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I'm forty this year...I'm allowed a little existentialist angst.
'nothing but bones and tendons...'
As individuals...hell, as a species too, our grip upon life is fleeting, and that grasp is constantly subject to countless obvious-or-insidious attempts to loosen it. Remember that time you almost stepped out in front of a Number Ten bus? Remember all that food that you ate beyond its 'Use By' date because 'it'll probably be alright...fingers crossed'? Consider the constantly mutating armies of germs and viruses continually seeking the weaknesses in our ever-deteriorating immune systems...think of the vagueries of a climate that warms an entire planet while dispensing the sort of cold snap that leaves your face marbled to numbness should you even step outside your front door. And laugh at the bloke who chose the middle of said mini-ice age to change cars from a front to a (powerful) rear-wheel drive model.
Most of us are troubled on some level by the impermanence of our being...perhaps that's why we're so hung up on pondering whether this is all there is. Maybe our exit from this life isn't so much 'ashes to ashes, dust to dust' as 'Mr Acorah...can you hear me?'
All civilisations and cultures throughout recorded history have constructed their own legends and tales of the spirit world. The Mesopotamians believed in entities with the memories and personalities of their living selves, accorded a position in the netherworld and offered food and drink by their earthbound relatives. The Egyptians took such beliefs as the khu (shining part of the soul) and compiled them into the Egyptian Book of the Dead. In the Middle Ages spirits were divided into either ghosts or demons, distinguished by their response to the Holy Name being invoked. And 20th Century America gave us Scooby-Doo.
But nowhere else can compete with the stupendous supernatural lore of Britain. It's an isle rich in allegedly true (cough) tales of spectral kings and queens ('with her 'ead tucked underneath 'er arm'' etc), of armies of assorted White, Red and Brown Ladies, and haunted houses such as Essex's Borley Rectory and London's 50 Berkeley Square; and also replete with folklore which describes such creatures as the kelpie, the Black Shuck and Spring-heeled Jack. Literature has featured many supernatural protagonists and antagonists, from the four ghosts in 'A Christmas Carol' to Hamlet's dad.
But one form of writing has always lent itself to tales of visitors from the grave: the short story. Lots of folk have essayed them, some have specialised in them; but still preeminent, nearly 75 years after his death, is Montague Rhodes James.
'Quieta non movere...'
Born in Kent (in 1862), raised in Suffolk and a quite brilliant scholar, James spent much of his adult life steeped in Cambridge-rooted academia, and the majority of that at Kings College. In his time as a fellow, dean and tutor he specialised in biblical literature and illuminated mediaeval manuscripts, eventually becoming the provost of first Kings (1905) and later his old school, Eton (1918). Study, research and teaching took up most of his time, and the academic papers he produced were very highly regarded.
But a man's got to have hobbies. So it was that Monty James, when he wasn't busy being an antiquarian, had quietly invented what came to be known as 'the antiquarian ghost story' on the side. And most Christmas Eves he and his friends would gather around the fire at Kings where James, allying his acting and mimicry talents to his writing facility, would read one of his new stories aloud. During his lifetime his tales were packaged into several compilations ('Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' (1904), 'More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary' (1911), 'A Thin Ghost and Others' (1919), and 'A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories' (1925)) but the true testament to their chilly power is that they've never been out of print in the years since he died. Countless published compilations of James' work exist and continue to be released, despite the fact that (as it's all out of copyright) most of his yarns can now be found on the internet.
'But they didn't like having their bones boiled...'
Because of this it's almost (appropriately) academic that I've selected 'Collected Ghost Stories' as the subject of this review. Contained therein are 30 stories, compiling the majority of James' output but omitting the final few tales (several of which are mentioned in the compelling closing essay, 'Stories I Have Tried To Write', and most of which are inevitably web-obtainable anyway). None of them run to more than twenty pages, and as such they're eminently suited to a quick bedtime read before a restless night of seeing every shadow, hearing every scuttle and passionately praying for daylight.
It's extraordinary to think that these extreme reactions are being evoked from beyond the grave by a man writing 100 years ago; a man who generally wrote of the 'educated' world he knew for an audience consisting of his own contemporaries. To that audience they would have seemed shockingly modern (with most ghost stories having been 'gothic' up to that time), but to the 21st Century reader they SHOULD be little more than 'Downton Abbey' with the benefit of added supernatural vengeance. How come they're so much more than that?
Well, despite the fact that a lot of James' tricks have been shamelessly approximated to over the years, the devil (or the worryingly-cowled figure with the wisps of wiry hair poking out from under the hood and the face you can't quite see) is in the details...
