Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 and died in 1936. He was a well-regarded scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity at Cambridge University, but is now remembered for the ghost stories that he started writing in the 1890s as a hobby and an amusement for his friends and students. They are still considered to be among the most terrifying stories ever written.
My mother loves M. R James, so I’ve been aware of him for about as long as I can remember and have read his collected stories through at least three times. I recently acquired Penguin’s new 2 volume annotated edition of the stories and decided to give them a re-read.
Reading an M. R James ghost story goes something like this: a repressed, middle-aged male scholar/antiquarian goes delving around in something he probably shouldn’t. The story bumbles along pleasantly enough for quite a few pages, then something a bit creepy happens, then something a bit more creepy happens, and then oh. my. God. Aaaargh!
James is very influenced by the great Victorian, Anglo-Irish writer of gothic and supernatural tales, Sheridan Le Fanu. His stories have a similarly elegant, understated use of language and a gradual sense of slow-building terror. But James exceeds even Le Fanu as an absolute master of ‘the uncanny‘, that is, the sense that something that should have remained repressed has come to light. He draws on the Gothic tradition in basing his stories on an eruption of the past into the present in such a way as to defamiliarise the present. He works a lot with defamiliarisation, the feeling that something’s a bit off with the world: a picture that seems to have a figure where it didn’t before, a room that looks smaller at night than it does by day, a figure in the distance that isn’t moving quite right:
There was something about its motion that made Parkins very unwilling to see it at close quarters. It would stop, raise arms, bow itself towards the sand, then run stooping across the beach to the waters edge and back again; and then, rising upright, once more continue its course forward at a speed that was startling and terrifying, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, p, 91.
His ghosts are material creatures; they threaten and sometimes manage to touch, grab, injure and even kill his protagonists.
Count Magnus and Other Stories contains fifteen of his most famous stories. I would say that the best ones are ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Mezzotint’, ‘Number 13’, the famous ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’, and ‘Casting the Runes’. These stories are about as good ghost stories as have ever been written, but almost all of the tales collected here contain moments of brilliance. ‘Count Magnus’, a story which I thought one of his weaker ones, gave me a nightmare after reading it, and ‘The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral’ manages to make the simple line, ‘There is no kitchen cat’, pants-wettingly scary.
In terms of more serious critical issues, from a feminist perspective there is the lack of women in the stories. In fact there are more women in the stories than I remembered, but it’s the way they’re positioned that makes them seem absent. There are also class issues as many of the stories show a disdain for working-class people. Some hint at very dark meanings; reading ‘Lost Hearts’ again, a tale about a man who harms children to service his selfish desires, this time I saw in it a repressed story about paedophilia. It’s not that I think James intended that meaning, but the language of the text can produce it for us now.
James is not really spring or summer reading so I probably won’t get around to the second volume The Haunted Dolls House and Other Stories until the autumn now.