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M. R. James' Horror and the Tricky Business of the Imagination

Colin Fleming

M. R. James preferred to internalize horror so that the victim had the grotesqueries playing out in his heart and head, rather than in the cemetery across the way.

Collected Ghost Stories

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Author: M. R. James, Darryl Jones
Publication date: 2013-09

Sometimes I wonder what it says about me that I feel like I’m being disloyal to M. R. James. He is, after all, the lynchpin of what I consider the perfect “here I am up at some ungodly hour of the night what should I do now” scenario. I’ve worked out all the details, over the years: there I’ll be, in some seaside local, close enough to the water to hear the waves break, holed up in some alcove portion of a 19th century house, dram of Islay whisky in hand, one single light turned down way low, almost like it’s gaslight, and a volume of M. R. James’ ghost stories atop my lap.

Probably should be like two in the AM. Some rolling fog outside the window wouldn’t hurt. Take away James, and the whole shebang falls to bits, and you’re just some guy with insomnia and a bent for pretending you live in 1907. Quaint, but short on atmosphere. James, for those who haven’t read him, was basically Lord Atmosphere, presiding over the manor like that devil fellow does in Fantasia, when he comes out of the hills and starts doing weird things as Mussorgsky's “Night on Bald Mountain” pumps away.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if James’s friends once thought that their Montague Rhodes, long-time provost of King’s College and Eton, was a full-on nut job. For James’s big thing was to come up to you around Christmas, ask you to join him in his rooms with a bunch of other people to hear him read the latest ghastly, horrid story that he had written as a sort of holiday present to his mates, but which was bound to fuck up everyone’s holiday season.

I picture sweaty, perturbed students and teachers alike exchanging post-story looks in the hall in that “what the hell was that” fashion we’re all familiar with when someone else has done something unlike what anyone else does, and thought it normal as normal can be. Would they give me that look were they to show up, ghost-style, and see me, as I someday hope to be, sat seaside, nosing my Islay, delighting in some creep-tastic James offering, like it was a panacea, rather than a sure fire booster to insomnia?

For a second or two, when I imagine this scenario, I feel guilty that I want to get in on those communal looks too, but the feeling passes, and my allegiances always take me home to James. Because when you read him (and too few people do) you feel like you’re in on some compact that cannot be violated, a union of story and reader that exists when everyone else is asleep, or should be, and you have come to pay a call to something that will exist when the sun is out. Just as parts of ourselves seem not to exist when the sun is out. See? Spooky.

James is a writer who tends to get the gothic label these days, but that’s misleading. Lovecraft, for all of his quasi-sci-fi leanings, is more gothic in that grand, outward gothic sense; his narratives play out against vast backdrops, visual vistas where the grotesque takes hold and takes shape. Algernon Blackwood operated in a similar way, but James—along with the similarly underrated E.F. Benson (better known these days for Masterpiece Theatre friendly-fare like Mapp and Lucia—preferred to internalize horror so that the person who was its victim had the grotesqueries playing out right there in his heart and head, rather than in the cemetery across the way.

Not that James didn’t enjoy utilizing said cemeteries when need be, but you can bet your that if we’re reading James, that cemetery is going to be a virtual holiday spot compared to where the real locus of the drama is set. You know the expression you can’t take it with you? So it goes with the cemetery. But not with the horror elements endemic to James’s best ghost stories; he lodges them right behind your eyes, just as he does for his characters, and every attempt at flight is but another turn down some hellish back corridor of the mind, all ostensible escape routes leading further inward, until either the demons of the self are vanquished, or, more likely, never leave your side.

James gets anthologized a lot, but you don’t want piecemeal James. You want the full on smorgasbord, and for that you need Oxford’s Collected Ghost Stories. There’s a goodly amount of variety here, but we often begin with what I think of as James’s bachelor archetype. Take a guy who’s pretty bookish, usually affable, a friendly sort who also likes to do his own thing, and give him a holiday. Send him out to golf by some weald, or maybe to study some old ruins in a countryside beset with gorse and heather, and then blow up his concept of everything: what is possible, what is not, who he has been, who he is, who he might ever be.

Found texts are big here, ditto ciphers that release truths many of James’s characters doubtlessly wished they could have done without. Sometimes the bachelor figure partners with or befriends another bachelor staying at the same rustic inn, and conversations over a pint turn into planning sessions to sort out a mystery that must surely have some logical explanation.

