NOTE: This second and final post is continued from Part I, where we explored James' transformation of the ghost story genre, his own literary influences, what made his ghosts uniquely repellent, and his themes of humanity's defense against moral degeneration, and his recurring villain: the arrogant, meddlesome innovator.
In this post we explore the deeper social, philosophical, and cultural themes undergirding James' work: warnings against egotistical self-reliance and rootless navel-gazing, and
-- surprisingly, perhaps -- encouraging a return to
trans-generational partnership across social classes,
and the evolutionary importance of a
JAMES’ COLLABORATIVE SOCIAL ETHOS:
Localized Partnership Across Social Classes
One of the most under-discussed recurring themes in M. R. James’ works is threat of abused power. While he has frequently been lambasted as a conservative (and he certainly was), he was hardly one for despotic authoritarians, and – if anything – could most accurately be accused of favoring a bourgeois ruling class dominated by college-educated elites. Nonetheless, he innately envied and distrusted the British aristocracy, and cast most of his villains as independently wealthy men who often allowed vanity, greed, or ambition to violate their social contract with the uneducated working classes.
The idea, it would seem, is that the gentry, clergy, and academic classes were invested with social power in order to shepherd and protect the marginalized, along with the shared culture that speaks to their common humanity. By renovating the churches and manors which were originally built collectively by the working classes (who hewed and lifted the stones) and the educated classes (who designed and directed its construction), these pestilent innovators ran roughshod over the shared, cosmological vision of earlier generations, and appointed themselves as the unopposed moral authority of their community.
One story in particular, “Martin’s Close,” is a much less abstract variation of this theme: instead of having an arrogant aristo ravage an abbey without inviting the community’s input, he casts the victim as the most vulnerable figure imaginable: a lower-class, single, intellectually disabled woman without watchful or powerful guardians, who implicitly trusts the word and motives of her social superiors. The heinous Squire Martin takes advantage of her trust, and although it is never explicitly described, we have serious reason to suspect that their relationship was sexual in nature, and that – regardless of her age or her willingness – it could not possibly be considered consensual.
The theme which I am pointing to here appears in nearly all of his stories: he argues for cooperation across class lines on a very localized level. Squires have a duty to their communities, as do scholars, parsons, businessmen, and doctors – to invest in the security and justice of the working classes of their parish – and when they become to inward-focused (more on that later) and obsessed with increasing their personal power (which is, of course, gained through necromancy of some variety), they remove themselves from the protective nexus of their community and become vulnerable to the powerful Outer Forces whom they envy: the realm of supernatural despots.
We see examples of the corrupt, magic-meddling authority-figure trope in “Lost Hearts,” “Count Magnus,” “Number 13,” “Canon Alberic,” “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” “A School Story,” “Barchester Cathedral,” “The Ash-Tree,” “Martin’s Close,” “An Evening’s Entertainment,” “Two Doctors,” “The Rose Garden,” “The Tractate Middoth,” and others. Only infrequently (“Disappearance/Appearance,” “Uncommon Prayer Book,” etc.) is the villain low-born or working class. I am hardly suggesting that James was a kind of Marxist, but he did view society’s interdependent cooperation across classes and stations as key to humanity’s success. The same – believe it or not – is true of his literary views on religion.
RELIGIOUS PLURALISM & THEOLOGICAL FLUIDITY:
Local Partnership Between Orthodoxy and Paganism,
and the threat of “Progressive” Puritans in James
While James was unquestionably a Christian apologist, in his stories he does not pit orthodox theology against paganism. At the heart of his fiction, James – despite his critics’ accusations of religious chauvinism – depicts paganism and traditional Christian cosmology as being part of the same general worldview, uneasy bedfellows at worst, and respectful allies at best. Pagan rites may be used to conjure evil spirits (“Lost Hearts”), but they are also used to lay them down (“An Evening’s Entertainment,” “The Rose Garden,” “Casting the Runes”). In fact, is the later, Puritan and Evangelical versions Christianity which James casts (far more often than paganism) as a villain, with its wave of reforms, preference for simplicity, and attitude of ideological superiority.
