Today would have been the 150th birthday of English writer M.R. James. Having written such famous and inspirational stories as ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ and ‘The Ash-Tree’, we decided to honour the great man by asking some superb writers and members of staff to tell us about their favourite M.R. James stories and what the great man meant to them. Here is the first of a number of articles that we will post throughout the week to celebrate M.R. James. The following pieces are reverential, from the heart and in some cases controversial. We hope that you enjoy them and they inspire you to dust off your own copies of James’ work and honour the great man by reading your favourite story today.
Dan Howarth - This Is Horror news editor and reviewer
‘Once,’ Dennistoun said to me, ‘I could have sworn I heard a thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower…’
M.R. James is an author to whom I owe my love for supernatural fiction, he is not the necessarily the most accessible of authors, his language is antiquated and sometimes obtuse but it cannot be denied that he is the master of the genre.
My favourite James story is ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’, whilst not necessarily the most famous of James’ tales it is one that holds many memories for me and it is for this sentimental attachment that I have chosen it above all others for this piece.
‘Canon Alberic’ marks my introduction and some may say my descent into reading horror fiction. My memory of it is a vivid one, for my eleventh birthday I received an enormous tome of collected ghost stories from an irresponsible grandparent. After a family outing on Boxing Day (my birthday is outrageously close to Christmas), I settled down to read the compendium. The day drew on into night and at about ten o’clock I reached ‘Canon Alberic’, I was tired by this point and I remember most of the language going over my head but I was kept awake all night by the following passage,
“Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy.”
The passage terrified me as a child and upon reading it again many years later it still sends a shiver down my spine. ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ is the story of Dennistoun, a typical Jamesian scholar who visits a Cathedral in a small French town. He encounters a reluctant cleric and eventually sates his appetite for antiques by purchasing a seemingly priceless scrap-book from the clergyman in question.
The real triumph of the story is the drip-feeding of information that happens, James masterfully portrays a holy man haunted (or is that hunted) by something far beyond his comprehension. There is a sense of an entire community kept on edge by something truly terrible, something that stays hidden on the fringes. A sense of dread hangs over the most important people in the town. This was the first time I had seen powerful people become powerless in fiction; it is something that scared me then and still has an effect on me today.
As someone writing his own fiction I see James as one of the writers I look up to, whilst his sentences are wordy and stuffy by modern standards his description of terrible, incomprehensible things is unrivalled. The way he builds tension and mystery in his stories is truly a joy to behold and something that every horror writer should be able to take something away from.
M.R. James paints hideous pictures with a brushstroke of description and sketch of suggestion. He deftly leads the reader into filling in the rest of the picture themselves, a skill that has rightly earned him the place as one of the best tellers of ghost stories in the English language. James has inspired some truly gifted writers and opened the door artistically for many a terrifying tale, for that he should be truly lauded.
Happy Birthday Monty!
I had thought myself an M.R. James virgin, but upon reading his Collected Ghost Stories I realised without too much surprise that I had encountered a few of them in my childhood. I suppose ‘An Uncommon Prayer Book’, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ and ‘The Mezzotint’ would be among his most anthologised stories, which would account for their familiarity, and although I hadn’t read ‘Casting the Runes’, I recognised it of course as the basis of Jacques Tourneur’s film Night of the Demon.
Many people regard James as Britain’s foremost writer of ghost stories. The world revolves around difference though, so I’d like to blow a dissenting note and contend that trawling through James’ collected works in one volume presents a tough task for a modern reader, and one that (for this reader at least) constitutes a not particularly enjoyable journey. This is not all James’ fault – he couldn’t help being who he was, in the period and privileged circumstances in which he found himself – and there are reasons to like his tales, but at the same time one should not blind oneself to their deficiencies. Here, then, are my main problems with M.R. James, condensed into bullet points for ease of reading – which is, I suspect, more than he would have done. Insert ‘IJCHO’ (In John Costello’s Humble Opinion) before each clause because opinions are all any of us has to offer.
