“He who fights with monsters should look to it that
he himself does not become a monster.
And if you gaze long into an abyss,
the abyss also gazes into you.”
— Friedrich Nietzsche,
Beyond Good and Evil (Aphorism 146)
“I will tell you what always has frightened me most
In reading or writing the tale of a ghost:
Not details, however gruesome or uncouth,
But the lurking belief that the story’s the truth”
— W. F. Harvey
His ghost stories transformed the genre like a galvanic shock. His universe – the one which made him famous as a first rate writer of ghost stories – is not one of clear boundaries between good and evil, but one in which the two merge and blend, trespass and encroach. He was deeply concerned about human corruption – both more broadly in society and individually within the spirit – and this plays out chillingly in his best tales. Obsession drives his victims to remove themselves from the company of mankind towards some undead, antique relic or knowledge – an artifact found on a wind-lashed beach, a treasure hidden in a monastery well, a book inscribed with a secret code, an overgrown hedge-maze with a sinister past, or even a Gothic dollhouse.
But something stands in the way of enjoying the find: there is a cipher which must be solved, a historical connection which must be researched, or an intellectual puzzle which must be grappled and mastered. Fate either resists or – worse yet – clears the way for the seeker, until they have unlocked the enigma and in the process learned something uncomfortable about themselves and the universe around them.
Instead of bringing them inner satisfaction, these mystical journeys end with them in strange and unwanted company: a hairy, spidery demon, slimy, tentacled elemental, or gaunt, mummified revenant is now standing in front of them with open arms, rushing forward to initiate this new kinsman into a fraternity of death. To this day, M. R. James is considered the undisputed dean of the modern ghost story.
Horror author Susan Hill summarizes the experience of reading his fiction like this: “[The] vile creatures in M. R. James’s stories are not ghosts, as we know them, transparent figures in softly rustling garments or even headless horsemen. These are beings from the pit of hell and their purpose is always malevolent; they bring a terror that sends men out of their minds and hastens their deaths and are not the merely unnerving sheeted figures of a benign scholar’s invention.
James’s victims usually cause these dreadful creatures to emerge into the light of common day by chance.
“They commit no sin, though they sometimes make the mistake of being over-curious… as the James scholar Michael Cox pointed out, people may be guilty of nothing more than ‘a chance word, an unthinking action or simply being in the wrong place at the right time’, in order to spring the trap. Malevolent beings are disturbed when an old post is dug up, a burial mound investigated, a tree is felled or some item of church furnishing removed. Is James’s message that the status quo is almost always better left alone and if so, can we apply the lesson to a man’s subconscious, which is best left uninvestigated, and are we referring to the subconscious of the author?”
James’ very first ghost story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” –introduced his primary, recurring motif: the dangers of gazing too fervently into the navel of the past, without expecting a response from within. He read it out loud to a gathering of his Cambridge social club – the Chitchat Society – at a fireside meeting in the rainy autumn of 1893, surrounded by good friends nursing fine, old port and listening to the rain scratching on the window panes. Eventually the readings would become a tradition, and the tradition would move ahead on the calendar to coincide with Christmas.
This first work stood out from nearly any literary ghost story to that date for its repugnant spirit – a tarantula-like, humanoid hellion summoned by the eponymous book – its lack of a tidy, Victorian moral, and its atmosphere of incomprehensible dread. And few were likely to feel the dread of a story that warned about looking too far inward and turning too far away from the bourgeois concerns of common people than a group of Cambridge dons, each obsessed with his own esoteric niche.
James, of course, was the king of them all: a scholar of medieval history, the Biblical apocrypha, Gnostic sects, Christian heretics, and other arcane backwaters of learning. His research was immense, and it yielded practical results – in 1902 his discovery of a fragment of parchment led to the excavation of the lost tombs of five 12th century abbots, with their intact skeletons.
He was a well-regarded and popular man. As commentator Todd Atteberry puts it: “He was very fond of entertaining, friends, colleagues and students alike, which were usually men, as was to be expected from someone in his position… His friends called him Monty, and he was by many accounts the formal British gentleman and scholar portrayed in so many cliched forms over the past hundred years. But quirksome and with a mischievous glint in his eye, he had more P.G. Wodehouse about him than Downton Abbey.”