But there is no logical explanation for what occurred. That would be contrary to James’s conception of a “pleasing terror”, as he put. Something subtle, insidious, corrosive, with death leaking through its victim, from the inside out, a kind of unholy leeching, where anything bombastic is derided as ineffectual. Not suitably horrible, you might say.

“Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book with very good ideas in it,” James wrote in what was tantamount to a series of pointers called “Ghosts—Treat Them Gently!”, “but—to be vulgar—the butter is spread too thick.” James, of all writers, shouldn’t be offering a disclaimer about his butter metaphor being too vulgar, when this guy is the king of imagistic vulgarity. Think the images of The Walking Dead are grotesque? I picture James come back again, sat in front of his TV on a Sunday night, muttering, “Pha! That’s weak. I’ll give you horror. Just wait until Christmas, boyos.”

James’s best stories, “Martin’s Close”, “Number 13”, and “The Mezzotint”, tend to have an arresting gambit at their core. In “The Mezzotint”, said gambit is some discernible movement over time by the images on the titular item. James has a knack for paralyzing his characters, making them spectators to a drama, just as we are spectators to their drama. Thusly, reader and protagonist are moved ever closer to each other, and the line that we usually recognize between the two is scuffed up, to a considerable degree, such that when two characters gather in a room to discuss the events of this most mysterious of mezzotints, we feel as though we’ve pulled up a chair and made a third.

Which means, of course, that we’re similarly ensnared in whatever is about to go down. When a respite occurs—that is, when a character gets off with nothing more, and that is a big “nothing more” than a telescopic look into some nether world having visited our corporal one—we feel the same relief as the protagonist doubtless does. You want to shake his hand, as you suspect he wishes to shake yours, and pledge that neither of you will ever return to that forlorn spot where you were both made to behold something that will now forever be trundled about wherever you roam.

“The Mezzotint” is a story of an external oddity. A crime of yore plays out in an old, faded work of art. It’s rather Ripley’s Believe It Or Not on the surface, late Victorian-lit style. But James is a cunning manipulator, with that external oddity gaining ingress into the closest individual, such that character and reader alike feel tacit in something neither ought not to be meddling with. There’s a voyeuristic aspect to reading James, and as with any form of voyeurism, the focus ends up being as much on the peeper as the peeped, if you will. The latter, often, doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and so it could be for the malevolent forces at play in “The Mezzotint”. But the reader, well, the reader always knows, and when James has rendered you every bit as much of a character as his characters proper, you start feeling heavy, slow-moving, not, exactly, inert, but trapped all the same, so that when you come to the end of the story, you’re thankful to be free of something you suspect would have preferred not to let you go.

At the same time, there’s a chumminess to James’s fiction; one gets this sense of “hanging out”. We are in pubs, inns, mess halls. Camaraderie is quiet, but often present. The stories lend themselves to be read repeatedly, to sidling up to familiar environs and taking a holiday in a familiar spot, as it were. James is convivial and conversational in his prose, and his characters tend to sport a quality we admire, even if it seems to be one we find less and less of today: that is, a passion for something that is specific to a given individual. A hobby, even. Although these hobbies, in James, tend to be more recondite in nature. I suppose that the denizens of James’s stories would have been the Comic-Con vets of their age, were such a thing around.

There’s a refreshing lack of pretense to a Jamesian hero, even if he happens to be a professor that sighs deeply when his dinner companion enjoys too much tipple. Which brings us to the James’s character who, in some way encapsulates all of the others, in the James short story that likewise incorporates elements of the best bits of all of the other narratives. “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, is surely one of the great short story titles. Given its perfect blend of formality and informality, it’s a title that is at once a summoning and a directive that’s a touch lazy, a remark sounded as much for its elegiac quality as to actually bring two people towards each other. The line comes from Burns, which might make you think that the Scottish poet’s oeuvre would be worth searching for additional would-be titles. No doubt.

There’s a wonderful BBC film from 1968, Whistle and I’ll Come for You, that comes close to nailing the horror of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, and that filmic connection is apt. Horror rarely gets as cinematic on the page as it does with James’s finest short story, and if ever we might describe prose as something to be watched, rather than just read, it would be here.

