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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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M. R. James' Count Magnus: A Detailed Summary and Literary Analysis

One of M. R. James’ most beloved areas of research was in Scandinavian history and folklore. In “Count Magnus,” he underscores the fact that this was a scholarly blind spot in most English libraries, calling Scandinavia “a region not widely known to Englishmen” until the 20th century. Indeed, prior to the rise of such cultural figures as Denmark’s Hans Christian Andersen and Soren Kierkegaard, Norway’s Henrik Ibsen, Edvard Munch, and Edvard Grieg, Sweden’s August Strindberg, and Finland’s Jean Sibelius, the Nordic countries were considered a European backwater filled with superstitious peasants, a course, illiberal middle class, and a violent, corrupt nobility.

It seemed to blend the worst parts of pre-Christian paganism, Protestant puritanism, and pre-industrial feudalism. While English tourists eagerly set out on the Grand Tour – tracing its way through the major cultural centers of France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy – virtually no English tourists were crossing the North Sea until the mid-19th century, as Andersen and Ibsen’s fairy tales began to create a vogue around the mysterious “Dark North.” It was precisely this air of cultural preservation that allured James: while England had long cross-pollinated its culture with France, and later Germany, and while the Napoleonic Wars had led to the ravaging of regional architecture, folklore, and customs, Scandinavia had been largely allowed to marinate in the same cultural milieu since the Reformation, with only minimal influences from Germany, France, and Russia, and while the nobility strove to emulate those three cultures to varying degrees, the small towns and country manors remained unquestionably Scandinavian.

It must have been like slipping back in time for a history-buff like James to wander streets and churches with no French, Italian, or Gothic Revival adulterations. His love of Danish and Swedish culture in particular bled into his writing: suggestions of Danish vampire lore crept into “The Rose Garden,” “A Neighbor’s Landmark,” and “An Episode of Cathedral History,” among others, and – of course – “Number 13” is steeped in Danish history, culture, and superstition. It is “Count Magnus,” however, which serves as his most personal ode to the Dark North – one which seems to be a self-addressed warning against obsessive nostalgia.

The eponymous character – part Satanic wizard, part Faustian alchemist, part hibernating vampire, and part feudal despot – is a fictional creation, but the world around him is entirely real. Count Magnus de la Gardie was a 17th century Swedish nobleman who did have a county seat called Råbäck on the banks of West Gothland’s Lake Vänern, and who is entombed in an eight-sided mausoleum at the sinister-looking Varnham Abbey. This Count Magnus, however, was not only a good fifty years younger than the fictional Magnus, but he had no history of dabbling in the dark arts (he was a patron of the sciences and a proponent of the Enlightenment), was considered a benevolent landlord – not a sadistic tyrant – and, judging by his portrait, was a truly handsome man (unlike James’ “phenomenally ugly” alchemist).

James seems to have read the fictional Count Magnus into the backdrop of West Gothland: he may not have been a real man in mind, but Magnus personifies the shadowy happenings of 17th century Sweden as it stewed in the conflicting but equally severe worldviews of pagan, feudal, and Puritan culture. In fact, Magnus’ hibernating status harkens back to the lessons of “The Rose Garden,” wherein the ignorant tampering of idle men of leisure stands to unleash the horrors of the pre-modern past on the witless, modern present.

Both stories feature sleeping, undead villains who are restrained by the machinery of Nordic folklore: the “Rose Garden’s” sweaty-faced judge, who is skewered by a massive stake disguised as a post, and Count Magnus, who is imprisoned by three steel padlocks – steel, like iron and silver, being thought to have protective properties against evil forces. Both stories also center around the idea that the tragedies and terrors of past generations are only prevented from reappearing by studying and honoring their lessons. This is shown in Count Magnus by the innkeeper’s oral legend about the ghoulish deaths of Bjornsen and Thorbjorn (its pacing, rhythm, and style have all the hallmarks of an oral story meant to be memorized and shared) – a tale at which Wraxall (perhaps a little like James himself) smiles patronizingly and then promptly ignores in the name of pursuing his research.

