The Hairy Claws of the Vengeful Dead

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.


Anonymous said…
Great Valdemar many thanks for this - enjoyed it very much and glad to have found your blog also - great links.

I can take or leave Lovecraft - you will know Gore Vidal's description of him as the 'greatest lover the English adjective has ever had' - but think Machen is horribly brilliant, esp The Three Impostors.
valdemar said…
Aha! Good, a Machen fan is a joy to find these days. I seem to recall Mick Jagger (!) once gave an interview about 'The White Powder', somewhere, mentioning the fact that he 'like, drips through the ceiling'. Or maybe I dreamed it.
Olive said…
For those of you too lazy to actually go out and buy James' books, librivox has free MP3's of Peter Yearsley reading Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.
WeepingCross said…
Very elegantly written, and refreshing to have a non-Freudian view of James. I sometimes think respect for Freud only survives among the members of the International Gothic Association! Thank you.
valdemar said…
Thanks, Olive. I was vaguely aware of Librivox but hadn't realised they did so much stuff. I note they're also working their way through Algernon Blackwood, which is quite a task!

Father W, I suppose Freud was an essentially Romantic theorist (in the good and bad senses of the term) and very much a product of a 'Gothic' culture. Ancient wrongs, family secrets, suppressed desires - all very Sheridan Le Fanu.

And I'm glad you both liked the post!
Heresiarch said…
Edwin's invocation of Lovecraft set me thinking. I haven't read much Lovecraft, but what I have seen has a rather similar feel to much of James - the same sense of something unpleasant out there trying to get in which (as you say) doesn't have much in common with the traditional chain rattling ghost story. James and Lovecraft were more or less contemporaries - there must have been something in the atmosphere of the time. MR James was a better writer, though.
Anonymous said…
Hi Valdemar no you didn't imagine the Jagger reference, it occurred during the Warhol interview -

I gather quite a few famous rock persons are Machen fans - Jimmy Page? Not sure.

And Olive thank you so much for the link - fab.
valdemar said…
Aha, Edwin, yes I remember now. We deserve a Machen revival. Some of his stories are weird and nasty enough for the screen, big or small. 'The Great God Pan' might make a really OTT sex/horror movie.

H, Lovecraft was born in 1890, so technically he was a generation after MRJ. However, he died (rather nastily, of untreated cancer) in 1937, just a year after MRJ. James didn't read any of Lovecraft's fiction (so far as we know) but did read HPL's essay 'Supernatural Horror in Literature' and found the style 'most offensive', objecting in particular to over-use of 'cosmic'. He had a point.
Anonymous said…
I must say I like the idea of Gore Vidal (when he goes, which is not for a while, one hopes) and MR James comparing likes and dislikes - I expect they will agree on more than disdain for adjectives!

Can't remember who said it, but someone notable said a few years ago that the shade of Machen was in the background of much modern popular culture - I think this is true across a wide range of so-called 'gnostic' cinema from the Truman Show to the Matrix. and the fab Buffy TV series of course, I seem to remember Whedon acknowledging a debt to Machen.
Heresiarch said…
I seem to remember reading that Machen was much influenced, like Yeats, by Golden Dawn style occultism. He may even have been a member, though I'm not sure. There was a definite "gnostic" dimension to the Golden Dawn shenanegans. The Buffy connection I hadn't been aware of, but it makes sense, especially the rather heavy-handed mythology about demonic realms "breaking through". I always imagined Whedon must have got that from Lovecraft.

I also strongly suspect that David Icke's ramblings about shape-shifting lizards that secretly control the world can be traced to early 20th century fantasy literature and its real-world counterparts in the occult movement - but we're now drifting a long way from MR James.
Anonymous said…
Hiya Heresiarch - not really sure about my vague remembrance of Whedon saying Machen was an influence on Whedon, but am
sure you are right about Lovecraft being an influence - must have been.

The Wiki article on misotheism has a wee mention for Lovecraft, but sadly not Kingsley Amis, who responded to Yevtushenko's query about his atheism with the response 'It's more that I hate him'. I'm sure like me you'll like this quote from the piece:

'Applying the term to the work of Philip Pullman (His Dark Materials), Schweizer clarifies that he does not mean the term to carry the negative connotations of misanthropy: "To me, the word connotes a heroic stance of humanistic affirmation and the courage to defy the powers that rule the universe."[6]'

Hooray! I also like the reminder of the dystheistic nature of early Star Trek - notably Return of the Archons.
valdemar said…
Let me bore for England again by pointing out that the Gnostics may lie behind the (very opaque) events in the MRJ story I quoted above. Mr Humphreys inherits a country house with a strange maze built by his ancestor, James Wilson. There's a theory that Wilson (an 18th century scholar who travelled widely) was a Cainite, a sect whose followers believed the Biblical god was evil. They therefore undertook to break all his rules... So I suppose that's distheism and misotheism.
Olive said…
I forgot to say- fantastic post! I've loved James' work for years, but that's the first picture of him I've ever seen.
TLBoehm said…
Smart post here, you have a rapier keyboard. Nicely done.

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