Dad would usually read us M.R. James’s ghost stories in the evenings, after dinner and homework and sundry other bits were done; he’d occasionally play recorded versions of several of the stories, read by Michael Horden. I always preferred Dad’s narration, the way he’d growl for the villains and gruffer types, or use a slightly higher pitch for the various professorial characters with nasty things in store for them.
Quite I’d end up cuddling on his lap during the scary bits, ear pressed against his heart as his voice rumbled through me, waiting eagerly for my favourite parts to arrive. The fear these stories create was always there, but it was the cosy kind that gets your blood pumping without bringing on the terror sweat, with the fire on and the lights dim but still there. I was secure in the knowledge that I was safe with Dad, and I was safe going up the stairs to bed afterwards.
Do I really need to explain about Montague Rhodes James? Medievalist, scholar, lecturer and writer, there was no way Dad wouldn’t have adored him. H.P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith paid tribute to him, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell were inspired by him, heaps of British writers deliberately wrote in his style, forming the ‘James Gang’. (Now I have a vision of a bunch of writers and academics travelling around in a van getting traumatised by ghosts and ghoolies, and solving mysteries.) Without him, British ghost stories and stories about the supernatural in general would be very different.
To give you just one idea of the effect he had on us: one of the very first short stories I ever wrote was a bizarre cross between an M.R. James story and the Pevensie children’s evacuation situation in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. It was of course abysmal, but the two sections of it that I can remember and am still rather proud of are essentially diluted M.R. James. The first is when the children, on holiday in a relative’s house and, having seen a magic lantern show the night before (some Just William influences cropping up as well, I think) are discussing what real ghosts look like. The littlest one pipes up with the declaration that she knows what a real ghost looks like: there’s one at the bottom of the garden. When she’s quizzed about the ‘Brown Lady’ she describes the figure: “Her dress is brown, and her hair is brown, and her skin’s brown, and her teeth are brown.” And when asked how the lady’s teeth can be brown – does she mean rotted? – she says no, brown as if her mouth had been full of earth and dirt.
The other section I like is when one of the kids is chased through the woods by something very swift and snarly. He only gets a few glances at whatever it is, but he describes it as “pale brown, that’s what it was. Now I think of it, it was like a bone that had been buried for a while.”
Yes, I am aware that, knowing M.R. James’s work, I am no M.R. James.
The book that Dad would read to us from, with the best of James’s output, was the 1973 Folio Society binding, with lithographs by Charles Keeping.
These pictures are seriously the best thing about this collection of stories. They make an already scary book into a minefield, especially when you’re leafing through it yourself for the first time and stumble across a particularly horrifying picture.
So, in perhaps a certain order, some of the best stories from this particular collection:
‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
Probably the first of the stories Dad ever read us, possibly because golf plays a relatively substantial part in it. Professor Parkins goes to a seaside town for a holiday and in order to improve his golf, engages in a little amateur archaeology, discovers something that definitely should have stayed buried, and inadvertently summons up something that’s very eager to catch up with him.
One last look behind, to measure the distance he had made since leaving the ruined Templars’ church, showed him a prospect of company on his walk, in the shape of a rather indistinct personage, who seemed to be making great efforts to catch up with him, but made little, if any, progress. I mean that there was an appearance of running about his movements, but that the distance between him and Parkins did not seem materially to lessen. So, at least, Parkins thought, and decided that he almost certainly did not know him, and that it would be absurd to wait until he came up. For all that, company, he began to think, would really be very welcome on that lonely shore, if only you could choose your companion. In his unenlightened days he had read of meetings in such places which even now would hardly bear thinking of. He went on thinking of them, however, until he reached home, and particularly of one which catches most people’s fancy at some time of their childhood.’ Now I saw in my dream that Christian had gone but a very little way when he saw a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him.’ ‘What should I do now,’ he thought, ‘if I looked back and caught sight of a black figure sharply defined against the yellow sky, and saw that it had horns and wings? I wonder whether I should stand or run for it. Luckily, the gentleman behind is not of that kind, and he seems to be about as far off now as when I saw him first. Well, at this rate, he won’t get his dinner as soon as I shall; and, dear me! it’s within a quarter of an hour of the time now. I must run!’
