'Pleasure of a cetain sort'.
The ghost stories of M. R. James (1862 – 1936).
At the age of 12 I was lent an old Penguin edition of M. R. James’s ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ with the recommendation that these were the best ghost stories ever written. I was not disappointed. And so began a lasting, ‘pleasure of a certain sort’, as James himself put it. The pleasure of being led by these atmospheric tales, into an enjoyable sort of terror, all the more enjoyable for being set in the vanished twilight of the Victorian and Edwardian worlds.
Of his stories, James said, ‘If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when 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.’
In that first encounter with M. R. James I can still remember his ominous descriptions of the Suffolk coast in ‘Oh Whistle, and I’ll come to you, my lad’ and the fear I felt reading it, when I should have been asleep. In the story, James, ‘had Felixtowe in mind.’ The groynes, the Martello tower and the golf course are there to this day.
Part of the story is covertly autobiographical. He wrote, at the climax, ‘I have in a dream thirty years back seen the same thing happen.’ James is known to have suffered terrifying nightmares as a child and, although he never directly admitted it, a very disturbing encounter with a ghost. He was a lifelong Evangelical Christian and became the authority on the Apocrypha. He seems to have used his fiction to exorcise his private demons in a way that his public persona and academic standing would not easily allow him to do. When asked if he believed in ghosts, he was always non-commital; ‘I am prepared to consider the evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.’
A brilliant scholar, James became Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and later Provost of Eton. He is also well known in academic circles for his vast and authoritative work in cataloguing medieval manuscripts. He only wrote his thirty or so Ghost stories, as ‘entertainments’, to be read aloud to friends on Christmas Eve but it is for these that he is now mainly remembered. He used his academic knowledge and precise descriptive style to create wholly credible scenarios. He refers to ancient documents, history and archaeology, with authority and gradually builds up small, unsettling details towards a sudden and terrifying denouement. He perfected the technique of not saying too much, of hinting at what was coming and allowing his readers to imagine the details for themselves. His timing is immaculate.
To these ingredients he also brought a dry sense of humour, fear and laughter being two sides of the same coin. And this is perhaps another reason why his collected Ghost Stories have never been out of print since they were published over 70 years ago.
© Robert MacCall 2008