It is from this tradition – the peak of Puritainism in 17th century Suffolk – that one of his most pathetic antagonists, Sir Matthew Fell, emerges. Sir Richard’s grandfather, he brings forth the family curse in “The Ash-Tree” by accusing a local conjuring woman named Mistress Mothersole of witchcraft during one of the Witchfinder General’s forays into Suffolk.
Sir Matthew is hardly a Bible-swinging tyrant (in fact, he is visibly nervous and uncomfortable with his accusations against Mothersole), but he feels that it is his moral responsibility to do that most un-Jamesian of things: to defy centuries of turning a blind eye to some social irregularity (done in the name of the protecting the order and the common good) in order to follow a spitting-new code of unflexible rules. The old ways were to allow conjuring women to exist alongside priests and nuns and churchgoers without bothering them (and this is historical: the European witch trials didn’t begin in earnest until the 16th century with the bifurcation of Catholicism following the Reformation). The new way – more modern and fashionable, especially amongst the socially mobile gentry of the 17th century – was to put traditions aside in order to brush off as much papist corruption as possible.
While earlier generations tolerated “witchy women,” the new generation had a duty to flush them out, and like a good Reformer, Fell reports on Mothersole and his testimony sends her to the gallows. There is no flexibility or patience when Progress is at stake, and any dead weights hindering the march of said Progress – be they traditions, values, or human beings – must be demolished to make way for a new Day.
A similar shift in the academy at the end of the 19th century greatly troubled James, and left its mark on many of his tales. It was a gradual (and then sudden) shift away from leisurely chummy gatherings, lax rules, blurry boundaries between departments, vague expectations for scholarship, and a general “gentleman scholar” culture, and towards the German model of rigorous scholarship, the scientific method, and a general professionalization of the academy, making professors less like teachers, mentors, and club members and more like scientists, researchers, and competitors.
It was a shift away from culture and socialization and towards ambition and rivalry. This was the rise of tenure and the last gasps of the mentorship-centered model that Oxford and Cambridge had been long known for. James most famously lampooned the young up-and-comers who demanded a more rigorous, less collegial system in the figures of Parkins, the humorless ontographer – an intentionally “modern” and ludicrous-sounding area of study – who prickles with discomfort at his colleagues’ jokes about ghosts, seriously approaches golf as a means of rising up the ladder and has a dangerously high opinion of his understanding of the universe. But throughout his corpus, James presents us with reckless reformers eager to do it “the new way” without bothering to understand why it was ever done “the old way” to begin with. Sir Matthew Fell – and to an even greater extent, his grandson Richard – is just such a man.
For centuries the Christian worshippers of his community were likely aware that women like Mrs. Mothersole were practicing white magic and did nothing to prevent them from carrying on (in all likelihood more out of fear and respect for their arts than out of a progressive tolerance), but Fell is a slave to his conscience and cannot look away. This is more fleshed out in the story’s 1975 television adaptation where Fell repeats his stalwart credo: “The law is the law… What I have seen – I have seen.” Fell – unlike James and unlike the other villagers who make “efforts … to save her” – sees no virtue in compromise and sends her to the gallows simply because he must follow the rules.
By breaking this ancient agreement between pagan and traditional Christian cultures to tolerate elements of one other, Fell brings a curse down on the entire community in the form of the Castringham Sickness, as the hellish offspring of Mothersole’s “poisonous rage” run rampant all over the countryside, literally upsetting the natural order and leading to the deaths of countless livestock (and surely some people: cf. “Episode of Cathedral History”).
James’ harmonization of pagan and Christian practices features in other stories as well: “Stalls of Barchester” (where the locals once hung stick figures in the branches of the Hanging Oak for good fortune), “An Evening’s Entertainment” (where a witch-doctor-like shaman – rather than a priest or doctor – is called on to undo the swelling of a woman horribly stung in the arm by a Satanic fly), and here in “The Ash-Tree” (where the practice of “drawing the sortes” – a form of folk divination which, although it uses the Bible, was seen as superstitious and uneducated by the clerical establishment – is shown to be both accurate and potentially life-saving) among others.