His friends would grow older, settle down, marry, and have children, but James was too devoted to his love of personal independence and privacy to give that up for a family. He also notoriously was dismissive of women, even those that he admired, and has also become – of course – popularly identified as a possible, closeted homosexual. But regardless of the rationale, he remained unattached for the course of his life, and used this liberty to spend his spare time travelling around France, Germany, and Scandinavia – sometimes with friends, often by himself – in search of historical treasures.
Frequently his only company – for he also kept the locals at arms’ length – were his imagination and the thought of the long-dead men whose journals, houses, churches, and belongings he was exploring. It was, of course, disquieting to go to sleep alone in a foreign country in a strange bed after a day of reading manuscripts of medieval French and probing cemeteries for lost relics. It was an exciting and fulfilling life – but also a lonely and frightening one.
In an article on James written for The Spectator, Susan Hill would go on to write about the dark crevasses of his notoriously unsettled psychological world: “His friend Shane Leslie, also an aficionado of ghost stories, believed that below the surface, Monty James struggled with demons. It was [Anglo-Irish supernatural writer] Sheridan Le Fanu, Leslie says, who, ‘set the style Monty needed for his own ghost stories if he was to release his mind’s own mystical complex’, for he was bored by the scholarly investigation of classical ruins, ‘far more interested in investigating graveyards and psychical possibilities at home’. He had lost too many people to death, especially via the scythe which cut through a generation of young Eton and King’s men in the Great War and by the accidental premature deaths of some especially close friends. Monty became darkly obsessed with death and every possibility it opened up.”
Indeed, death hounded James throughout his life: while he lived to a comparatively ripe old age, died without pain, and enjoyed a lifetime of widespread popularity, commercial success, and professional achievement (he was, I should of course mention the provost of King’s College, Cambridge for thirteen years, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University for three years, provost of Eton College for eighteen years until his death, and had a slew of letters behind his name) he frequently outlived very close friends. Most notable of these was his best friend and the first illustrator of his stories, James MacBryde, who died suddenly of appendicitis while his new wife was pregnant with their daughter. The shock of his death quite literally traumatized James and led to his lifelong friendship with MacBryde’s widow – one of his very few relationships with a woman.
Once World War I arrived – as Hill noted – he experienced this kind of cutting survivor’s guilt on a nearly daily basis. The war truly destroyed a part of him, even extending to his literary powers, for while the stories he wrote following 1918 were often chilling and intriguing, only one of them approached the genius of his pre-war work, and it was, of course, “A Warning to the Curious,” which is largely an allegory for the trauma and grief suffered by the survivors of World War I, literally following two older academics as they mentor a nervous young man in his efforts to return a Saxon crown which he had dug up – a crown rumored to protect England from invasion during wartime – and are tragically unable to save him from the brutal consequences of his unwitting treason.
Shane Leslie, his friend, saw his writings as cathartic – maybe even masochistic exorcisms – of the emotional burdens that he stifled in his repressed soul: “Far from being the issue of a side-hobby, the ghost stories were his relief from a secret madness in his inner soul — the obsession that in spite of all the art and beauty of the world and the unfailing friendships which met him at every corner … the malevolent and diabolical survived around him in the invisible. His friends wished he would believe in fairies instead of the curses, runes and appalling catastrophes he distributed to the innocent victims of his tales.”
But the results of these fictional therapy sessions were immense. Although they have largely been treated lightly by critics in the past, his fiction – not unlike that of his contemporaries, J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis – has only increased both is mass popularity and critical opinion. The stories are often beautifully designed and richly inlaid with archetypal structures and surprisingly philosophical subtexts, probing the responsibility of the individual to serve and engage with the community; the need for local, social collaboration across socio-economic, educational, religious, and generational lines; the political perils of the breakdown of society in the wake of increasing industrialization and individualism; and a robust, contra-Nietzschean psychological thesis warning against the dangers of intellectual hubris and obsessive self-worship. We will delve deeply into all of these – as well as James’ literary context and contributions – in the text bellow.
TRANSFORMING THE GHOST STORY GENRE:
How M. R. James Uniquely Revamped the Supernatural Tale
Most genres of horror experience a literary moment that completely transforms them, relaunching them in the popular consciousness as new animals. Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Bram Stoker did this to the monster, werewolf, and vampire story, respectively, while George Romero, John Carpenter, and Steven Spielberg did this to zombie, slasher, and eco-horror films. The godfather of the modern ghost story, who ushered it in from an almost unbroken history of serving as a spooky moral parable, is M. R. James.
