Every reader of M R James’s peerlessly unpleasant ghost stories will have his or her favourite moment of that paradoxical, delighted, wriggling horror that their author sought to instil. For some, it is the scene in “O Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904), in which a sceptical don on a golfing holiday is stalked through his dreams by a blind, shuffling figure in white that eventually rises from the spare bed in his room and thrusts into his face “a horrible, an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”.
For others, it is the episode in “The Diary of Mr Poynter” (1919), where the protagonist rests his hand absently on what he takes to be the head of his pet spaniel and finds that “what he had been touching” — not the dog, but a man-shaped figure on all fours covered with hair — “rose to meet him”.
And perhaps the most intimate of these shivers comes in “Casting the Runes” (1911), in which the unlucky protagonist, woken in the night, reaches under his pillow for his watch, only for his questing hand to encounter “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being”.
That readers in the iPad age should still be so horrified by these tales of haunted Edwardian bibliophiles, antebellum Oxbridge dons and ghoulish local revenants would doubtless have come as a surprise to their author. Montague Rhodes James, dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and later provost of Eton, was much admired in his lifetime, but more for his extensive work on biblical apocrypha and catalogues of medieval manuscripts than for his experiments in supernatural fiction. His ghost stories were designed as pleasant trifles, and mostly composed at lightning speed on Christmas evenings between 1892 and 1935 for a coterie of colleagues, friends and choirboys at King’s. Their author quoted with approval the comment of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, who ghoulishly advertised that “I wants to make your flesh creep.”
Although they share densely imagined roots in local and national history and geography, the stories did not, as James wrote in the introduction to his first collection, “make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable while walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.”
But, of course, they have done better than that. Often imitated but never bettered, they have in the ensuing century proved themselves to be some of the most influential supernatural fiction in English. If H P Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe stand at the root of one enduring tradition — the American weird tale, with its madness and horrors, its alien gods, science-fictional conceits and agonised lunatic protagonists — James’s work set the benchmark for that rarer and more haunting form: the English ghost story.
If the weird tale aims to horrify or astound, the ghost story aims to haunt. Perhaps James’s greatest contribution to the form was to discard the overwrought psycho religious chiaroscuro of the Gothic horror tale and to coax the starkest of supernatural horrors from everyday settings and props. But such writing depends to a great degree on form, and, as subsequent practitioners have found, it is far easier to admire than to imitate: few since James have managed so consistent an output.
Robert Aickman, one of the rare writers to produce work at a similar level of pressing unease, wrote with exasperation that, “While the number of good ghost stories is very small indeed, the number of bad ones, as with bad plays, must be encountered professionally in order to be believed.” The perfect balance of form and content might arrive only once or twice in a career, a truth borne out in the work of even the best writers in the tradition: Algernon Blackwood, Margaret Oliphant, Oliver Onions, Vernon Lee. “Here, as in other respects,” Aickman concluded, “the ghost story is akin to poetry.”
Others have taken a less enchanted view of the form. For Darryl Jones, editor of a new edition of James’s stories published by OUP to coincide not only with Hallowe’en but with the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth next year, the Jamesian story — and the genre as a whole — demonstrates “an ingrained social conservatism, an attempt to repulse the contemporary world, or to show the dire consequences of a lack of understanding of, and due reverence for, the past, its knowledge and traditions.”
But if the Jamesian ghost story is anti-scientific and counter-progressive, it is so by design. In an essay on the ghost story, perhaps looking askance at the scientific hocus-pocus employed by the “psychic detectives” of William Hope Hodgson and Algernon Blackwood, James himself condemned the use of “technical terms of occultism” that might put the story on a “quasi-scientific plane” and “call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative”. Though he insisted that his ghosts must always be “malevolent or odious”, he despised the Gothic and sensational tales of his American contemporaries: “they are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption”. And to this lifelong bachelor, who moved in the rarefied male haunts of Cambridge and Eton and who seems never to have pursued a sexual relationship, sex was “tiresome enough in the novels: in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it”.
This persistent refusal to articulate any dogma or make any point — there is a story about James ticking off two arguing undergraduates at King’s with an exasperated “No thinking, gentlemen, please!” — gives the stories an air of oppressiveness that is quite at odds with the dusty donnish patter of their delivery. The whole focus is on the mechanism of suspense, the ghastly narrative conjuring trick being performed.
James heightens the effect by writing just to the edge of boredom, so that ominous portents are spaced out with care among inconsequential prattle or scholarly digressions. His formula rarely changed. “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way,” he wrote. “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.”
There are several recurring features of Jamesian horror, but attempts to derive psychological and biographical conclusions from them have led more than one exegete down the critical rabbit hole. Darryl Jones, in his OUP introduction, rightly points out that the two most salient sources of Jamesian disgust are hair and spiders, or “worst of all, hairy spiders” — straggling hair, matted hair, wet hair and long grey hair attend some of the most horrific visitations in the stories — but excessive thinness recurs with similar nightmarish frequency, and plump, pink, hairless faces and hands are deployed for horrid effect in at least three stories, among them the possibly autobiographical last tale,“A Vignette” (1936).
More horrid than all this paraphernalia, though, is the phobia of being touched. It is striking how little human contact takes place in James stories: when the wicked sorcerer Karswell in “Casting the Runes” (1911) places his hand on the protagonist's shoulder under the pretext of returning a piece of paper, we can divine his evil intentions from the breach of social distance. By contrast, the appearance of the ghost is almost always associated with a drastic violation of personal space – each revenant appears horrifyingly close at hand, ready to thrust its own face into that of the protagonist, envelop him in spindly arms, or coil an appendage about his neck.
It may, none the less, be a mistake to look too closely for the instances of “homosexual panic” that Jones claims to identify in his introduction to the OUP book. Nor do I find the subsumed “fear of domesticity” that Jones sees in these tales of spooky bedclothes, possessed binoculars, haunted scrapbooks and necromantic curtains. Like many ghost story writers before and since, James took wicked pleasure in intimating that the apparatus of everyday life might be more than it appears, and that there might exist, in the words of one late tale, a “malice of inanimate objects”. More than any precise sexual unease, these stories exude the superstitious body-horror of the sequestered aesthete: attempting to scry out this famously reticent man’s appetites from such tightly controlled, heavily generic pieces of art — let alone hunting for instances of the “nightmare vagina” in stories where adventurers descend wells in search of treasure — feels a quixotic project.
The OUP book collects all the stories that James published in his lifetime, as well as one posthumous piece and several extracts from writings on the ghost-story tradition. All are presented with annotations and a general introduction, but the vision behind the project feels a little limited: had James’s translations of French and medieval ghost stories been included with the fragments and drafts held in King’s College Library, it would have gone a long way to setting this collection apart from the numerous budget editions and free e-books available.
Still, for those who like their flesh to creep, there is an inimitable cumulative pleasure in reading these stories in succession and feeling their related horrors throng about you, from the “horrible hopping creature in white… dodging about among the trees” in “Casting the Runes” to the two cloaked figures waiting expectantly at the crossroads in “Count Magnus” (1904), and the shambling humanoid, its head “covered with a whitish bag”, that runs a desperate murderer to ground in “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (1913). Rarely a page passes without an instance of that breathless “pleasing terror” that, as James wrote, is “the true aim of the ghost story”.