One of the most prominent examples of this cosmological coexistence is the one which ultimately leads to Archdeacon Haynes’ undoing in “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” where we learn of the unexpected influence of pagan forces on the ostensibly Anglican stronghold of Barchester. The story follows the Protestant archdeacon as he is progressively hounded to his death after slyly arranging the “accidental” death of his incompetent predecessor – the ancient Archdeacon Pulteney (another unnecessary inter-generational rivalry). Following Pulteney’s fatal fall down a staircase (Haynes bribed a servant to sabotage the stair carpet), his younger successor moves into Pulteney’s house and begins to hear voices and feel a gathering of supernatural antagonists.
The key to his distress, unbeknownst to him, lies in the archdeacon’s stall in the cathedral, which he has inherited: it is made from the wood of “the Hanging Oak” – a local tree known for its grisly history and pagan significance – and comes with a curse. The 17th century wood carver, Austin the Twice-Born, had a vision as he was carving it, and proclaimed that if anyone came into contact with the stall who had another’s blood on his hands, they would be hunted down by otherworldly forces.
Haynes, who crows about his scholarly defense of the High Church of England – a denomination known for its disdain of superstition – writing off the majority of biblical miracles as pretty allegories not meant to be read as literal, for example – certainly does not expect to be hunted down by the forces of a curse that seemingly has roots in Britain’s pagan past. Indeed, he is scandalized to learn that the so-called Hanging Oak had been a site of shamanic rituals (the locals used to hang Blair-Witch-esque stick figures in its branches for good luck) in living memory.
This detail is the first of several suggestions – ultimately culminating in the discovery of Austin’s curse – that for all of his Victorian propriety, good breeding, and respectability, Haynes is being hunted down by forces completely beyond his control or understanding, and that, as his obituary puts it, “It might have been augured that an existence so placid and benevolent would have been terminated in a ripe old age by a dissolution equally gradual and calm. But how unsearchable are the workings of Providence!”
The question that Haynes must have been racking his brain and searching his soul about during his last days, and the one which James invites us to ask ourselves, is what kind of beastly Providence must this be? Certainly not the drowsy, bearded god described in Haynes’ Anglican theology books. If asked to imagine what such a deity might look like, I would probably direct the questioner to a grim piece of wood that sits under his hand in the Archdeacon’s stall: the grotesque figure of death itself – a hideous, skeletal form (with “rent flesh” exposing its cheekbones) fondling a noose.
For all of his own orthodoxy, in his stories, James pushes his readers to imagine a religion as more fluid and mysterious: a very real, living system of metaphysical understandings which are completely beyond mankind’s comprehension, which plays no favorites, and which laughs in the face of the fundamentalists who claim to understand it all. Whether he is writing mainline pastors like Haynes or devout atheists like Parkins, James warns against having the cosmos “all figured out,” and points to a road of spiritual humility – what some have called “the fear of God.” Indeed, when reading James, I am often reminded of a verse which Robert W. Chambers used prominently in The King in Yellow: “it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
THE SPECTRE OF SELF-ABSORPTION &
A Case Study in “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”
One of the most recurring themes in M. R. James is the idea that the comforts of the present were afforded by the horrors of the past. Fey, fusty, middle-class men of leisure are able to pour their time into their pet hobbies because their ancestors waged war with the powers of political corruption and spiritual evil. In a sense, the road to their lives of ease and petty passions was paved with the broken bones and spilled blood of millions of their hardscrabble forefathers.
James both lived this sort of lifestyle himself – bicycling through France, going on “troll hunts” in Scandinavia, and poring over Medieval minutiae on Cambridge’s dime – but tried to be conscious of the comparative silliness of his lifestyle contrasted with prior generations who endured civil wars, religious schisms, national revolutions, witch hunts, violent corruption, political oppression, pandemic plagues, barbarian invasions, and the heavy, existential work of defining England’s social and spiritual identity.