Before James there were many brilliant practitioners of the ghost story, namely J. Sheridan Le Fanu (the best of them all), Rhoda Broughton, Charles Dickens, Margaret Oliphant, Henry James, Edith Nesbit, F. Marion Crawford, W. W. Jacobs, and Ambrose Bierce. The English ghost story, specifically, had dozens of capable and ingenuous contributors (viz. Elizabeth Gaskell, Bernard Capes, Vernon Lee, Ellen Wood, Amelia Edwards, Charlotte Riddell, Barry Pain, and Wilkie Collins), and across the pond a few Americans (viz. Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Sarah Orne Jewett) made excellent contributions.
European ghost stories always tended to be more folkish – almost like fairy tales or children’s stories – although the Russians (viz. Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, Alexander Pushkin) and Germans (viz. E. T. A. Hoffmann, J. W. von Goethe, Friedrich von Schiller) wrote some splendid tales.
All in all, however, the ghost story looked little different than it had in the Middle Ages: a travesty is done and a person dies as a result, but comes back from the grave to see that justice is carried out. Their ghost is usually very life like, although it may seem pale and sad, or be wearing torn clothes, or have some sign of violence like a welt or cut throat. After justice is done, the ghost returns peacefully to the grave after a job well done.
These tales were originally shared orally as folk legends, but began to be printed in broadsheet pamphlets during the 18th century. But it was during the Victorian period that the cautionary oral traditions were fully translated into high literature. The classic Victorian ghost story almost always operated as a supernatural vehicle for restorative justice – an unfathomable circumstance where an act of villainy was so unnatural and vile that the natural order itself was broken by proximity, allowing the spirits of the dead, or other supernatural machinery, to rectify the deed on the mortal side of things.
While this may sound simplistic and decidedly un-frightening (in our culture ghosts almost never fight on the side of good or justice), 19th century readers still saw this breach in the life cycle as equally appalling to the mortal misdeed that caused it: they were chilling mirror images of a shocking event. Such an unnatural act or event, the idea goes, much engender a corresponding supernatural reaction to equal it. The most common offenders were murderers, treacherous guardians, and faithless lovers.
James’ ghosts have no such sense of boundaries: they are vicious, energetic, and unyielding. Unlike the spectres of his Victorian forebearers, his creations lack that quintessentially English respect for decorum and propriety. In fact, they have a notably sub-human intelligence that makes them erratic and unpredictable; one cannot reason with them, not just because they are implacable and committed to their duty, but because they are a terrifying blend of human and animal intellect, lacking the shame of the former and the existential purposelessness of the later.
James establishes this universe of degenerate elementals immediately in his very first story – “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” – where the wraith is no slightly pale, slightly gaunt figure in curiously old-fashioned garb, but an incomprehensible chimera: an abomination that challenges human definitions of being by seamlessly blurring the lines between spider, humanoid, “beast,” and something completely alien to our nomenclature. As his protagonist bends over a haunted tome, he notices something odd splayed out on the desk by his hand – it is hairy and wiry, perhaps a disgusting spider or a grotesque pen-wiper – but it is nothing which his mind can fully comprehend:
“He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching at his heart. The shape, whose left hand rested on the table, was rising to a standing posture behind his seat, its right hand crooked above his scalp. There was black and tattered drapery about it; the coarse hair covered it as in the drawing. The lower jaw was thin—what can I call it?—shallow, like a beast's; teeth showed behind the black lips; there was no nose; the eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them—intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man.”
J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Charles Dickens, & Others
The only major Victorian author whose supernatural creations came close to this nasty, invasive ghoul – who exerted the strongest influence on James’ own stories – was Anglo-Irishman J. Sheridan Le Fanu. Le Fanu also highly favored a particularly repulsive kind of ghost: one extremely comfortable and intimate with the living. They often paraded matter-of-factly in front of their victims in casual dress – padding around barefoot, in dressing gowns, with their wigs removed, revealing their shaved heads – often appearing in the bedrooms and antechambers of the humans they appear to, as if they are spouses settling down for the evening.
They have an intensely intimate nature that violates the privacy and boundaries of their victims and flies in the face of Victorian expectations of decorum, decency, and discretion (in an age where it was shocking to see a man in shirtsleeves or hatless when outside, it was extremely uncomfortable to fathom waking up to a stranger standing at the foot of your bed barefoot, in a dressing gown and turban).
