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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 (a ruined Iron Age city in Israel), “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 i