One of the more memorable examples of this can be found in “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” something of a cross roads of Jamesian stories, blending and blurring tropes from over half a dozen tales into a story which – fittingly is exactly at the midpoint of his career: the last story in the second of his four anthologies. The tale follows young Humphreys as he transitions from an uninspiring, mid-level company man to the new owner of a country seat after his uncle (whom he has never met) dies and leaves him the estate.
After arriving and meeting his new servants, he is immediately intrigued by its overgrown hedge maze, which had been built by his uncle’s grandfather (Humphreys’ own great-grandfather), James Wilson. Wilson was an eccentric hermit who travelled to Italy and had a passion for the esoteric. This manifests in the strange temple he built on his property and a bizarre book in his library which includes a nightmarish sermon comparing life to a haunted maze with a forbidden treasure at its center. Humphreys has the maze unlocked (his uncle had sealed it up for forty years) and cleaned out. He effortlessly – suspiciously so – finds the center, where a steel globe etched with scenes of demons, sin, and hell is mounted on a stone column. It is cool to his touch, but his servant Cooper nearly burns his hand on it.
Having restored the feature, Humphreys resists the urge to keep the maze to himself – unlike both his uncle and great-grandfather – and invites local gentry and maze experts to enjoy it. All the while, their experiences are far more sinister, and he is increasingly aware of a prowling, predatory entity lurking just beyond his reach. This comes to a head one night when he is working on a map of the maze (to be published in a book by the maze scholar), when he notices a blot of ink at the center of the map suddenly dissolve into an infinite pit to hell, from which the charred face of his ancestor suddenly surges at him.
Humphreys faints before the blackened corpse can get its hands on him, and in the morning – apparently understanding now – he orders that the steel globe be broken open: it was the urn for James Wilson’s cremated remains. It is implied that Wilson was a student of Gnostic mystery religions – that he believed that the path to enlightenment and immortality was rejecting the society’s definitions of “goodness” and embracing a self-serving life of extravagant evil. By the following summer, the Humphreys has married and the maze has been destroyed.
While Humphreys’ fate – had he followed Wilson’s ghost down its nasty burrow – certainly would not have been positive (I envision him being found slumped in his chair with dead eyes bulging in horror), James telegraphs multiple times that Wilson’s motivation in confronting his heir stems from a desire to share his metaphysical secrets with his family.
Aside from the motto posted over the maze gate (“This Secret is for Me and the Sons of My House”), there are also encoded stepping stones (which were significantly plucked out and repurposed by his wary grandson), Humphreys’ uncanny ability to find his way to the maze’s heart (where its “secret” is stored), his insensitivity to the burn of the globe (whose hellfire heat quickly fends off Cooper), as well as his suspicious inability to repeat the feat whenever he is in company. Wilson’s ghost seems eager to conduct Humphreys there, but also appears to have a hand in the destruction of an earlier map, the loss of the original key (instead it opens only under Humphreys’ hand), and the maze scholar’s nervous paranoia as she explores the hedges.
In fact, Wilson seems to be virtually on friendly terms with his descendent, coaxing and welcoming him into his sanctum sanctorum without a single hint of a threat (to him at least) until Humphreys makes a dire misstep: he agrees to design and share a plan of the maze’s interior. On the surface this must seem like a puny offense, but as detailed in the introduction, mazes have a much more philosophical and mystical history than we typically realize: by navigating the maze, Humphreys is retracing and symbolically reenacting the steps which brought Wilson to understand his secrets.
It is an allegorical journey which is meant to suggest the path which Humphreys will need to seek in order to come to the same understanding. By allowing strangers to take this same journey – even allegorically – it is a violation of the trust which Wilson has extended to him. As a result, once Humphreys makes the decision to publicize Wilson’s rite of passage, Wilson turns on him as surely as he turned on Lady Wardrop – manifesting as the unsightly yew stalking the outside of the maze, then as the unwholesome growth crouching at his library window, before springing up out at him from the analog center of the analog maze sketched out on his desk.
