Susan Hill

M. R. James’s dark world

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M. R. James died at peace with himself and the world. We can be reasonably confident in claiming that after reading about his last weeks, during which he was ill, tired, weak and bored but probably not in pain, and even more on learning what his sister Grace said of his final days. During the tedious weeks of illness a group of Monty’s closest friends had made him the present of ‘a radio- gramophone of the latest type’ and he had taken to it immediately. Grace wrote:

The radiogram proved such a pleasure to him and I can see him now after dinner … listening so intently, with his pipe in his mouth and matches strewn around.

If you could have seen him afterwards you would have rejoiced, every line gone and looking like a young man again and a most beautiful profile ... and strangely enough … a great likeness to my mother appeared. I feel sure he looks like that in Paradise.

Montague Rhodes James is now best remembered for his two collections of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, which were — or so he would have had everyone believe — mere light-hearted attempts to entertain friends at Christmas, first at King’s College, where he was Dean and then Provost, and later at Eton, where he was also Provost.

But James, although somewhat unhappily in charge of King’s, was one of the best Provosts Eton ever had and he was also a scholar of distinction, packing more solid achievement into his lifetime than most men who did not have any sort of administrative work to occupy them.

He had studied classics at Cambridge, became assistant in classical archaeology at the Fitzwilliam Museum and later, as a Fellow, then Dean, of King’s, lectured in divinity. He was a bibliographer, palaeographer and antiquarian, and catalogued every medieval manuscript in the Cambridge colleges, a massive work of patience and dedication. His enthusiasm for everything he did carried him on. He had a passionate interest in the Apocrypha and his translation of the Apocryphal New Testament is still a standard work. He was a naturally brilliant linguist and even taught himself Danish and Swedish in order to read writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and the Sagas in the originals.

He travelled extensively in Europe, generally by bicycle, and reckoned to have visited all but two of the cathedrals of France. He did not marry but he had many friends and when he returned to Eton as Provost, with relief, he delighted in the post, was happy and comfortable with staff and boys, down to the smallest and youngest, to whom he was often found chatting happily at the edge of the playing fields on pleasant afternoons.

Here then surely is a man altogether at peace with himself and the world, living a calm and orderly life, working steadily and hard, enjoying his leisure.

We may even decide that the ghost stories are of a piece with his character.

I wrote [them] at long intervals and most of them were read to patient friends, usually at the season of Christmas … they do not make any very exalted claim. 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, then my purpose in writing them will have been attained.

That sort of story frightens delightfully, giving us a not unpleasant shiver as we glance over our shoulders.

So what are we to make of these extracts?

The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long coarse hairs and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils … Imagine one of the awful, bird-catching spiders of South America and endowed with intelligence just less than human.

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 any human being.

These and even more vile creatures in M. R. James’s stories are not ghosts, as we know them, transparent figures in softly rustling garments or even headless horsemen. These are beings from the pit of hell and their purpose is always malevolent; they bring a terror that sends men out of their minds and hastens their deaths and are not the merely unnerving sheeted figures of a benign scholar’s invention.

James’s victims usually cause these dreadful creatures to emerge into the light of common day by chance. They commit no sin, though they sometimes make the mistake of being over-curious, as when Professor Parkin, in ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll come to you, My Lad’ blows an ancient whistle he has dug up, to see what will happen. Otherwise, as the James scholar Michael Cox pointed out, people may be guilty of nothing more than ‘a chance word, an unthinking action or simply being in the wrong place at the right time’, in order to spring the trap.

Malevolent beings are disturbed when an old post is dug up, a burial mound investigated, a tree is felled or some item of church furnishing removed. Is James’s message that the status quo is almost always better left alone and if so, can we apply the lesson to a man’s subconscious, which is best left uninvestigated, and are we referring to the subconscious of the author?

His friend Shane Leslie, also an aficionado of ghost stories, believed that below the surface, Monty James struggled with demons. It was Sheridan Le Fanu, Leslie says, who, ‘set the style Monty needed for his own ghost stories if he was to release his mind’s own mystical complex’, for he was bored by the scholarly investigation of classical ruins, ‘far more interested in investigating graveyards and psychical possibilities at home’.

He had lost too many people to death, especially via the scythe which cut through a generation of young Eton and King’s men in the Great War and by the accidental premature deaths of some especially close friends. Monty became darkly obsessed with death and every possibility it opened up, and Shane Leslie is stark in his assessment of Monty’s inner turmoil:

Far from being the issue of a side- hobby, the ghost stories were his relief from a secret madness in his inner soul — the obsession that in spite of all the art and beauty of the world and the unfailing friendships which met him at every corner … the malevolent and diabolical survived around him in the invisible. His friends wished he would believe in fairies instead of the curses, runes and appalling catastrophes he distributed to the innocent victims of his tales.

Yet in spite of it, Shane Leslie believes that James was essentially a happy man. Well, many happy people are conscious of darkness beneath the surface. Perhaps James was able to save his sanity by turning it to good use in his stories which, read aloud at Christmas though they were — and still are — are not successful only because they provoke an innocent and delightful shiver. They are better than mere entertainment, and models for any writer, whether of ghost stories or any other fiction, of elegant, measured English prose, perfectly paced and balanced. How to turn the screw, how to keep the reader on the edge of his seat, how to conjure up a sense of unease by a throwaway reference, a chance observation — M. R. James is a master of it all.

His supernatural creatures have a purpose which is never benign and in the everlasting battle between good and evil James often appears to let evil win out. The dreadful agents which are unleashed are doomed to remain in the hells of their own making and obtain their revenge and satisfaction by dragging the innocent down with them. It does not bear too close an analysis.

But we cannot ignore the verdict of Monty James’s own sister, who lived with him after she was widowed and was close to him all his life. To her he did n ot end his days in turmoil or torment, inner or outer; to her he was content and at peace, and after death looked like a young man again. By confronting them and writing about them, Monty had surely exorcised his demons and in doing so not only managed to entertain his readers but teach us a rather important lesson.