None of James’ stories combine such a dismal, lonely spirit combined with such an unquestionably autobiographic protagonist, who meets such a wildly sadistic fate. “A Warning to the Curious” may come to mind, but Paxton is hardly a stand-in for the author, and in stories with a more overtly Jamesian character (cf. “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” “A View from a Hill,” “Number 13,” “Casting the Runes”), the unimaginative academic escapes just in time and survives to share a fascinating story about his brush with the past – even in “A Warning to the Curious” the narrator walks away unscathed and coolly brags that he “can now say that [he] has seen an actual Anglo-Saxon crown.”

Not so with “Count Magnus.” The story drips with a heavy gloom and doom, establishing Wraxall’s demise on the first page and meditating balefully on his self-imposed isolation in words that bring their author to mind almost immediately: “[He] was a man past middle age, possessed of some private means, and very much alone in the world. He had, it seems, no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding-houses. It is probable that he entertained the idea of settling down at some future time which never came.”

Although James was not independently wealthy and was not able to endlessly travel, we know from both his letters and his public writings that this was his fantasy: to be able to cut his anchor cable at Cambridge and spend his days roaming Europe’s obscure historical sites without responsibility to anyone or anything, able to pick up and leave, or sit down and stay on a whim. We see shades of this in “Abbot Thomas,” “Canon Alberic,” and “Number 13,” but the daydream is fully played out in “Count Magnus,” and the results are nothing short of a nightmare.


The story begins with James explaining that he will be relating the tragic story of a Victorian travel writer named Wraxall whose writings have come into his possession through means which will need to be concealed until the end. There is, however, no effort to hide the fact that Wraxall came to a bad end. As James ominously explains:

“For my knowledge of him I have to depend entirely on the evidence his writings afford, and from these I deduce that he was a man past middle age, possessed of some private means, and very much alone in the world. He had, it seems, no settled abode in England, but was a denizen of hotels and boarding-houses. It is probable that he entertained the idea of settling down at some future time which never came… His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over-inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end…”

Delving into Wraxall’s journals, James sets the stage for “what proved to be his last expedition” on the Continent, which took place in the early summer of 1863, following the publication of his guidebook to Brittany. Feeling restless yet again, Wraxall decides to turn his focus to a country which English travelers – with their penchant for the Alps, Mediterranean, Lowlands, and Rhine – often overlook.

He selects Sweden (which was then an unindustrialized, largely agrarian country known for its backwards ways, superstitions, and folklore) and chooses to use the famous library of the prominent De la Gardie family to augment his historical research. The De la Gardie manor is located near the southwestern village of Råbäck (pronounced Roebeck), and although the current family warmly invite him to stay with them for the duration of his studies, Wraxall uneasily declines in favor of the privacy of a berth in the village inn.

Having secured his lodgings, he sets out to explore the countryside, and stumbles upon a quaint, country church and the adjacent De la Gardie mausoleum. Both structures are quirky and intimidating: the church is low and rustic, and dominated by a sinister painting: ‘a strange and hideous ‘Last Judgment,’ full of lurid flames, falling cities, burning ships, crying souls, and brown and smiling demons.” Meanwhile, the mausoleum is a bizarre, octagonal structure with a black, domed roof topped by a pumpkin-shaped spire and stark, white walls.

Although the church is always kept unlocked, the mausoleum is always firmly shut up, and the family crypt had no door connecting it to the church. Indeed, the only door came from the northern side (the side of a church reserved for the burial of witches and murderers). Peering through the keyhole, Wraxall can see a collection of statues and sarcophagi, and determines to find a way inside.


Returning to the manor, he accesses the family papers and reads voraciously about the De la Gardie who commissioned the mausoleum – the infamous, 17th century aristocrat, Count Magnus – who is described as powerful and eccentric, and whose family portrait depicts a “phenomenally ugly man.” Thirsty for more information, he finds the innkeeper and asks him what he knows of the Count. He was a violent and unpopular nobleman who suppressed peasant revolts, publicly tortured his workers if they were late, and was rumored to burn entire families inside their homes at night if he desired their land.