CONFRONTING THE PSYCHIC DOPPELGÄNGER:
M. R. James’ Counter-Nietzschean, Psychological Thesis
James’ consistent thesis is that while civilization and science may have made the demons of humanity’s past seem less material, they are by no means less real: the obsessions and manias that drive men to despair and self-destruction. James often seemed to use writing as a means of exorcising his own private concerns about loneliness, obsession, vulnerability, and the inner demons of a man who so desperately tries to convince himself that these were the long-dead problems of other men in other centuries. Greed, selfishness, ambition, misanthropy, and intellectual arrogance constantly lurk in the hearts of his fusty protagonists – from Professor Parkins’ vain hubris and antisociality, to Mr. Wraxall’s tactless, abstract admiration of a mass murderer, and from Mr. Humphreys’ impulsive ambition to follow his ancestor’s footsteps, to poor Paxton’s unforgiveable curiosity and greed. It is notable that each of these protagonists find themselves mirrored somehow by the bogey they encounter – a spectre that is drawn closer to them by the mortal’s increasing awareness and attention.
Like all Edwardian thinkers, regardless of their field, James was influenced by the writings and philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Although he died in relative obscurity in 1900, Nietzsche’s emphasis on introspective individualism delighted many major thinkers of the period – especially Freud, Jung, Kafka, and Shaw – who celebrated his rejection of bourgeois values as well as Marx’s insistence on class partnership. Particularly in tandem with Freud, Nietzsche allowed Western intellectuals to justify their desire to reject Christian values (including charity, humility, and non-violence) as well as the tedious social responsibility of progressive projects like socialism and the labor movement.
In short, using social Darwinism and psychoanalysis as justification, his philosophy permitted college-educated intellectuals to become self-absorbed and morally detached from the social causes of justice which were in vogue among the working class, socialists, and Christians during the Progressive Era. Like the self-love movement of the 1970s – 1990s, it celebrated obsessive self-analysis and introspection, often at the expense of broader communal endeavors.
M. R. James almost certainly detested Nietzsche (I don’t know this for a fact, but their cosmological worldviews were certainly not simpatico), but may have admired his emphases on personal freedom, being true to one’s nature, and exploring the mystical truths which mainstream society is either disinterested in or threatened by. On the other hand, most of James’ overt villains – Karswell, Mr. Abney, Dr. Rant, James Wilson, Mr. Baxter, Stanley Judkins, etc. – are almost personifications of Nietzschean ideals: they reject the conventions of society (what Nietzsche would call “the slave morality”) and craft their own, improved set of moral standards (“the master morality”) which frequently come at the expense of others (think of Abney and how he justifies murdering three children for a chance to buy him immortality: “I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emancipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me; not only placing me beyond the reach of human justice (so-called), but eliminating to a great extent the prospect of death itself”).
Nietzsche and his followers (who, of course, would ultimately include many dangerous movements in global politics, most famously the Nazis) most strongly recommended that those who wished to be free from the confines of society would gaze deeply into their own selfhood in search of actualization. The supreme pursuit of life, they argued, was to seek and find oneself and to craft an identity free of society’s definitions and requirements. Among his many pithy quips, Nietzsche famously wrote: “no can construct for you the bridge upon which precisely you must cross the stream of life, no one but you yourself alone,” and “What does your conscience say? – ‘You should become the person you are.’” Such motivational self-talk could be used in a very harmless way to increase someone’s self-esteem or to promote much-needed introspection, but it also has a darker interpretation: cut away from the rubes in society, pour fully into yourself and lose yourself in your inner world. It also smacks of the sociopathic bombast of Aleister Crowley (or, should I say, Mr. Karswell).