Worse still, they often exhibited the marks of their mortality with exhibitionistic glee: heads slumping on broken necks or tilting back to expose the gaping wound of their cut throats (“like another mouth, wide open”). These are ghosts that cozy up to their humans in disquietingly comfortable ways – often to illustrated the way that their humans have cozied up to the ideas that they themselves represent: various combinations of greed, wrath, lust, sloth, gluttony, envy, and pride (in “Squire Toby’s Will,” a wrathful, gluttonous father and his two sons – one greedy, proud, and lustful and one envious and slothful – very intentionally represent each of the seven deadly sins).
Both men shaped universes governed by a cold and vengeful intelligence completely without mercy and utterly devoted to executing a grim, Old Testament sense of justice. The difference between them is slim, but could be summed up by saying that they used different tactics to vent the building tension from their stories: Le Fanu used sex and vice to illustrate his deeper themes whereas James often relied on satire and humor. In lascivious tales like “Schalken the Painter,” “Laura Silver Bell,” and “Carmilla,” Le Fanu uses erotic subtext to shape his thesis of human corruption, sin, and depravity, while in even his bleakest stories (“Martin’s Close,” “Lost Hearts,” and “The Haunted Dolls’ House”), M. R. James utilizes his Dickensian sense of humor both as a means of emitting the tension, and to subtly clarify his social and philosophical themes.
A tireless advocate of Le Fanu’s merits as a writer of ghost stories and mystery, James would later go a great way towards restoring his model’s waning reputation by editing, in 1923, an anthology of Le Fanu’s ghost stories for which he also wrote the introduction.
Although he easily categorized A Christmas Carol as a moral parable, rather than a ghost story proper, the second strongest Victorian influence on James was Charles Dickens. Dickens primarily wrote supernatural tales which were comical (“The Bagman’s Uncle”), moral (“The Goblins Who Stole a Sexton”), satirical (“The Lawyer and the Ghost”), or of black humor (“The Baron of Grogzwig”), many of his tales were downright ghoulish. One story about a murdered child – “The Mother’s Eyes” – was a major influence on Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” (and shows a strong relation to “Martin’s Close” and “Lost Hearts”).
James himself strongly favored Dickens’ supernatural masterpieces “The Signalman” and “The Trial for Murder,” and was obviously influenced by the little-known story “The Hanged Man’s Bride” (cf. “Lost Hearts,” “Martin’s Close,” “The Story of Disappearance and an Appearance,” and “Stalls of Barchester”). I would also imagine that the brilliant stories “To Be Read at Dusk,” “A Manuscript Found in Prison,” and “The Rat that Could Talk” were well regarded, although he doesn’t mention them in his writings.
Perhaps the greatest inheritance that James took from Dickens was his obvious delight in dialect, bone-dry humor, and societal observations. While none of these traits usually add to the horror of his tales, they are a trademark of his which have made them unusually well balanced and disarming, and which make them far more effective than if he had maintained an unbroken atmosphere of dread. Some of his most popular characters belong to this comic relief B-team.
I refer to such inglorious or blustery characters as Brown in “Abbot Thomas,” the Colonel in “Oh, Whistle,” the innkeeper in “Number 13,” Mrs. Anstruther in “The Rose Garden,” Judge Jeffreys in “Martin’s Close,” Cooper in “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” and – my absolute favorite, and a clear Dickensian pastiche – the bumbling and paranoid Mr. Bowman from “Disappearance/Appearance,” among others. All of these are heavily influenced by Dickens, who also knew how to use humor to disarm his readers before tossing a sudden emotional punch.
Of his contemporaries, James was also influenced by W. W. Jacobs (cf. “The Well,” “The Monkey’s Paw”), F. Marion Crawford (cf. “The Upper Berth,” “The Dead Smile,” “The Screaming Skull,” “For the Blood is the Life”), Robert Louis Stevenson (cf. “The Body-Snatcher”), Arthur Conan Doyle (cf. “The Leather Funnel,” “The Silver Hatchet,” “Lot No. 249”), and Arthur Machen (cf. “The Black Seal,” “The White People”). Although I’m sure he would deny it – her stories almost certainly had far too much “sex” for his liking – I would argue that Edith Nesbit, one of the era’s great writers of ghost stories, also had an influence on him (cf. “Man-Size in Marble,” “The Ebony Frame,” “In the Dark”).