What’s more, local legend says that Magnus was an advanced student of the dark arts, that he had participated in something called the Black Pilgrimage, and that he had successfully returned with someone or something in his company. Wraxall is unfamiliar with the phrase and asks the innkeeper to explain it to him, but the man is clearly uncomfortable: he claims not to know anything else, makes an excuse to leave, and skips town for a few days in the morning.

Later, during his researches in the De la Gardie papers, Wraxall is thrilled to find a series of alchemical books from the Count’s collection, in one of which there is a Latin note in Magnus’ handwriting which vaguely describes the Black Pilgrimage: one must travel to Chorazin (an ancient city in Israel which was cursed by Christ in Matthew 11:12), “salute the Prince of the Air,” and stands to be granted a long, successful life, and a faithful servant to ensure the death of all of his enemies. Tantilizingly, there is also a note that promises more details “among the more private things,” but Wraxall isn’t sure where those documents are.

On his way back to the inn that night, his head is swimming with thoughts of Magnus. He mindlessly wanders, and is surprised to find himself in front of the mausoleum. Looking upon it, he dreamily says, out loud, “Ah, Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you.” Immediately he hears a metal clang from within the crypt, but takes it to be a clumsy janitor cleaning inside.

Upon returning from his spontaneous holiday, the innkeeper is quick to introduce Wraxall to the local priest (in hopes of pawning him off, it is implied), who agrees to give him a tour of the mausoleum. Wraxall eagerly slips in a question about Chorazin, asking the priest if he knows anything about it. He confirms that it is a cursed place which is traditionally said to the be birthplace of the Antichrist, and mentions that he had heard some tales about the city. Wraxall excitedly butts in, demanding “Ah! What tales are those?” but the priest appears to be suspicious of his interest and mutters that he has forgotten them before quickly departing.


Apparently rejected again, Wraxall steals back to the innkeeper and lies, telling the man that the priest has explained the Black Pilgrimage to him and that the innkeeper may just as well share what stories the locals tell on winter nights – in particular who or what they say was brought back with him. Deeply uncomfortable, but with no way out, the innkeeper agrees to share “one little tale,” but only on the condition that it is understood that they are to never speak on Count Magnus ever again.

Over ninety years earlier, during his grandfather’s youth, two young, handsome locals – Anders and Hans – announced their decision to sneak onto property that once belonged to Magnus to do some poaching. Their friends urge them against this, lest they should encounter “persons walking who should not be walking.” But Anders and Hans laugh this off and set out at night to hunt game in the forbidding woods. In the middle of the night, a soul-wrenching shriek is heard, followed by a strange, inhuman cackle.

In the morning the locals, who are sure that the two men are dead, summon their priest and set off to collect the corpses. They find Anders – a famous heartthrob – dead with the skin of his face torn or sucked away. Hans is alive, but insane, found gibbering and compulsively pushing away some invisible thing, dying shortly after in an asylum. The innkeeper’s grandfather heard the screams and helped collect the bodies, and specifically recalled the moment when the men carrying Anders’ sheeted remains tripped, causing the covering to fall off, exposing his ruined face: “the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear... and they buried him in that place.”

Wraxall’s curiosity is piqued to a boiling point, and he is giddy when the priest allows him to explore the mausoleum. Magnus’ sarcophagus is strange and pagan-looking, with no cross or heavenly art. Instead, it features bas reliefs of haunting scenes: an execution, a battle, and a man fleeing in horror from some grotesque, hooded figure whose only clear feature is a tentacle reaching out of his robes. In the corner of the third scene, Wraxall notices a tall, cloaked man, casually leaning on a staff and watching the chase from on top of a hill with apparent delight. Lastly, he notices that the lid is sealed with three padlocks, though one has come undone and fallen on the floor. He also notes where the priest keeps the key to the door.

