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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' Disturbingly Invasive, Introspective Ghost Stories: A Deep Literary Analysis (Part I)

“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