For a stuffy old guy, M.R. James sure knows how to scare a girl.
Collected Ghost Stories, M. R. James, (Wordsworth Classics 1992 RRP 2.99 pp647)
When I was small I had, like most imaginative children, serious issues with going to bed. I was afraid of the dark, so I always had a night-light, which only served to make me more afraid, casting odd shadows in corners and creating monsters out of the floral pattern on my curtains. When you’re a child there are so many things in the world you don’t know about, and there seems no reason why they shouldn’t all manifest in your room after dark, and crawl towards your bed menacingly. Nowadays I’m much more afraid of burglars and intruders, and reading M.R James’ ghost stories is the closest I’ve come to recapturing my childish fear of creeping night time monsters for over ten years. For that is James’ speciality, he writes about fear. When people die in his stories, they die as a result of their own unbearable terror, whether the result is a heart attack in a deserted field, or falling while trying to escape up a tree.
What I love most about these stories is that as M.R. James was a bit of an obscure academic, all his victims are too. They are usually researching something historical, and in the course of their insatiable curiosity, unleash something hideous. They work in dusty old libraries and decaying colleges and museums, and can’t resist when they find an ancient artefact or manuscript. If anything, these stories have illustrated to me how dangerous it is to accompany an academic on holiday. They should never leave the safety of their university, as they seem incapable of staying out of trouble. They also spend ridiculous amounts of time making notes on the interiors of old churches, whereas I’m more of an in, look at the pretty windows and light a candle, and out sort of girl.
As someone who’s ambitions lie firmly in the direction of dusty archives, old manuscripts and boxes of unidentified papers, perhaps I found these stories a little spookier than most. However, I expect that James is on a few more people’s radars since the BBC1 adaptation of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to you’ that was shown at Christmas. If this was your only foray into MR James, and you found yourself wondering, ‘What the hell is going on? This is incomprehensible’, then don’t worry. It was incomprehensible. It also bore no more than a passing resemblance to anything M.R. James would have written (can you tell I’m still annoyed?). For a start, there are no wives or girlfriends in his stories; James was a confirmed bachelor, writing about bachelors, with women as bit part actors, inn-keeper’s wives and old crones. As a feminist, I’m not sure about how I feel about that, but at least he is able to stay true to the male-dominated world he is writing about, and write authentically.
In one of my favourite stories, ‘Casting the Runes’, he deals with how academic jealousy and split-infinitive related mockery (as a frequent splitter of infinitives, I’m with the creepy bad guy on this one) can result in DEATH. Mr Dunning, one of the UK’s leading academic authorities on alchemy and general spookiness finds himself in a bit of a tight spot when he advises against the publishing of a paper written by Mr Karswell, the UK’s leading practical authority on alchemy and general spookiness. The latter puts a curse on the former, by slipping some sinister runes into his papers; a trick for which it appears Karswell has previous form. Teaming up with Henry Harrington, the brother of John Harrington,the former unfortunate victim, our hero is forced into a last minute dash to try and foist the runes back on the culprit, climaxing in a tense railway carriage encounter where Karswell luckily drops his ticket on the floor, enabling the necessary transfer, and sending the villain to a death of his own devising. Though I think that if my main mode of supernatural murder involved slipping spells into papers dropped by my victims, I would have been a lot more careful with my own belongings.
Generally, I find ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my Lad’, one of James’ most well known stories, the most relatable, and therefore the most terrifying. I am not an academic, and will probably never fall foul of an alchemist due to my casual rejection of his badly written life’s work. I am, however, always picking up stuff on beaches and putting it in my pocket. If I found an ancient whistle in a hole, I would almost certainly blow it. Unlike our hero Parkins, I would be lost, as there would be no capable Major to save me. Which brings me to a very salient question- what has happened to all the Majors? In almost every nineteenth and early twentieth short story or novel set in a hotel or sleeper train there is a retired Major ready to put himself at someone’s service. No wonder society finds itself in such a mess these days, trying to struggle along without them. Anyway, ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to you, my lad’, finds another academic on holiday, this time in a seaside hotel, practicing his golf (with the aforementioned Major). He foolishly offered to survey a nearby historical site for a colleague, and while poking around there one evening, finds a small bronze whistle. As he walks back to his hotel, he senses a figure following him, and so his nightmare begins. Obviously, actually blowing the whistle makes things ten times worse, but who could resist? The whistle unleashes a terrifying ghoul that fashions itself out of a bed sheet and scares it’s victims to death. Fortunately it is no match for the no-nonsense Major. Phew. Things could have turned out so much better for those kids from The Blair Witch Project if he’d been around.
This collection is a long one, and I could literally write about every single story in it. Including including the one where the murdered witch takes control of the tree and stabs at squires in their sleep with the branches (Lock. Your. Windows.) Or perhaps you prefer prayer books imbued with a murderous rage for Oliver Cromwell…