“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 wou