English scholar and author M.R. James (1862 - 1936), circa 1900. James wrote on linguistic and theological subjects, but is best known for collections of ghost stories such as 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'The Five Jars'. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A warning to the curious

Why M R James is still the greatest ghost story writer

Artillery Row Books

This year’s Christmas BBC schedule has recently been revealed, to cries of disappointment and anger. Some of the criticisms levelled at it are unfair.

In a year when social distancing and the near-total shutdown of the television industry have meant that many programmes have been delayed or otherwise affected, there was never likely to be a plethora of new dramas over the festive period, even if it does seem cruel and unusual punishment that the least beloved yet most enduring of sitcoms, Mrs Brown’s Boys, should return for a Christmas special, while far more engaging programmes are nowhere to be found.

The realistic details of the books and terrifying evocation of the supernatural are what makes James’s stories so frightening

It is a particularly sad omission that, this year, there is no space to be found in the TV listings for a new M R James adaptation. Thanks to the actor, writer and director Mark Gatiss, a tireless admirer of James, there have been several BBC films based on his work in recent years. These have included last year’s sinister Martin’s Close, starring Peter Capaldi and written and directed by Gatiss, and 2013’s The Tractate Middoth, to say nothing of such James-inspired supernatural dramas as 2018’s The Dead Room. The late evening Christmas slot is ideal for a version of one of James’s stories, as the best examples manage to frighten and intrigue a captive audience. One can only hope that there will, at least, be a repeat somewhere.

James himself is rightly regarded as probably the greatest of all English ghost story writers, along with such masters of the genre as EF Benson, Algernon Blackwood and the perennially underrated AM Burrage, as well as an enormous influence on Susan Hill, whose Woman in Black can justly be ranked alongside its predecessors’ work.

As a man, James was as old-fashioned and conservative as many of the unfortunate protagonists of his stories: he was firstly a don at King’s College, Cambridge, long before it became a byword for liberalism, and director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, before becoming Provost of Eton in 1918, in which post he remained until his death in 1936.

Many of his tales originated from being read to favoured students or pupils around his study fire in the winter, or from told as Christmas Eve entertainments for his friends. Although not all of them followed the same formula, there were several ingredients that can be regarded as quintessentially “Jamesian”, and which constitute the archetypal festive ghost story.

The protagonist of his tales is usually a learned man and a bachelor, as James himself was, who is not an especially clubbable or sociable figure, but makes up for his slight misanthropy with a great love of books and manuscripts. He often finds himself in an unusual setting, such as an abbey library or in a quiet seaside town, and stumbles upon some document or artefact that has the unforeseen effect of unleashing supernatural powers upon him.

Only the foolhardy can be truly immune to the creeping fear brought into their sitting rooms by James’s imagination

It is the contrast between the closely observed and realistic details of the books and the terrifying evocation of the supernatural that makes James’s stories so frightening, whether it is the indomitable apparition of Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come To You My Lad, which is literally summoned by the scholarly Parkins blowing on a whistle, the ancient evil brought about by an unsuspecting tourist in Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book or the story that many regard as James’s best, Casting The Runes, in which an academic finds himself cursed through association with an occultist, Karswell, who bears a strong resemblance to the so-called “Great Beast”, Aleister Crowley. It was brilliantly adapted for film by Jacques Tourneur as “Night of the Demon”, and a sample from its dialogue – “It’s in the trees! It’s coming!” – was used by Kate Bush on her song “Hounds of Love”.

James, who would probably not have approved of Kate Bush and her music, was also able to draw upon his long association with young men to write particularly chilling stories involving children. These included A School Story, which revolves around a popular teacher with a dark secret, and the absolutely terrifying Lost Hearts, about an orphaned boy who starts to see hideous visions of the ghosts of children that his would-be alchemist cousin has conducted unspeakable experiments upon, in the hope of discovering the secret of immortality.

Over and over again, the stories begin with the comforting certainty of the everyday, slightly undercut by a suggestion of the macabre, before building to a terrifying and unforgettable climax.

Like many great writers of the supernatural, James wrote according to strict rules. He suggested that his technique was a relatively simple one, saying in 1924 that, “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo”, and that the reader should be “introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

The spirits were invariably vengeful and terrifying ones (“amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story”).

James attempted to balance explicit terror with the power of suggestion, writing in 1929’s Some Remarks on Ghost Stories that:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories … At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.

James’s slighting allusion is the well-known Gothic novelist Matthew “Monk” Lewis, whose most famous novel, The Monk, revolves around the dark and eventful goings-on in various Spanish ecclesiastical establishments and features none other than Lucifer himself as a character. The book is soaked through with bloody activity and unconcealed eroticism, which made it a notorious bestseller upon its publication in 1796, and it can be seen as a direct influence on other Gothic horror stories as Frankenstein and Dracula. Professor James, however, would have none of it, sniffing that “[The stories] 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.”

Certainly, when his ghost stories are compared to his near-namesake Henry’s best- known work, The Turn of the Screw, they seem almost straightforward and devoid of ambiguity. Most take on a moralistic tone: do not meddle in affairs that you understand nothing of, or it will be the worse for you. Yet critical and biographical interest in James has increasingly concentrated on the idea that this lifelong bachelor was a more complex figure than he would have liked to admit.

The writer Nigel Kneale, who so memorably adapted The Woman in Black for television, wrote in an introduction to James’s stories that the writer himself represented “rich and promising material” for an armchair psychologist, and went on to suggest that “there must have been times when it was hard to be Monty James.”

The reticence that the writer so proudly referred to was as much a feature of his life as his art

It is now generally accepted, thanks to the investigations of James’s biographer Michael Cox, that the reticence that the writer so proudly referred to was as much a feature of his life as his art. Although it is not generally believed that he was a pederast, the novelist Anthony Powell, who attended Eton when James was Provost, referred to his “[of course] platonic love affairs” with pupils as “fascinating to watch”, and the consistent feeling in his stories of much wilder, darker forces barely kept in check by gentlemanly reserve and buttoned-up attitudes do not take the most far-sighted of critics to perceive that something lurks beneath the surface, perhaps only barely understood by their creator.

It is hoped that a crowd-funded collection of James’s letters, Casting the Runes, reaches its target soon and that it will offer greater insight into the strange and brilliant man who wrote some of the most chilling ghost stories in the English language. But until then, and in the absence of a new adaptation of his work this Christmas, the best way of winding down this most frustrating of years is to pick up a collection of James’s tales, sit by a fire with something warming to hand and immerse yourself in a world of dark corridors and barely glimpsed phantoms, where every unexpected sound or creak could be a harbinger of something ghastly. Or, of course, merely the possibility that one’s neighbour is watching Mrs Brown’s Boys.

But only the foolhardy can be truly immune to the subtle, creeping fear brought into their sitting rooms and bedrooms by James’s imagination, which means that the rest of us can only surrender to this most pleasurable of festive terrors.

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