“LET THE OMINOUS THING PUT OUT ITS HEAD”:
The Uniquely Repellent Nature of Jamesian Ghosts
The unsettling phrase used to describe the monster’s searing eyes in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book” — “there was an intelligence of a kind in them – intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man” — perfectly introduces us to James’ unusual brand of ghost, and indeed his entire literary universe. It is also a line which propelled him away from the likes of Amelia B. Edwards and Wilkie Collins (phenomenal writers of ghost stories though they were) and plants him in the same class as Lovecraft, Machen, and Blackwood, because these spirits are not merely deceased people infused with a degree of supernatural omnipresence who will return to a restful afterlife after a bit of business is done: these are something entirely different and unfathomable.
Describing his own literary theory behind writing an effective supernatural tale, James wrote: "Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. ... Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage."
His entire philosophy of writing – the process needed to generate what he famously called “a pleasing terror” – hinged on gradually releasing his supernatural agents with a great deal of tactful control, until they blot out the sun for their incredulous victim. It also requires that the agents be something otherworldly and indefinable. James specifically argued that these invasive companions must be “odious and malevolent” – not helpful, like most Victorian ghosts – and they often defy simple classification into the supernatural taxonomy. Are they grotesque demons, evil spirits, reanimated corpses, inter-dimensional phantoms, undead vampires, supernatural visions, immortal wizards, or the nightmarish products of a diseased mind? The answer is rarely a simple one in James’ stories.
Very often (“Mezzotint,” “Warning to the Curious,” “Tractate Middoth”) he does use ghosts in a traditional manner – viz., that they are indeed the spirits of the dead returned to interfere in the lives of their fellows – but even in these cases, they are no mere visions which passively point and wring their hands and glower, but bony, slimy perversions which slither out of their graves and clatter up to unlocked windows with murderous purposes. Sometimes (“Haunted Dolls’ House,” “Number 13,” “Wailing Well”) it is something in between – something part human and part demon, devolved into a monstrous form either by black magic or hatred. At other times (“The Ash-Tree,” “Abbot Thomas,” “Count Magnus”) they are entirely otherworldly, in the vein of Canon Alberic’s hairy persecutor: a kind of beastly, demonic elemental with any combination of toad-like, spider-like, or squid-like qualities needed to communicate its lack of humanity. In any case, James’ ghosts are notable for their loathsome materiality, their unreasonable drive, and their shameless lack of boundaries.
By “shameless lack of boundaries,” I mean that they exhibit none of that English emotional restraint which defined James’ social culture. Instead of being stoic or distant like most 19th century ghosts, they are almost gleeful about becoming physically intimate with their victims, delighting in a sloppy embrace, an indecorous pressing together of faces, or a sensual snuggle. Many of James’ spirits bring this kind of oddly sexual energy with them, appearing in bedrooms, slipping through open windows (a Freudian red flag), or cozying up in the dark with all the fumbling excitement and awkwardness of teenage lovers on a tryst.
This is another factor which makes James’ stories so unique: gone are the prim and serious phantoms of Charles Dickens or the mute visions of Henry James, and in their place are creatures which refuse to play by the rules. They touch what they should not touch and go where they should not go, and no amount of shame or scolding will restrain them; they are beyond the bounds of the regimented, Victorian-influenced society in which James and his urbane, academic friends flourished.
The Spectre of Human Devolution:
A Case Study in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”
In his introduction to Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, S. T. Joshi expands on H. P. Lovecraft’s own observations that “the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy – a sluggish, hellish night-abominations midway betwixt beast and man – and usually touched before”: “All this is very entertaining and, indeed, by no means off the mark; but Lovecraft fails to probe the true symbolism of James’s ghosts. They are ‘lean, dwarfish, and hairy’ because they thus embody the primitivism that stands in stark contrast to the learned, rational, skeptical antiquarians who, for James, represented the pinnacle of human achievement. It is not insignificant that Somerton, in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,’ ‘screamed out … like a beast’ when encountering horror in the well: contact with the primitive reduces even the most civilized to the level of the subhuman.”