Wraxall continues to take dozy walks past the mausoleum, unaware of his surroundings and filled with admiration for Magnus, whom he considers a sly non-conformist who played by his own rules and worked his will on the world. Standing in front of the crypt, he vaguely remembers murmuring a chant – “Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?” – before slipping inside with the priest’s key. There, he realizes that a second padlock has fallen away.

The next day is his last in Sweden, so he takes the countryside in after bidding a fond farewell to the living De la Gardie descendants. Naturally, he pauses at the mausoleum to bid Magnus a fond farewell. While standing over the casket, he puts together some words to express his blushing affection: "You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus … but for all that I should like to see you, or, rather——" At that moment, the third padlock falls onto his foot, and the lid suddenly begins to creak open. He flees in terror, tries to lock the door, but continues on when the key refuses to turn. His memory at this point – like so many of his memories connected to the mausoleum – is grainy and unclear:

“I ask myself (it was not twenty minutes ago) whether that noise of creaking metal continued, and I cannot tell whether it did or not. I only know that there was something more than I have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sound or sight I am not able to remember. What is this that I have done?"


The final passages are told in a frantic mania as Wraxall boards a ship for England with – by his count – 28 passengers, although two of them – a tall, cloaked man in a broad-brimmed hat whom he takes for a Catholic priest, and a short, hooded figure – are never seen clearly. At dinner, however, he is sickened to learn that there were only 26 (human) passengers. Upon stepping back on English soil, he is confident that the two figures are pursuing him and makes a run at losing them.

His plans are thwarted, however, and his heart broken when – while making good time in a stage coach – he sees them, well ahead of him and in no hurry, waiting at a crossroads. The horse panics at the encounter, and while they pass them unmolested, Wraxall is sure of his doom. Writing from the dubious safety of a rented room, his journal becomes hopeless and incomprehensible, as James explains:

“[His last notes] are too disjointed and ejaculatory to be given here in full, but the substance of them is clear enough. He is expecting a visit from his pursuers—how or when he knows not—and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?”

Indeed, the very next morning, Wraxall’s brutalized corpse is discovered, having suffered the same fate as Anders (the details are not shared, but seven of the inquest’s jurymen faint upon seeing the damage). The inn where he died was sold and its owners left the region. Here James explains how he came upon Wraxall’s papers: recently he was deeded the property in a legacy and found Wraxall’s journal hidden in a forgotten cupboard in the best bedroom. James had the house – unused since Wraxall’s death – quickly demolished.


“His besetting fault,” James tells us of the late Mr. Wraxall, “was pretty clearly that of over-inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which this traveller paid dearly enough in the end.” The majority of his ghost stories could be boiled down to the maxim quoted in “The Rose Garden”: quieta non movere – “do not disturb settled things,” and curiosity is certainly the besetting fault of nearly all of his protagonists (most famously that of Paxton in “A Warning to the Curious”), but there is something about Wraxall’s case which seems to out-do many of the others in the intensity of both his spell-bound obsession and his brutal destruction. One of his earliest stories, it picks up the “hunted, haunted trespasser” theme of “Oh Whistle” and “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” but drives it home with a ferocity that will not be seen again until the likes of “The Ash-Tree,” “Stalls of Barchester,” and “Casting the Runes.”

Like these three stories (and like their crowning exemplar, “A Warning to the Curious”), James has infused what might otherwise be a garden variety gore fest with an atmosphere of loneliness and intimacy, electrifying all of it with a kind of necrophiliac lust in the person of Mr. Wraxall, who fawns dotingly over Magnus’ padlocked corpse, longing to catch a glimpse of his living face and catching himself chanting his name in flirtatious incantations (“Are you awake, Count Magnus? Are you asleep, Count Magnus?”).

The profound loneliness evident in Wraxall’s untethered lifestyle – in spite of its willing self-affliction – is precariously balanced out by his longing to commune with the dead. He makes no friends in England, prefers to spend his time in foreign lands (where his aloofness can be conveniently excused by his foreign extraction), and refuses the invitations of the de la Gardie family to imbed with them – an extremely odd choice given his obsession with their ancestor.