* Intrusive authorial voice
Most of the stories are told from the perspective of the first person, yet often this voice is detached from the story and merely relating second or third-hand information he has been told, or that he has discovered in some diary or ancient tome. This authorial perspective is almost the same throughout – not surprising as it is James’ own – and looms over the proceedings like a bombastic, ecclesiastical old uncle describing a not-especially interesting episode from his past as if it were essential to remember and recount each element of it in painstaking detail. I assume this is because James seems to be continuing an oral storytelling tradition in print; that is, he is often telling the story rather than showing it, but it fails to provide an exciting experience, for this reader at least. We are ejected from the story constantly by breaks in narrative of the ‘…it is not necessary to include this here’ or ‘…no need to recount the surprise that D___ felt at this juncture’ kind, so one must live with this shorthand, laissez-faire delivery even though one is disinclined to do so because it shatters the 3D universe the author should be constructing. Yes, it’s a style, and of its time, but one that I find annoying rather than entertaining.
* The same old story
Many of the tales are thinly disguised variations on a single theme – a restless soul trying to protect its earthly legacy from beyond the grave, manifesting itself in nebulous apparitions that cause fright, or in physical form that can kill the poor dolt who stumbles across its secret/treasure/arrangements. Such apparitions invariably consist of gossamer thin, wispy matter covered in (or perhaps made from) decaying garments, with spiders as part of their make-up and the power to apply lethal force despite their lack of substance. His descriptions of these antagonists from beyond the veil, like his human protagonists, is far more sketchy and intangible than those of his real interests – the topography of the land, the church buildings, the hills, the valleys and the country houses. There is no mystery or ambiguity as to the nature of the threat. Even the minor characters always work on the assumption that ghostly presences are responsible and the very occasional sceptic is forced through experience to change his mind by the end. Such over-similarities of location, characterisation, plots and themes cast the individual stories, when read one after another, in an unflattering and unforgiving light.
* Lack of humour
The prose is as dry as parchment and the tone as serious as a funeral, so there are precious few opportunities for Jamesian humour. We are treated as listeners to a tale told in a stuffy cloister with the narrator as the Voice of Reason and we’re kept at a remove by the delivery of a prose retelling of a happened-upon story. The few nuggets of humour are actually quite offensive, being habitually class-based; deriding common serving folk whose colloquial quirks of language are rendered in phonetic dialogue and whose digressions into useless detail or idle chatter can end with ‘etc.’ or ‘da capo‘ as a kind of raised eyebrow and wink as to their lack of finesse and interest. This is in stark contrast to the main characters: learned scholars who apply logic and acuity of perception, who are undeniably Important and almost never wrong; who are sophisticated of speech and fluent in Latin, and who spend their sabbaticals scouring the world for ancient books containing arcane knowledge. The few female characters to be encountered are usually the butt of such ‘humorous’ interludes. I’d find all of this less bothersome if James’ own use of language was not quite so verbose and digressive; another device keeping the reader at arm’s length from the story.
It’s enlightening that James chose to end the Collected Ghost Stories with a short chapter on the bones of works either drafted and left unfinished, or those that began as ideas but were never written. This smacks to me of a man who has lived his life of cloistered privilege protected from the harsher realities of life, assuming the audience is magnetically interested in all His Master’s Voice has to say, including fragments of narratives. This explains somewhat why he often leaves stories unfinished beyond a cursory quip or an image the reader has seen coming for several pages. These days no-one would be so presumptuous as to relate story ideas: one would either complete them as best they could, or keep deathly quiet about them.
So that, dear reader, for the good or ill of your constitution, is my take on M.R. James. I suspect you will likely be cursing at your monitor and hissing “…you just don’t GET IT, man” – or perhaps shouting it – but c’est la vie. I’d urge you to go back and read all of his stories in a row and see if you don’t honestly agree with at least some of these observations, made in good faith, in the year of our Lord ___.
This is one of those questions, isn’t it, like ‘Pick your favourite child’ or ‘Choose which flowery shirt to burn – which one’s it to be, eh?’ My first reaction is to say I can’t do it. M.R. James’ stories are woven through me like the word Blackpool through a stick of seaside rock; they were probably the first classical ghost stories I read, and are still in my opinion the best. They always appear in my head not as separate pieces but as something woven together into an impenetrable, unshakeable whole. I sometimes feel, as both a reader and writer of supernatural fiction, that everything is always in M.R. James’ shadow, that he’s both above my head and beneath my feet, and everything I do or experience is cast against him for comparison. He’s that good.