This appalling, troglodytic weirdness is wonderfully illustrated in James’ most famous story, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” when the rationalistic Prof. Parkins is horrified to encounter the inscrutable linen-clad entity in his spare bed, where it is groping madly about the room:
“He was out of his own bed in one bound, and made a dash towards the window, where lay his only weapon, the stick with which he had propped his screen. This was, as it turned out, the worst thing he could have done, because the personage in the empty bed, with a sudden smooth motion, slipped from the bed and took up a position, with outspread arms, between the two beds, and in front of the door. Parkins watched it in a horrid perplexity. Somehow, the idea of getting past it and escaping through the door was intolerable to him; he could not have borne—he didn't know why—to touch it; and as for its touching him, he would sooner dash himself through the window than have that happen. It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion.”
This creature, to Parkins, is the ultimate illustration of a universe that defies easy explanation and fights against the mastery of the human mind. It’s chaotic motions, lack of vision, muteness, and gleeful flailings make is extremely un-human and alien – instead of using speech to reason, or sight to make a direct approach to Parkins, it gropes with its muffled hands in a disorganized and primitive search for its quarry. Its blindness alone is a time-honored literary cue to suggest a deeper level of understanding: blind men in literature often have sublimated their lost sight, giving them an almost paranormal ability to “see” unseen things and sense the true dimensions of the universe, fate, and reality.
On the other hand, its reliance of touch makes it seem simultaneously of human intelligence (animals do not tend to use touch so much as smell to track prey), and of degraded, stunted human intelligence. Touch is largely considered the crudest, least civilized, and least nuanced sense: while smell and taste are used in experiencing fine dining, perfume, and wine tasting, hearing is used for music, drama, and oratory, and vision for the fine arts, fashion, and architecture, touch seems to be almost entirely related to sexual exploration.
Especially in a repressed, Victorian society where touch is not typically used to express affection platonically between loving friends and family members, the sense of touch could take on a tremendously carnal and disturbing association. Especially when paired with the intimate setting of the bedroom, and given Parkins’ apparent anxiousness regarding his homosocial standing with male peers (he is trying, with little success, to improve his golf game in order to keep up with his social circle), and his embarrassment at the maids’ possible impression that he has been hosting a secret bedfellow, the climax has some of the most erotic subtext of any James story.
ENTER THE JAMESIAN UNIVERSE:
Humanity’s Desperate Defense Against Degeneration
A unique aspect of these wraiths – one which separates them from Lovecraft’s Deep Ones and even Blackwood’s Old Gods – is their devolved nature. Admittedly, Lovecraft employs a similar conceit with his “ghouls” (cf. “Pickman’s Model”) and with his many degenerate hybrids (cf. “The Lurking Fear”), but James’ half-sane familiars are not part of a greater universe overseen by disinterested super-intelligences – far too often, the smartest, most resourceful intellects in his stories belong to villainous humans (sadistic alchemists like Count Magnus, murderous psychopaths like Mr. Abney, or amoral sociopaths like Dr. Rant), not to some Great Intelligence which oversees the happenings of humanity.
While Lovecraft was a devout atheist and James a devout Christian, Lovecraft’s work more often appears to foster a sense of something “greater” out there than James’, which – while certainly devoted to the idea (especially in “Oh, Whistle”) of respecting the metaphysical possibilities which mankind does not comprehend – usually involves human beings fighting off beastly spectres without the aid or supervision of a Greater Intelligence.
Instead, they rely on two time-honored resources: the support of human community, and the trans-generational traditions of that community. James’ communities do not flounder into class warfare: the educated classes respect the working classes and vice versa, and rather than try to outrun each other or to spurn one another’s company, they collaborate creatively, with the parsons, scholars, and lawyers contributing their understanding of the metaphysics (learned in philosophy and theology classes at Cambridge, no doubt), while the laborers, farmers, and craftsmen offer up their folk traditions and pagan superstitions. James’ universe – despite what many commentators may insist – is not an overtly Christian one: pagan rites are often just or more effective in his world than an Anglican exorcism. He is certainly less orthodox than, say, Bram Stoker in Dracula.
What we can glean from this picture of society in James’ stories is a deceptively complex treatise on society: what makes a human community secure and what makes it vulnerable. The most important piece to this recipe, according to his stories, is a healthy respect for tradition – not necessarily for making sure that people mindlessly repeat the patterns of the previous generation, but that they take the time to learn and understand those patterns, and to honor the rationale behind them. This introduces us to the greatest villain in all Jamesian stories, and it is not a ghost or an alchemist or an elemental. It is a business-minded human being who has little patience for history lessons and no taste for tradition: the reckless renovator who denies the corruptness of human nature and the reality of evil.