The one sentiment of Nietzsche’s with which James undoubtedly agreed, was his famous Aphorism 146 from “Beyond Good and Evil,” that those who would struggle with monsters should beware, because “when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” Surely, M. R. James the man could have actually benefitted from some more open-minded introspection – he was far from the Nietzschean ideal of the morally liberated Übermensch who confidently grapples with his own inner demons – but he may also have recognized that the degenerate figure he would have found scuttling about in the slimy darkness of his internal abyss would have challenged his peace of mind further than he could mentally bear.
It was this dark double – the moral doppelgänger waiting to be discovered at the center of the soul – which haunts James’ stories, which ultimately challenge and reject the anti-communal, Nietzschean project of rugged individualism that raged like wildfire among intellectuals during the early 20th century.
A key, recurrent theme in James’ stories – and one which is somewhat under discussed – is that of the doppelganger. Not a literal doppelgänger – the phantom of a living person which they themself encounter – but the idea of the mystical double: a spiritual kinship or brotherhood between a member of the living and a member of the dead. This trope is so prevalent in his works that it tends to be present in nearly all of them, yet the most obvious examples include “Count Magnus,” “Oh Whistle,” “Abbot Thomas,” “Stalls of Barchester,” “A View from a Hill,” “Number 13,” and “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance.” In each of these stories, a curious man is drawn to the secrets of the dead (whether consciously or unconsciously) and finds himself coming into increasing proximity with the knowledge, perils, and entities which his deceased predecessor encountered. His behavior gradually begins to mirror or parallel that of the bygone guide, who – more often than not – is eager to usher his new apprentice into the secrets of an unholy guild.
The parallel, of course, comes from James’ own experience as a historian and researcher which allowed him to enter the mind space of pre-modern figures and to build of a greater degree of understanding and empathy with them which many laypeople might struggle to access: to us the men and women of the Medieval, Elizabethan, Georgian, or even Victorian eras may feel like impossibly remote caricatures of human beings. They believed in witches, spoke strange dialects, wore impractical clothes, and put great importance in what seem to us absurdly trivial matters (being buried in holy ground, honoring feudal social distinctions, and obsessing over the tedious preservation of church rituals and architecture among other things), but James was keenly able to understand them as human beings – not forgettable footnotes in history books or cartoonish extras in a period TV series about a hopelessly backwards time period.
His ability to connect with these personalities caused him both a degree of pride and a degree of consternation – the anxiety of wondering how healthy it was to obsess over the lives of the long-dead. As we have noted before, there was a natural concern that when one stares into an abyss (like the endless, charred hole to hell in “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”), something may be staring right back, and – God help us – may have a mind to reach out and grab whatever it can take back with it.
James poses the question – regardless of metaphysics, the supernatural, or the existence of an afterlife – is there not something deep and hidden within our own selfhood which can be awakened by yearning too deeply for contact with a bygone era or unsavory field of study? Even if we exclude the category of ghosts, many of us who have become obsessed with esoteric topics can attest that the obsession can sometimes become frightening – not just due to the time, energy, and passion invested into it, but from the things within us which seem to call us towards the shadows.
It could be an obsession with history, true crime, the occult, war stories, disasters, sexual fantasies and fetishes, heists, assassinations, conspiracies, executions, travesties, genocides, scandals, serial killers, torture, shipwrecks, plane crashes, mass traumas, or – say – horror fiction. At first we find ourselves drawn to them out of disgust or a sense of moral obligation – to better understand humanity’s dark nature and combat it going forward – but at what point to we wonder what is it within ourselves that brings us back, time and time again, to such dark material? Something within us, we must acknowledge, finds comfort and peace here, and even the least puritanical among us will eventually find that disturbing. In James’ case, he often wondered if his obsession with the past was healthy, and frequently found himself more at home with the dead than the living.