But then I remember something. My memories are almost certainly imprecise, filtered through a lot of wine and beer and time, but they go like this: when I was about 7, on BBC2 on a Friday (it might have been a Thursday) night, there was a programme where a seated storyteller told ghost stories, and one of the stories he told was James’ ‘The Mezzotint’. The telling may have been illustrated by woodcut illustrations – they appear in my memory, but they could be wrong – and I think the programme used to finish with the storyteller turning down a lantern and the screen fading to black. Now, I think (I think) the programme was aimed at older children, and used the classics because they were free and not full of gore or sex or bad language, but ‘The Mezzotint’? Really? Really?
It scared the shit out of me. I mean, this story has it all, a mysterious picture, a lost house, vengeance from beyond the grave, bleak wintery landscapes and the unstoppable, inexorable crawl of the supernatural. It couches its tale in the dry world of academia and its horror happens at a distance from its narrator, and it’s the distance that makes it so terrible, I think; the fact that the observer telling us the story can do nothing to change what’s happening, what has already happened. Each segment of the tale, moving the horror along another step, increases the dread we feel: what’s going on? Are we totally helpless in the face of these strange events? Can we change them, somehow, do something? Of course, the answers are: ‘you don’t want to know’, ‘of course’ and ‘oh, no, child, this is set in the stone of mortal dread and the absolutes of fate itself’. For me, it’s the perfect example of a horror story, delicate and bleak and subtle and yet somehow garish at the same time, forcing the reader to accept how insignificant they are in the face of powers beyond their understanding or control.
I’m listening to it as I type this, read by David Collins, and it’s as magnificent now as it was when I first heard it, and on every rereading since. It’s like a punch to the belly, knocking the breath out of me. The figure that darts back across the lawn in the picture, black drapery covering its head revealing only a “white, dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs” as it carries away the heir to the house-owner (and creator of the mezzotint itself) has haunted my waking and sleeping dreams ever since. Gaunt, ragged, consumed by an evil borne of malice, driven by fury and tragedy, encroaching on our reality from a place so far beyond that our senses struggle to give it sense or form, it’s fucking terrifying. I’ve been writing versions of it ever since, and you know what? I’ve not even come close to catching even a fragment of its malevolent brilliance, no matter how hard I try. ‘The Mezzotint’: magnificent, sad and terrifying. Go and read it now.
Ever since my father read the stories of M.R. James to me, when I was a boy, I have been captivated by supernatural horror fiction. M.R. James began my lifelong love of the field as a reader, and he also first inspired my aspiration to contribute to the great tradition of British horror fiction. My first novel, Banquet for the Damned, is a homage to James and contains many of the classic ingredients of his work: the medieval to Tudor aesthetic and apocryphal history, an environment of traditional erudition and of scholars, a half glimpsed deity dressed in rags that is never fully seen, unfinished business of the past returning to avenge itself on human folly, and on warnings to the curious that have been ignored.
I can see the ghostly finger prints of James’s influence in most of my writing to date. Of course I have many other influences, but where James’s impact is most evident in my own writing, is through his technique and style at presenting the supernatural; his partial revelations of the uncanny. To suggest only so much of a ghastly presence that hints at something far worse, if not unbearable as a full revelation, is a technique he mastered beyond all others, in my opinion. And his grisly things only tend to emerge after a fitting location, or situation has been created, in which the arrival of the supernatural seems possible, even plausible. James’s body of work is a testament to the idea that less is definitely more, when dealing with the supernatural, if reader disbelief is to be kept at bay.
It would be hard to pick a favourite story, but I think ‘Wailing Well’ is the story that had the biggest impact on me, and long after I’d had the story read to me too. I still cannot look at a distant hill without thinking of what might appear up there and give eager pursuit …
Be sure to check back to This Is Horror for the remainder of the week as we continue to celebrate the birthday of the wonderful M.R. James.