Professor Parkins, who is “young, neat, and precise in speech,” takes a holiday, upon the completion of term, to a remote seaside destination, the kind of place that Holmes and Watson would sometimes find themselves at when Conan Doyle wanted to move them far beyond the bustle of London. Parkins wishes, merely, to golf. Alone.

A colleague, learning of Parkins’ plan, asks our precise of speech professor if he would do a quick bit of recon work in regards to some nearby ruins and suss out whether they might make a prime spot for a dig. Parkins arrives at his vacation spot, sups with a Colonel Wilson—the story’s redoubtable “man of action”, with Parkins being its stalwart of thought—and actually has himself a merry old time poking about those ruins he had been asked to check out. Why, he even finds a whistle. Neat.

There’s some mysterious old writing on the whistle, which is reproduced in thick, inky letters on the page and a figure, or what looks like a figure, that seems to appear the moment the relic is in hand. The figure appears to run, but the distance between figure and professor does not lessen. Parkins considers waiting for him, thinking perhaps he’s some golfer heading to the inn, like Parkins, for his supper. There are groynes at the sea’s edge, and they take on the same blackened hue as the perpetually advancing figure which nonetheless gains no ground. Oh well, dinner awaits.

After dining with the Colonel, Parkins repairs to his room, and decides to have himself a sort of one man concert upon his new whistle, and the sensation of dread this plan produces is made all the more awful when both reader and professor alike seem to become fused to the page, to the action that is about to play out. For Parkins, that paralysis is a result of the tethering effects of the whistle and the sound it produces, a physical sensation that becomes inverted; that is, internalized, and then corrupted into something else entirely. Which is to say, it becomes not some other sound, but something visual.

The reader becomes similarly locked on Parkins as Parkins is locked on whatever is transpiring in his room, and there we all are. “It was a sound, too, that seemed to have the power (which many scents possess) of forming pictures in the brain,” we are told. An olfactory element has been introduced, like this is a sound that is boundless in terms of what it may transform itself into. This is the burrowing, insidious, insistent quality of James’s preferred terrors.

Parkins tries to quell his efforts, but no dice. He’s dealing with a “persistent panorama”, one that comes to involve an approaching, and eventually gaining, blackened figure, with Parkins forced to watch a man like Parkins tumble over the groynes, barely keeping ahead of the pursuing entity that, indeed, was no golfer.

The Colonel, debriefed of Parkins’ adventures --all of which took place in his bed—has misgivings. “Shit is wack,” he says, (in essence, that is), but there’s no stopping that headstrong Parkins. A frantic boy sees something in Parkins’ window the next day, some kind of monster flitting about, apparently, but no monster is turned up by our duo. Not, anyway, until Parkins is once again alone, tossing and turning, unable to sleep. By this point, it is no longer necessary to play the whistle to summon anything. The entity has leaked into the story. It is here. We know it.

Parkins knows it on some level too, although he’s trying to keep that knowledge out of his conscious mind. The Colonel definitely knows it. He has, as it turns out, seen some stuff in this world. We know the entity is going to turn up one last time. What we don’t know is the form it will take. The utter, otherwise banal form it does indeed take—spare linen, as it were—makes it all the more horrible. But this is not about death-by-laundry. It’s about external trauma gaining an internal toehold, and rotting its prey from the inside out. In short, it is about what life can do to any of us, when we find ourselves beset by its darker moments. That this is quotidian horror makes it all the more pervasive. Or, at least, easier to be run down by.

The question then becomes, how aware of that process will we be? Duly educated in these matters, Parkins is a very fortunate man. And not principally because the Colonel, vanquisher of soiled linens, bursts in upon the scene to quell the beast, but rather because internalized horror is further shape-shifted into something more manageable: namely, the experience that attests that what besieges a man on the inside is necessarily more deadly than any external fiend, given that the preferred destination of the latter will always be the heart, the soul, the mind. That is where the beast of any situation seeks to gain its foothold.

By the time we leave him, Parkins has become rather loath to discuss his experiences. Good man, you think. Just as I wonder if, having felt my own experiences as a reader conflating with Parkins’ own as a character, I’m speaking on behalf of both of us, sounding a whistle of a different kind, the sort that fires the brain and compels fingers to move over the board, and the imagination to leap over groynes of its own. Tricky business, the imagination. Locks you up, or lets you out, as James knew better than any writer of ghostly fiction. Cloak yourself in their respective sheets, and see which side you come out on.

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