Nearly all of James’ ghost stories build up to a culminating encounter: a “meeting” between a living man and some extra-living entity which represents the subliminal part of his own personality which he refuses to acknowledge. It is utterly likely that James himself would have rejected such a reading as psychobabble worthy of one of his overly theoretical protagonists, but it may also be possible that James’ own discomfort with psychoanalytical interpretations of his stories might have a relationship to his characters discomfort with the snugness with which his beasties cozy up to them: as if they were old friends who had known each other forever. This is especially clear in stories like “A Warning to the Curious,” “Oh, Whistle,” “Mr Humphreys,” “Count Magnus,” and “Diary of Mr Poynter,” where the entity seems almost gleeful about spending time with its victim, often going so far as to embrace, or – as in “Abbot Thomas” – even press its leathery face against the sputtering antiquarian in a kind of mock kiss.
The psychosexual subtext of this can – and has been – easily be interpreted as expressing a deep anxiety surrounding sexual expression and intimacy, but more than this, I think, is a sort of horror of spiritual intimacy: the bumbling protagonist’s sudden realization that he and this shrouded, bony Thing have more in common than he was ever willing to recognize before it was made absolutely clear through their physical proximity.
In “Oh Whistle,” Parkins learns this when the ghost manifests as his bedfellow; in “Mr Humphreys’ Inheritance” it is made clear when the charred remains of his ancestor scuttle out of a map and reach out for a fatherly embrace; and in “Abbot Thomas,” Somerton is virtually catatonic after the slimy, tentacled guardian wraps its greedy arms around him in recognition and fellowship: they are spiritual brothers reunited by Somerton’s clandestine efforts at recovering the gold. It is almost as if the toad-like elemental sensed that Somerton loved its horde of gold nearly as much as it did and pressed its face against his in a bonding embrace over a shared obsession.
The analogy is made more striking when we consider where this revelation took place – in the depths of a well, an ancient symbol of the unconscious (and it won’t remotely be the last time that James uses such a device – be it a well, pit, tunnel, or maze – to symbolize the subterranean portal to the unconscious). Having plumbed the depths of his own psyche, Somerton expects to be greeted with something of great worth and value – symbolically, to confirm that he is a man of high character and intellect, worthy of breaking Thomas’ code and extracting his treasure.
Although he does appear to confirm that he is worthy to be Thomas’ successor, he learns this by encountering this unevolved, troglodytic avatar – a ghoulish doppelgänger who illustrates the true nature of Somerton’s meddling: not lofty and aspirational, but vulgar and corrupt. Horrified by this realization (which also appears to be a moral trap laid by Thomas, whose ghost cackles with glee at the sight of Somerton confronting his internal ickiness), Somerton is driven to bed and can’t manage to replace the stone out of fear of once again coming face to face with his supernatural brother. Revolted and dismayed by this self-discovery, he lets Brown and Gregory – who both notably lack Somerton’s fatal hubris – return the hoard, rather than run the risk of encountering a kindred spirit in the loathsome guardian.
The enormous influence which James has had on the modern ghost story is extremely difficult to overstate. Any work which involves an “odious,” invasive ghost who can be felt and touch back has, to some degree, a Jamesian element. The same can be said of nearly any story involving a haunted relic or antique which brings with it a repulsive guardian. These are stories or films with a slow burning supernatural tension which follows the gradual discovery of some latent evil – an appalling ghost, cult, or monster serving as a metaphor for moral corruption – which has been disturbed from its dormancy by either a meddling researcher, unlucky purchase, or a hapless misstep.
In fiction this first manifested in the Interwar Period through the works of E. F. Benson, Oliver Onions, Walter de la Mare, H. R. Wakefield, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. M. Burrage – James greatest heirs – along with lesser-known masters of the Jamesian tale like A. N. L. Munby, L. P. Hartley, W. F. Harvey, R. H. Malden, and E. G. Swain. The genre waned following World War II (with occasional exceptions, like Shirley Jackson and Robert Aikman), but resurged in the ‘70s in the fiction of Ramsey Campbell, Susan Hill, Peter Straub, and Stephen King.