In fact, the only thing which seems to draw Wraxall closer to his fellow man is the desire to interrogate them for information on the long-dead alchemist who has so enchanted him: he so frightens the inn-keeper with his delight in Magnus’ atrocities that the man abruptly leaves town, and his gleeful toying with the deacon about the backstory of the Black Pilgrimage piques the old man’s suspicions to such an extent that he obviously denies knowledge that he has on the topic.

Later, when he has cornered the inn-keeper, the poor man’s nervous acquiescence – only brought on, it would seem, by Wraxall’s zealous insistence – has all the annoyed exasperation of a babysitter granting an extra dessert to a bratty toddler in spite of their better judgment, if only to silence them on the topic: “Mr Wraxall, I can tell you this one little tale, and no more—not any more. You must not ask anything when I have done.” While he avoids the company of the living, he craves that of the dead, drawing closer to the latter with each step he takes from the former.

The figure of Count Magnus himself is an interesting one: what exactly does he represent, and why does this allure Wraxall so hopelessly? Certainly, the traits that he most often seems to revel in are his harshness and authority. In particular, he is oddly drawn towards what opinion the locals had of him. This is a good question for a historian to ask, but most of us are likely to be more interested in the facts of a historical person (who were they, what did they do, why did they do it) and are likelier to draw our opinion of them from these objective details.

Wraxall, however, is eager to know what influence Magnus cast over his locality: was he mocked or adored, scorned or feared, ignored or celebrated? In learning that he was something of a villainous renegade, Wraxall’s impulse is peculiarly approving: he likes that the man did what he wanted to do in spite of popular opinion, that he flaunted his authority, got away with murder, and frightened the peasantry into submission through his combination of social power and occult learning. In many ways we can see Magnus as a possible wish fulfilment for Wraxall, whom we may read as a repressed, cowardly man who avoids relationships and roots because he is not confident in his ability to maintain them. Magnus, however, doesn’t worry whether people will like him: he throttles them into obedience, dines with the devil, and gets to enjoy immortality for his troubles.

While we never learn what, exactly, the Black Pilgrimage is (it is James’ invention, though patterned off of a few loose historical models), we do know that it is heavily implied that – in his own way – Wraxall has gone on his own Black Pilgrimage: he has traveled to a foreign land to “salute the prince” (Count Magnus, in his instance), and has thus been promised “a long life,” a “faithful messenger,” and the ability to “see the blood of his enemies.” This apparently appeals to Wraxall – a bothersome loner who has nothing in the way of friends, connections, or esteem – and his quest to commune with Magnus takes on clear archetypal traits of a ritualistic initiation: he repeats things in threes (visiting Magnus’ sarcophagus three times, wishing to see him three times, witnessing the padlocks fall off three times, etc.), recites incantations (the “Are you awake, Count Magnus?” chant), goes into self-induced trances like a Buddhist navel-gazer, and participates in initiatory recitations (the clearly memorized oral legend of the two poachers’ deaths: the whole story is riddled with rhythmic and repeated lines typical of oral stories, used to aid both the teller and the listener, such as “You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that”).

In short, by the end of the story, he has been fully ushered into the company of Count Magnus, but has become no bolder, stronger, or more powerful: he is still a bothersome loner who has now opened himself up to Magnus’ wrath and twisted amusement. He had likely imagined that he and Magnus were kindred spirits, or that Magnus would provide a fatherly sense of approval and mentorship that he apparently lacked in early life. Surely, he seems to think, Magnus will be proud to have a man of his caliber as his disciple, or – just perhaps – even as a friend.

Unfortunately for Wraxall, this is the last thing that the Count wants to do with him. Rather than becoming an initiate into Magnus’ secret order, Wraxall learns – all too late – that he is to serve as the semi-willing sacrifice to his personal religion. The power of his attraction is the path to his destruction. Presaging the likes of horror films like “The Wicker Man,” “Don’t Look Now,” “The Ninth Gate,” and” “Midsommar,” it is the archetypal story of how an obsessive pursuit can gradual transform the hunter into prey, and the investigator into victim, turning delight into terror, hope into horror, and fascination into revulsion.


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