James’ Cynical, Meddling Mortal Antagonists
As much as James warned against becoming too engrossed in antiquarian delights, lest you find yourself making an uncanny bedfellow (more on that later), he was equally if not more so spiteful of those who wrote the past off as a dead organism easily forgotten. As nearly all of his ghost stories preach, James saw the endlessly long tentacles of time coiled around the dawning 20th century, directing modern events from the shadows of long-gone eras.
He felt a deep kinship to the subjects of his study – Britons under the Normans, Tudors, Jacobeans, and Georgians – and he sensed that he understood their ruthless ways much more than his colleagues: their severe moral codes might shock Edwardian fops, but they registered with his own appreciation for Old Testament jurisprudence and Gnostic theology. He saw mankind, at its root, as being capable of great evil, and that evil as opening itself up to a double measure of retaliatory violence.
The greatest villains in his stories are not the undead vigilantes or mutant spiders so much as the “pestilent innovators” of the 18th and 19th century who wielded Neo-Classical and Gothic Revival reforms like sledge hammers against the ancient churches and manors he so dearly treasured. The term itself is lifted from “The Ash-Tree,” where the witless baronet Sir Richard Fell falls to renovating his ancestral seat with reckless abandon:
“Sir Richard was a pestilent innovator, it is certain. Before his time the Hall had been a fine block of the mellowest red brick; but Sir Richard had travelled in Italy and become infected with the Italian taste, and, having more money than his predecessors, he determined to leave an Italian palace where he had found an English house.”
Fell’s rearranging leads him to move into the unlucky bedchamber of his ill-fated grandfather, who had died mysteriously there in the previous century, and as a result of his fashion-forward recklessness – having disregarded the lessons of history and written them off as irrelevant to modern men of the world – he ultimately shares his grandfather’s gruesome fate.
Perhaps most significantly of all his sacrilege, he laughs off the results of a hybrid pagan/Christian superstition called “drawing the sortes” – turning to a random page of the Bible and using the results of the random verses selected as a form of fortune-telling – and disregards its warnings of coming doom. James is not advocating such superstitious piffle, but he is constructing a parable to illustrate the perils of intellectual hubris and generational chauvinism. While not all the choices, values, or traditions of foregone peoples should be continued, James is arguing that he who considers his own age the wisest and who jettisons all traditions sight unseen without considering the possible wisdom behind them, is treading very perilously.
While earlier peoples may not have had all the scientific and psychological tools that we do, James suggests that they were correct in acknowledging the reality of evil in the world (whether it be supernatural or born from the secret hearts of humankind), and in creating rituals and traditions to ward it off an remind the community of these perils, and – importantly – that we are all vulnerable to evil.
Tales like “An Episode of Cathedral History,” “The Residence at Whitminster,” “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” “Mr Humphrey and His Inheritance,” the unfinished story “Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb,” and “The Uncommon Prayer-Book” also feature supernatural forces violently avenging this manner of architectural desecration, and any character who makes mention of diluting an old East Anglian building with Greco-Roman or Gothic “improvements” is certain to encounter something nasty crawling in through his window.
On the surface, it may seem as though this is all an overblown wish fulfillment of revenge against James’ stylistic rivals – perhaps not very different from an advocate of rustic farmhouse interior design writing a story about how people who buy a mid-century modern house are attacked by demons enticed by the presence of plate glass windows and an open floor plan. But I highly doubt it: James is doing something deeper here, which can be seen as a developing ethos across the entirety of his fiction career.
Throughout his oeuvre, James can be seen to incrementally shift in tone from a cocksure, adventurous history buff eager to grapple with the demons of hell if necessary to touch a piece of true value, to an increasingly anxious and world-weary antiquarian who has come to sense himself being swept away into the very tide of history that he once so treasured. More than anything, there is a fear of helplessness in his later stories: a helplessness to deter so-called "progress" and to prevent the obliteration of thousands of generations’ worth of accumulative wisdom in the name of fashion and political correctness. One senses that while the young James much more readily identified with the gung-ho green-horn who bumbles his way into a reality which is beyond his power to understand, the older James would perhaps be likelier to identify with one of his long-lived, bitter yokels who yearn to return from the grave to guard their ancient, communal assets from the historical rubbish bin.
