A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
There was an unseemly scuffle in the den when it turned out that both Kirsty and Moira were fans of M R James, but in the end they agreed to a joint review – and promptly proceeded to take turns weirding each other out…
Kirsty: I first read the collected stories of M R James when I was at school, but they didn’t make a great impression on me at the time: I think I was too young and too philistine. Then I picked him up again while at Cambridge, which is of course an excellent place to read James, and scared the everloving crap out of myself by reading them all, one after the other. I then read them all again, and again. I even amused the nice people at King’s by going on a literary pilgrimage (next door: I was at Catz) to see his portrait, and admire his initials over the doorway in the quad built when he was Provost.
Why does he scare the everloving crap out of me? I think it’s because he makes weird and never quite explained things happen in a fairly banal context (well, banal to him: and still pretty strongly recognisable if you know his settings). Because he so rarely describes the Things that haunt the margins of his world in full, leaving it to just a few primal and endlessly suggestive details. I can still give myself a properly sleepless night by remembering the phrase “a horrible hopping creature in white,” or the inscription ibi cubavit lamia, or the red eyes of the thing that inhabited Southminster Cathedral.
Favourites are hard to choose, but I think Count Magnus is mine, along with Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and The Mezzotint.
Moira: I think my personal favourites are The Tractate Middoth — the reading of which has effectively ensured that I can’t ever go into an old library without a fleeting feeling of unease — and Casting the Runes, which contains what is, for me, one of the most chilling moments in the whole oeuvre: when Dunning puts his hand under his pillow to find his pocket watch…
And you’re right, of course: what makes James’ stories so utterly chilling is the way they’re told. Not for Monty the big build up and the grand reveal — his stories trundle along at the most sedate of paces, lulling you into a trance-like state. The horror, when it comes, is described so prosaically that you could almost miss it. Like you I first read the stories — or at least some of them — when I was quite young, and they left me bemused and underwhelmed. It was only coming back to them much later that I began to appreciate them.
The thing about James is that you have to read his stories very carefully, word by word, with your brain fully engaged. The skim-reading that takes you at speed through so many modern novels just won’t do for Monty because if you try it, you miss everything.
Kirsty: I must admit that putting my hand under my pillow is something I never voluntarily do after reading that story, even though I managed to return to sticking my leg out of the covers after watching Paranormal Activity. Thanks to Canon Alberic, I now have a bit of a thing about making sure there’s no space behind my armchair, too.
And that’s the thing about James: he doesn’t go for the climactic kind of fear, the kind of adrenaline high that you can’t sustain for long. No, he goes for a sort of creeping unease, the sort of thing that can stay with you for days — and, if you’re a bit impressionable like me, can come flooding back for years afterwards if, for example, some bastard sends you an email mentioning the thing under the pillow in Casting the Runes.
Moira: Sorry about that. (Just not very.)
James’s narrators and dramatis personae are worth a mention too… aside from the dingbats engaging in dark and evil deeds at night, like boiling up dead men’s bones to make interesting binoculars, his “heroes” (and I used the quotes advisedly) are nothing of the kind. They’re just ordinary people who react in exactly the way you and I would. When confronted — or more probably approached obliquely, from the shadows — by whatever resident evil is the subject of the story, they don’t square up to it and face it down, they hitch up their skirts and run screaming. I’m thinking especially now about those binoculars and A View from a Hill… and Fanshawe’s ill-advised visit to Gallows Hill. The description of him grabbing his bicycle and hurtling headlong from the hill, being clutched at by what could just be branches and twigs, but…
And then there’s that furry, hairy — uh — thing that pursues Denton from the room in The Diary of Mr Poynter. He’s so scared witless that he forgets which way the door opens and crashes into it, clawing and beating at it as the — the — THING claws softly at his back. It’s the “soft, ineffectual tearing” that finishes you off.
And that’s the whole point, isn’t it. He never laid it on with a trowel – and was all the more skin-creeping for it. Soft, ineffectual tearing…
Kirsty: Don’t forget poor Mr. Williams locking his mezzotint in the other room [stops to have reflexive shudder at the memory of old Gawdy having managed the job himself], or Mr. Humphreys, studying the “blot” on the plan of the haunted maze and being so startled to see Something coming up to meet him — “with the odious writhings of a wasp crawling out of a rotten apple,” at that — that he leaps back and knocks himself out on a lamp. No unrealistic heroism here, of the kind that sends idiots alone into basements in the middle of slasher films. And indeed the kind of horror that hangs around in James’ world isn’t the sort that goes for basements and murder scenes. His Things like to populate what you’d hope to think of as safe places: libraries, family homes, churches. And the logic of their actions is never completely obvious, even when there’s a coherent backstory. No wonder his people are all nervous wrecks.
I’d be interested to know if you have a favourite among the James heroes. I have a real fondness for Dennistoun from Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, for some reason I can’t quite pin down. I suppose it’s because he seems so eminently sensible.
Moira: I think I’d nominate Anderson, in Room Thirteen for the same reason… He keeps his head, and has a bit of ‘go’ in him. His friend Jensen’s all for locking himself in his room — presumably with his head under his pillow (although there isn’t a lot of security in pillows in Monty’s world) — until it all goes away, but Anderson’s cautiously curious, in a sensible sort of way. Me – I’d vote for locking myself in some other room in another hotel in an entirely different town…
Room 13 features one of James’s “hairy arms,” of course. It didn’t register with me that he seems to have had a thing about hair until Darryl Jones pointed it out in his excellent introduction to the new OUP edition of the stories — then I realized that hair and fur and wispy whatnots — like cobwebs over faces — feature prominently in a lot of the stories. Fertile ground for psycho-analysis there, I feel.