Also, the bit that always makes me squirm: Parkins at one point has a dream about a man struggling over the groynes (barriers to prevent erosion on a beach) while clearly being chased by something not yet obvious, and finally collapses once he gets over his latest obstacle. What is he running from? Then Parkins (still dreaming) spots “far up the shore, a little flicker of something light-coloured moving to and fro with great swiftness and irregularity. Rapidly growing larger, it, too, declared itself as a figure in pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined…” Coming nearer and nearer, it soon zeroes in on where the exhausted man is hiding, and darts forwards toward the hiding place…
Parkins naturally puts no real stock in such dreams, and resorts to reading throughout the night in order to get to sleep. The next day, after playing a game of gold with a fellow guest, a crusty Colonel, he relates the whole story. The Colonel bluntly advises him to get rid of his find as quickly as may be, but Parkins once again blithely fails to heed the warning signs. Oh, does he regret it later on!
The Ash Tree:
A woman is accused of witchcraft during the height of the witch-hunting craze in East England in the 17th century. Condemned by evidence given by the (admittedly reluctant) Sir Matthew Fell, Mrs. Mothersole goes to the gallows, all the while muttering “There will be guests at the hall.” The hall in question – Castringham Hall, Fell’s ancestral home – soon becomes the stage for terrifying and gruesome deaths, with disturbing references and connections to the ancient ash tree that grows next to the house.
When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine o’clock, Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the back of the house. The only incident that struck Mr Crome was this: they were in sight of the ash-tree which I described as growing near the windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said:
‘What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.’
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs.
(I always remember how Dad read this bit; the lighthearted enquiry of Sir Matthew, and the utter tension and threat darkness he put into the last sentence.)
There’s also the moment when Mr Crome, trying to make some sense of the calamities, ‘draws the sortes’ (a kind of divination by opening to a random page in a Bible) and comes up with these quotes:
‘I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7,Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones also suck up blood.’
James was a scholar who knew his stuff; Dad looked up these precise quotations for us – although we could never find the final divination, made later in the story: Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be. (I now know it’s Job 7:21. Thank you, internet!)
The curator of a university art museum purchases a mezzotint – a detailed print – of a country house. He’s rather disappointed with it, since it’s an adequate but unremarkable depiction of an 18th century manor house, with a large lawn in front of it. The narration itself says that
Very nearly the exact duplicate of it may be seen in a good many old inn parlours, or in the passages of undisturbed country mansions at the present moment. It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known.
Perfectly bland and boring – save for the fact that, when showing it to a colleague later, the two of them notice the hint of a figure ‘hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving’. Later, when a small gathering congregates in the curator’s rooms for after dinner conversation, another colleague remarks on the striking if grotesque figure. And when the curator is left alone later on in the night, he happens to glance at the mezzotint:
The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit.
For he sees that something very nasty is crawling on all fours, across the lawn and towards the house. And as the curator and his colleagues continue to observe, a long ago tragedy is slowly played out in unnerving detail.
(Fun fact: There are a number of recently built houses dotted around the suburb where we live, with columns and balconies, which we jokingly call mezzotint houses, since they remind us of the house in the story. One of these houses is set on a street lined with poplar trees on one side of the street and a hedge on the other side; for some reason it always brings to mind a scene from the next story on my list:)
Casting the Runes:
A researcher for the British Museum, Edward Dunning, turns down a paper submitted by one Mr. Karswell, a supposedly amateur alchemist and occultist, and also not a man to be slighted. Soon afterwards, Dunning begins seeing the obituary of John Harrington displayed wherever he goes – including in the actual glass of a tramcar window! – along with the ominous notice, ‘Three months were allowed.’ What’s more, the reader is already privy to the facts surrounding Harrington’s death, thanks to a dinner party held earlier in the story by some secondary characters in the midst of discussing the abominable Karswell:
‘Why, what happened was that he fell out of a tree and broke his neck. But the puzzle was, what could have induced him to get up there. It was a mysterious business, I must say. Here was this man—not an athletic fellow, was he? and with no eccentric twist about him that was ever noticed— walking home along a country road late in the evening—no tramps about—well known and liked in the place—and he suddenly begins to run like mad, loses his hat and stick, and finally shins up a tree—quite a difficult tree—growing in the hedgerow: a dead branch gives way, and he comes down with it and breaks his neck, and there he’s found next morning with the most dreadful face of fear on him that could be imagined. It was pretty evident, of course, that he had been chased by something, and people talked of savage dogs, and beasts escaped out of menageries; but there was nothing to be made of that.
And of course, Harrington had heavily criticised Karswell’s publication, History of Witchcraft.
