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Literary Essays on 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 II)

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

collaborative community.


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.


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.”



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 clean