Like Ager in "A Warning to the Curious," Lady Sadleir in "An Uncommon Prayer Book," or the eponymous trickster in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," James' voice becomes increasingly anxious for the treasures which he knows he will soon leave in the hands of (possibly less worthy or at the very least, less careful) guardians.
These treasures take the form of both material relics – cathedrals, books, and artifacts which only one generation need tire of for them to be obliterated – as well as intangible virtues, in particular a graceful respect for bygone generations and the seemingly quaint values which they held dear. These values are less about the specific letter of the law (e.g., baptizing ones children, believing in Satan, or being a patriotic Englishman), and are more about the archetypal spirit behind them: acknowledging humanity’s vulnerability to evil, the importance of community, respecting the interdependence of the social classes, and the Socratic paradox: knowing enough to admit that one doesn’t know anything.
The loss of these values – in the wake of increasing industrialism, materialism, consumerism, and self-absorbed individualism – is what kept James up at night: that we may have traded away the metaphysical reality for material comfort and status. Could it be, as Parkins learns, that what is truly real is the invisible – the “lovely intangibles,” as one film puts it – and that which is false and fleeting are those visible, material things with which we have stuffed our lives? It could be a horribly shallow trade-off at the expense of so much of what truly makes life valuable. And what his stories appear to value are the importance of community, partnership across socio-economic and generational lines, and the passing on of local traditions as a means to keep these more critical structures together. He has taken to heart Old Thomas' mantra to "keep that which is committed to thee.”
The story which appears to be most devoted to unpacking these ideas is “An Episode of Cathedral History,” wherein a Medieval cathedral is aggressively gutted out and updated – to the horror of the locals – by progressive architects who hope to make way for changing ideas about design, public spaces, and ultimately, theology. Death hollows out the community as surely as the "pestilent innovators" hollowed out the cathedral: the crux of the tale itself is centered on a local pandemic (not unlike the Castringham sickness in "The Ash Tree") which rapidly robbed the community of its elders and their unheeded insight into the nature of the cathedral and its importance in the social and spiritual life of the parish.
Unfortunately, this bleeds, also, into the physical life of the locals, and the first victim of the plague is venerable Dr. Ayloff – the most outspoken critic of the renovations – whose sudden demise leaves the community instantly without a much needed Van Helsing figure, adrift and confused without the guidance of old age and the stabilizing communion of inter-generational discourse. Shortly thereafter, the aged "widow of a former verger" has visions of the repulsive, red-eyed creature that has brought the sickness on them, and shares it to an incredulous and dismissive younger generation. As with any good horror movie or murder mystery, her savviness has marked her for death, and she is the next to go.
The innovators view them as small-minded dinosaurs whose heyday has passed and who lack the sophistication and intelligence of the current age. When the heel-dragging elders begin to quietly pass away in short order following the commencement of the renovations, the young men heading up the changes surely viewed it as a relief – the passing on of a headstrong generation of superstitious rubes; a sadly necessary loss needed for the community to evolve, unencumbered by grumpy old men and silly old women.
But their deaths do not help the community grow: they decapitate it from its centuries-long flow of intergenerational wisdom, leaving it in an unstable, crippled condition – no longer capable of either unifying or protecting the parish, and leaving them vulnerable to discord and supernatural attacks. Indeed, by ripping away the old pulpit, the college men have unwittingly exposed a hidden tomb which has been imprisoning the vampire-like entity which the old woman saw in her nightmares, and now the creature is running rampant at night, spreading death and disease without limit.
It isn't until the last remnant of the surviving old timers put their heads together and drum up a cross-class coalition of locals from a range of backgrounds (some are college educated, some are working class), belief systems (some are rationalistic, some are superstitious), and expertise (some are intellectuals, some are craftsmen) that they are able to finally lay the vampire to rest -- or at least flush it out (but whence from there?).
It is all too late for the cathedral community however, which remains confused, divided, and scattered, or the cathedral itself, which -- while still beautiful -- appears to be little more than a stony shell of itself. The damage is done, and the most useful part of the cathedral, James seems to hint, is the lesson that the reader may take away from it: not, literally, to avoid renovating a Norman-era church (although James would surely agree with this), but to carefully consider why certain things are the way that they are, to dialogue across generations, and to beware of the often reflexive and recklessly destructive hubris of youth.
To be continued and concluded in Part II...