The spark that reignited interest in stories told in James’ suggestive style, however, was actually struck by British B-movies of the Cold War Era. Direct adaptations of James’ stories began with the stylish, low-budget adaptations of “Casting the Runes” (“The Night of the Demon” 1957), and “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1968), and reached a zenith with a slew of Christmas-time television specials (“Lost Hearts,” “The Ash-Tree,” “The Stalls of Barchester,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” “A Warning to the Curious”) created by Lawrence Gordon Clark from 1971 to 1975.
During this same period, the unique genre of Folk Horror came to rise in British films, owing a significant debt to James’ stories, such as “The Ash-Tree” and “The Stalls of Barchester.” The genre is, as Wikipedia puts it, one “which uses elements of folklore to invoke fear in its audience. Typical elements include a rural setting and themes of isolation, religion, the power of nature, and the potential darkness of rural landscapes.” James, Algernon Blackwood, and Arthur Machen were among the primary literary influences to it uniquely unsettling aesthetic. Hammer and indie productions from this period, such as The Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man, Rosemary’s Baby, Cry of the Banshee, The Stone Tape, The Green Man, and The Bloody Judge all carried strong Jamesian tropes of paganism, religious extremism, weird horror, a slow-burn, supernatural secrets, viciously vengeful ghosts, human corruption, and an otherworldly energy.
Jamesian films would continue to thrive in the ‘80s (The Woman in Black, Children of the Corn), wane during the ‘90s, and revive once again at the turn of the millennium in movies like The Blair Witch Project (cf. “Count Magnus,” “The Ash-Tree”), The Ninth Gate (cf. “Tractate Middoth,” “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book”), and The Ring (cf. “Martin’s Close,” “The Mezzotint”). The following decades would see a steady stream of popular films that exuded a Jamesian aesthetic: The Witch, Midsommar, The Grudge, It Follows, The Haunting of Hill House, The Conjuring, and many others. To this day most modern ghost stories – both in print and on the screen – involve an increasingly physical and invasive revenant who is often summoned by the acquisition of a haunted object, and represents a long-hidden, thriving current of evil. While these works usually lack James’ understated subtlety and insinuation, they unquestionably owe their entire existence to James’ groundbreaking transformation of the literary ghost from a sad, misty vision to a vengeful, crawling abomination.
As civility in the 21st century continues to erode the bonds that united communities across generational, socio-economic, and religious strata, the deeper, philosophical warnings M. R. James’ stories seem to have become increasingly fulfilled. We have allowed petty differences of our niche, individualized tribes to blot out the desperate need for human beings to band together across all categories – if not in resistance to the supernatural forces of darkness, then against the darkness within our own souls that leans so easily towards corruption and greed. Like Mr. Abney in “Lost Hearts,” we can easily be persuaded that a gross violation of another person’s dignity or way of life can be excused in the name of ensuring that our own ambitions are unchecked.
Like Karswell in “Casting the Runes,” we can become so consumed by hatred and the thirst for revenge that we engineer our own miserable downfall. And like Parkins in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” we can be so convinced of the correctness of every facet of our personal worldview that we are blind to the nuance of reality – and the very real need for social support and intellectual diversity – that we find ourselves alone and unprotected when the wild truth crushes its nasty face into ours. James was fascinated by the idea that unrestrained individualism, iconoclasm, and consumerism had varnished humanity in a false patina of civility – like gilding a skull – but that a few idle scratches could accidentally expose the monster beneath.
The tales that follow are of vengeful spider goblins, forgotten relics and haunted treasures, undead wizards accompanied by Lovecraftian monstrosities, pictures that change at night, entombed vampires released by unwitting meddlers, and bony ghosts who slither through windows at night to execute their brutal, Old Testament revenge on their living enemies. They are tales to read at night – as Monty always did for the Chitchat Society – with a single candle by your elbow and an eye ever glancing to the dark window just out of sight. But they are also tales to make you think about the life well-lived – both socially as a society and psychologically as an individual. What are these demons, he asks, that we have summoned to trouble ourselves? What monsters are squirming in the pit of your own soul, and if you wish to confront them, will you flush them out with light and laughter and warmth, or will they wrap their arms around you when you are alone at night, and press their cold, moist faces against yours?