A Warning to the Curious

M.R. James

A natural enough follow-up to my previous column might have been to look at the work of Edgar Allan Poe, but a comment from David Surface last month got me thinking about M. R. James and, what with it being Christmas as I write this, well, it seems silly not to look at James instead.

Montague Rhodes James has long been a part of our Christmas tradition. Each year he would entertain the young men of King’s College with a ghost story he’d written for the festive season, a practice which has since spread from Cambridge so that this Christmas all of us could enjoy Mark Gatiss’s version of James’s tale, ‘The Tractate Middoth’ on BBC2. Of all James’s stories, though, ‘A Warning to the Curious’ is perhaps my favourite. You can read it here.

James is well known for his conversational (if scholarly) style and this story is no exception. From the opening paragraphs, James establishes an intimate relationship with the reader, addressing them in such a way that it almost feels like an oral narrative rather than a written one (which is perhaps unsurprising considering James’s habit of reading the stories aloud to frighten friends). The first person perspective adds to this, and we get a further sense of authenticity as he describes the Seaburgh setting. The narrator wonders “why do I encumber you with these commonplace details?” before explaining that he can’t help it, the details “come crawling to the point of the pencil when it begins to write of Seaburgh”. It draws attention to the writing process, but rather than pulling us out of the story it serves to provide a certain degree of verisimilitude, a kind of early ‘found footage’ approach if you like, as he describes the local railway and windmills and cottages. Direct address and present tense involve the reader, pulling them deeper into the story with accurate directions around the town as a very effective way of setting the scene – and with only two paragraphs.

The details of the setting might “come crawling to the point of the pencil”, but it was very much a deliberate part of James’s technique to create a believable place in which to set his story before adding anything of the supernatural. “Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging about death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me all-important,” he says. Once you have a realistic setting, then “…into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head.” It’s an ominous thing he prepares us for early in ‘A Warning to the Curious’.

As well as beginning with an evocative physical description of location, James notes how the scene “recalls the early chapters of Great Expectations”. In the limitations of a short story, this technique of intertextual referencing can provide a handy shortcut, allowing James to produce more with less, particularly in how it allows him to borrow something of the mood Charles Dickens established in his setting, namely the desolation and sense of foreboding. We now have our own expectations as a reader, expectations of a story that will include a discovery and malevolence, having in mind Pip’s meeting with Magwitch among the graves of an old churchyard. And if you’re not as familiar with Dickens as James was (Dickens was one of James’s favourites), well, that’s okay because James is more than capable of creating tension and dread on his own.

Part of this comes from drawing out the narrative itself; ‘A Warning to the Curious’ is a story with several narrators which allows James to delay certain details. The first narrator, possibly representing James himself, tells us only that he knows the area in which the story takes place before leading into the testimony of a man who was told some of the story by the unfortunate Paxton. This method helps create suspense; one narrator says he’d not return to a place “after the particular thing that happened on our last visit”, the vague “thing” intriguing the reader, while the other claims “I’ve had something of a shock” and proceeds to seem “very jumpy” before relating the events that have made him this way. We’re told his “nerves are infectious” and so we are caught up dreading the revelations long before we experience them for ourselves.

To avoid a sense of distance in having a narrator three times removed from the story James merely adapts the first person perspective accordingly so it always feels direct. Initially he uses parenthesis to smooth this transition with “(he said)”, and when one of the characters mentions an acquaintance the other might be familiar with “you know him perhaps – (‘slightly,’ I said)” James manages to strengthen the sense of authenticity already created with the original narrator’s description of Seaburgh. Additional detail, such as his use of accent and dialect in the dialogue, “it warn’t nothink, only I was telling this gentleman he’d ought to ast you about them ’oly crowns”, builds on this to create a convincing narrative. These “’oly crowns” provide another story within a story, the rector explaining how three holy crowns were said to protect the coastline from invaders, one of which still remains to be found. This is familiar Jamesian territory, a narrator eager to find some ancient treasure, though here James takes a narrative shortcut in having Paxton declare “the main thing is that I got the crown”, but he adds “the worst of it is I don’t know how to put it back”. In fact, he “put his face in his hands” and says again “I don’t know how to put it back”, repetition meant to enhance the intrigue and unsettle the reader.