The one story that DOESN’T really do it for me is perhaps his most famous – Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. I’m not sure why, because it’s written with his usual style and competence, and all the necessary ingredients seem to be in place, but somehow the booglie under the bedsheet routine doesn’t quite work as a bone-chiller. Are there any that leave you a bit ‘meh’?
Kirsty: I agree on Oh Whistle, actually: somehow it didn’t quite work for me. Other than that, it’s the usual suspects: Two Doctors, There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance… I feel, perhaps unfairly, that he dashed those off rather on the side; whether he did or not, they’re quite different from his usual stuff. Perfectly fitting in their way, but they just don’t appeal.
Moira: And even the great M R J is allowed his ‘off’ days. By his own admission there were a clutch of stories that he started but never finished because they more or less ran out of steam –- but in his entire body of work, there were far more palpable hits than misses and in any case, taste in horror stories is a very personal thing; which brings us neatly to crunch time: when we have to decide on a favourite and – for the benefit of all those poor unfortunates out there who have never encountered Monty – review it. You go first…
Kirsty: Count Magnus is my favourite of James’ stories (although Canon Alberic comes a very close second), even though it comes in a form I generally loathe: the Found Manuscript. But in this case it’s exactly the right form. There is nobody who could tell the story of poor Mr. Wraxall, the hapless enthusiast, like poor Mr. Wraxall himself.
I suppose the appeal of this story for me lies in the fact that the undoing of Mr. Wraxall — the little crack that lets horror and mayhem seep into his world and destroy it — is something I know all too well at first hand. It is his enthusiasm for a historical character, in this case the fictional Count Magnus of the Swedish De la Gardie dynasty. I say fictional because there was a Count Magnus de la Gardie, but he was a handsome and clean-cut sort of figure, if ultimately rather tragic. Whereas James’ Count Magnus is something else entirely: an “almost phenomenally ugly” man, unstintingly cruel, vicious and depraved, with a reputation for going on Satanic pilgrimages.
The unfortunate Mr. Wraxall, staying at the De la Gardie manor house to research one of those awful nineteenth-century travelogues, becomes fascinated with Count Magnus, or what he can glean of him. And Count Magnus, from his uneasy resting place, responds to this fascination. We must watch as Wraxall’s sanity unravels, as the narrative peters out and the finder of the manuscript delivers his sad verdict.
Re-reading it does not decrease the horror: quite the opposite. With the outcome revealed, the unspeakable dynamic at the centre of the thing becomes even more starkly clear. And this relatively innocuous moment, about halfway through, takes on a fatal significance:
It could not be denied that this threw a rather lurid light upon the tastes and beliefs of the Count; but to Mr Wraxall, separated from him by nearly three centuries, the thought that he might have added to his general forcefulness alchemy, and to alchemy something like magic, only made him a more picturesque figure, and when, after a rather prolonged contemplation of his picture in the hall, Mr Wraxall set out on his homeward way, his mind was full of the thought of Count Magnus. He had no eyes for his surroundings, no perception of the evening scents of the woods or the evening light on the lake; and when all of a sudden he pulled up short, he was astonished to find himself already at the gate of the churchyard, and within a few minutes of his dinner. His eyes fell on the mausoleum.
‘Ah,’ he said, ‘Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you.’
Moira: I vacillated like crazy over my favourite M R James story, because I have so many, and I like them all for very different reasons, but for me Casting the Runes is the very essence of Monty James at his best. Not only is it a reminder to cavalier book reviewers that some authors can be a bit touchy about having their darlings dissed, it’s also — more to the point — a beautiful example of horror being conjured from the mundane.
Our hero — if you can call him such — is Edward Dunning, who makes the mistake of rejecting a paper on “The Truth of Alchemy” submitted to a learned society by one Mr Karswell. Karswell is a deeply unpleasant man with — as it turns out — a working knowledge of witchcraft and a bit of a history of reacting badly to criticism: the man who panned his book on witchcraft ended up dead after falling out of a tree, which he had climbed for no readily discernible reason.
Karswell duly goes after Dunning, and initially James cranks up the tension so slowly you’re barely aware it’s happening… the feeling of unease when the helpful stranger retrieves his fallen papers for him, the message mysteriously inscribed in the railway carriage window, the flyer snatched from his hand before he can focus on it, his servants’ sudden illness… but then, almost out of nowhere, James pulls off a coup de theatre as Dunning reaches under his pillow to consult his pocket watch. It’s a classic M R James moment, arriving without prior warning and guaranteed to give you a very unpleasant crawling sensation up your back if you happen to be reading in bed.
Dunning is introduced to Harrington, the brother of the book critic who had died in such mysterious circumstances and together they piece together what is happening. From that point onwards, it’s a game of cat-and-mouse and a race against time, which culminates in another of my favourites James-ian moments … the invisible companion:
Harrington [...] went forward a few yards within sight of the gangway to the boat, at which Karswell had now arrived. The man at the head of it examined his ticket and, laden with coats, he passed down into the boat. Suddenly, the official called after him, ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?’ ‘What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?’ Karswell’s snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. ‘The devil? Well, I don’t know I’m sure,’ Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud, ‘My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! Ask your pardon.’
And if that doesn’t give you the cauld grues, then probably nothing will…
M R James, Collected Ghost Stories, OUP, 2011. ISBN: 978-0199568840. 512pp.