Meanwhile, Dunning has a random encounter with a strange man, who returns some mislaid papers to him. Coming home to find his servants mysteriously off sick, he sends the night in solitude, only to wake up and find the electricity is off:
The obvious course was to find a match, and also to consult his watch: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again. And there he spent the rest of a most miserable night, looking every moment for some fumbling at the door: but nothing came.
(I do think this is the first thing Dad told us about this story, to get us hooked. Rather like a rather similar story, where someone’s searching in the dark for a box of matches, and suddenly a cold hand places the box into their own hand.)
It quickly become obvious that Karswell isn’t quite as much an amateur as was imagined, and has cursed Dunning, much as he did John Harrington. Dunning and Harrington’s brother, Henry, must join forces and return the curse to its sender, as well as potentially taking the chance for revenge. The climax in a train carriage on the way to Dover – with a stopover and Croydon West; so close to home! – is almost more akin to a thriller than a ghost story, as the three main characters, all keeping up fronts of innocence, figuratively struggle to triumph.
There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, but this story is honestly filled with so many delightful little tidbits, so many descriptions and scenarios that will keep you nervous and constantly looking over your shoulder, that you really just need to read it for yourself. More than anything, it makes wonderfully appropriate use of a quote from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner that I find can be suited to almost any occasion:
Like one, that on a lonesome road / Doth walk in fear and dread / And, having once turned round, walks on / And turns no more his head / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread.
And one more for the road, for now…
This story is a bit of a break from James’s tradition. The hero is dead, to begin with, the story being put together by the unknown narrator from the notes and papers of a traveller called Mr. Wraxhall, clearly long deceased. Like most of James’s protagonists he’s intensely curious; unlike them, he doesn’t escape what he’s unleashed:
His besetting fault was pretty clearly that of over-inquisitiveness, possibly a good fault in a traveller, certainly a fault for which our traveller paid dearly enough in the end.
The crux of the matter is this; during his travels in Sweden, while researching several periods of its history, Wraxhall becomes deeply intrigued by the grave of a Count Magnus de la Gardie; a figure of some dread in the surrounding countryside, even though he’s been dead for over two centuries. He’s certainly locked up tight enough, with three huge iron padlocks on his coffin. Of particular interest is that the Count went on something called ‘the Black Pilgrimage’, which Wraxhall is of course wild to know the meaning of.
Of course, Wraxhall soon finds out the meaning of the phrase; a trip into the city of Chorazin and a salute to the Prince of, possibly, the Air. The Devil? Or something even more unworldly and eldritch?
When Wraxall takes his discoveries to the landlord of the tavern he’s staying in, wondering about what the Count brought back from his pilgrimage. Reluctantly the landlord tells him of an event that happened in his grandfather’s time, ninety-two years before; two men foolishly decide to go and have a free hunt in the Count’s wood that night. ‘Well, those that heard them say this, they said: “No, do not go; we are sure you will meet with persons walking who should not be walking. They should be resting, not walking.”‘ But, naturally, off the men go into the woods. And during the night, the men waiting for them to return hear a scream, ‘just as if the most inside part of his soul was twisted out of him’. Later on, they hear someone – something – laugh, and a great door shut.
In the morning they get the priest, go into the woods to find the two idiots and bury them, because of course they’re dead, and they find this delightful little tableaux:
‘So they went to the wood, and they found these men on the edge of the wood. Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands—pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the home at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands. Also Anders Bjornsen was there; but he was dead. And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones. You understand that? My grandfather did not forget that. And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place.’
(By the way, that image of the sucked off face? Yeah, there’s a lovely print of that in the Folio Society volume. That was a terrible thing to turn to when you’re not expecting it. Here’s a link, but I’m warning you here and now, it’s not pretty.)
I mentioned that H.P. Lovecraft took inspiration from James. Without giving too much more away, let us just say that tentacles are involved in this tale at some point down the line. (As if the ‘sucking’ didn’t give you enough clues.)
After this revelation, things rather go down hill for Wraxhall, as he either acts rather foolishly in his attempts to discover more about the Count or gets swept up in forces beyond his control; either way, those padlocks holding the Count’s coffin shut begin to open one by one, with no one recognising the significance until it’s far too late.
Rounding off this plugging of James’s work, I highly recommend A Podcast to the Curious, a fantastic series where closely analyses each and every one of James’s stories, complete with dramatic readings of several passages and creepy sound effects. Effective, entertaining and enlightening.
And with that, happy Halloween.
Next: a milestone.