Mark Gatiss

Mark Gatiss’s television adaptation of The Tractate Middoth aired on the BBC this Christmas.

“The story did seem a lunatic’s dream” claims one of Paxton’s listeners, our main narrator, but Paxton can offer proof and this is where James illustrates his point about slowly introducing the supernatural. This is where “the ominous thing put[s] out its head” in a way typical of James, “unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” And so we get someone who may or may not have been hotel staff, “afterwards we were not so sure”, and a nervous Paxton who asks “will you go first and see if – if the coast is clear?” a hesitant precaution that develops the building sense of dread culminating here with “a shadow, or more than a shadow – but it made no sound” and Paxton’s account of unearthing the crown, something he had cut short before. For this, James uses a combination of short simple sentences and long complex ones to create a sense of breathless haste; many sentences begin with the conjunction “And” to create a fast paced sequence of this happened and then this, and this, including “someone scraping at my back all the time” and “a sort of cry behind me – oh, I can’t tell you how desolate it was!”

James piles detail on top of detail now, but still each feature is rather restrained. Take for example, the idea that “sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes”, a wonderful example of less is more via an evasive peripheral threat. Paxton feels watched and followed so that the simile James uses – “he breathed like a hunted beast” – presents Paxton as a doomed victim. Add to this “a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash that might be let go at any moment” and you have an atmosphere ripe with unseen horror. So strong is this that James even manages to make a coat scary, or rather the “dark thing” that “wasn’t my coat”.

Lulled briefly into a false sense of security, it isn’t long before “the snares of death overtook him”, a telling metaphor suggesting Paxton has been trapped by his own actions, regardless of his efforts to put things right. When he runs to someone he mistakenly thinks is a friend he is in fact racing towards his own unfortunate fate, something he has arguably been doing since searching for the last hidden crown. In chasing through the sea-mist “the track of a bare foot…one that showed more bones than flesh” it is clear that Paxton runs towards death. Yet James still refrains from doing too much work for the reader, “You can guess what we fancied” says the narrator, before describing “what I can only call a laugh: and if you can understand what I mean by a breathless, a lungless laugh, you have it: but I don’t suppose you can”. The added modifier, “lungless”, ensures we don’t simply imagine a fiend breathless with exertion but rather something monstrous, something dead, and yet we still haven’t seen it.

We never do.

The story builds to a crescendo that is no less powerful for being predictable; “You don’t need to be told that he was dead”. Indeed, the inevitability lends for a more tragic outcome, James delivering a final punch with details somewhat graphic in comparison to James’s usual restraint and therefore far more powerful – “His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits.” And so it is that James fulfils his own requirements for a decent ghost story. “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are,” he says, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.” Characters are perhaps merely sketched in, and we never return to the original narrator, but maybe to do otherwise would detract from its function as a cautionary tale in which the supernatural takes centre stage.  It’s a story meant to thrill, and it achieves this.

According to Lovecraft, “The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread… and of contact with unknown spheres and powers, a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim.” With its peripheral fiend taking delight in the torment of Paxton (remember, there’s mirth as well as menace in that laugh), this story certainly fits Lovecraft’s definition of the weird, though I find James’s subtleties more chilling than Lovecraft’s wilder notions of cosmic horror. “I have my ideas as to how a ghost story ought to be laid out if it is to be effective” says James, noting that “the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day” so that the reader may think “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”

What is ‘A Warning to the Curious’ if not an illustration of that final line?


Mark Gatiss, in his recent documentary, MR James: Ghost Writer, says of ‘Monty’ “something about his personality resonates through the ages and I think chimes with anyone who loves horror and fantastic fiction.” Do you agree? Are you a fan, or do you think James over-rated? Do you have a favourite M.R. James story? Why not add your views to the comments below. 

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