R. James was one of the first to articulate the problem in the form of popular fiction.
Oh, and he never took holy orders.
Valdemar edits the periodical Supernatural Tales, and keeps a related blog here.
If you'd like to find out more about the work of M.R. James, this is a good place to start.
Friday, 5 December 2008
This is a guest post by Valdemar Squelch