As many have written before me, there are a fair few recurring motifs in James' writing. There will be a protagonist (always male; women are never more than a rare supporting character in these stories), often an academic, sometimes a country gent (with academic leanings), usually repressed and absorbed. Said protagonist will find themselves in a place of learning, the Low Countries, an abbey, a country house, or (if they're really unlucky) the Suffolk coast. And there generally be an object, such as a book or picture or carving, the coveting of or possession of which will come with a terrible payload, like marrying the girl of your dreams but discovering you suddenly have Heather Mills as your mother-in-law.
Stylistically James tended to write in a very colloquial fashion (although he wasn't above quoting the odd bit of Latin), often using the first person (be it that person's direct experience or his relating of a tale that he himself was told) as a method of drawing the reader in and placing them very much within the yarn being spun. That yarn would have been embroidered with almost offhand fine detail while James would teasingly hint at other things that may or may not be significant come the denouement. The cumulative effect is to make the reader feel they are very much inside the heads of the author's characters, a rare skill and one that becomes worryingly effective when allied to the other dominant feature of his writing... Properly Nasty Ghosts.
'The ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story' - M. R. James
Always described with perfect balance between 'telling' and 'not telling', James' supernatural entities were never friendly, and while some stories do end with the characters escaping from their unearthly attentions a lot of them don't; lots of people end up dead, and not just those who were technically dead before the story even started. Young and old, good or evil, all are vulnerable in these tales, and that's a large part of what keeps the reader on edge; after all, when reading this sort of fiction the most important thing to be frightened of is the author rather than the apparitions.
'...put its arms around my neck.'
Afore-mentioned recurring motifs aside, James worked hard to avoid repeating himself; because of this his standards remained high throughout 'Collected Ghost Stories'. But these are my favourites...
Lost Hearts - An orphaned boy is offered the chance to live in a big country house by his elderly cousin, a bachelor with no previous record of liking children and given to spending hours on end in his library studying 'alternative' religions. Has he experienced a conversion to the innocent joys of cherubic company of Daddy Warbucks-esque proportions? Seeing as this is M. R. James rather than The Railway Children, that's unlikely. A quite deliciously black little tale.
Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad - The most famous of James' stories finds a young Cambridge professor taking a golfing holiday on the windswept Suffolk coast and indulging his Antiquarian tendencies with a spot of recreational archaeology. And just as blowing a whistle at 4:50pm on a Saturday afternoon in Salford can bring forth a frightening face of ancient vengeance if Manchester United are losing...well, you get what I'm hinting at. A supremely evocative voyage into a bleak landscape with a hair-raising (and sheet-disturbing) denouement.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas - An Englishman abroad in the Low Countries in the mid 19th century happens upon an ecclesiastical conundrum etched in the stained glass of a nobleman's private chapel, and in his delight in deciphering the passage about huge amounts of gold he pays a bit less attention to the bit about a 'guardian'. An excellent example of James' ability to direct the reader's imagination towards smell and touch as well as sight and sound, and a dreadful warning to Sudoku aficionados that sometimes the solving of the puzzle represents the beginning rather than the end of the problems.
There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard - A very short short story that's actually the story of someone telling a story. Confused? Well, with the conceits stripped away this is a raw and frightening vignette (particularly for those of us who have actually dwelt next to an abandoned graveyard) where the titular man is left very much wishing he'd left the titular churchyard alone.
Wailing Well - Displaying a level of playful malice of which Roald Dahl would have heartily approved, the tale James wrote to be told around the campfire of the Eton School scout troupe concerns a scout troupe...one of whose number fails to gain his map reading badge in somewhat spectacular fashion. Starkly chilling, and set as it is on a hot summer's day 'tis a fine demonstration of James' ability to coax threat from otherwise unthreatening situations.
'...an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen'
Just as some folk instinctively (but incorrectly) shy away from books there's a cross-cultural inevitability that anything remotely effective on the printed page will end up adapted to alternate formats; thus many attempts have been made to relocate James' clammy 'otherness' to media pastures new. None of them quite compete with the uniquely queer atmosphere of the original stories, but some serve as a decent introduction to his work for anyone whose curiosity I've aroused. Even Hollywood has had a go (with 1960's 'Night of the Demon' a reasonably faithful adaptation of 'Casting the Runes', sporting some incredible atmospherics but slightly undone by a plank of a leading man and a laughable monster that the story wisely hinted at rather than described). But with such a peculiarly English proposition as James the most significant adaptations were always going to be English, and usually sprang from the cobwebbed bosom of old Auntie Beeb herself.
Plenty of James' stories have been committed to audiobook by the world (minus Martin Jarvis, amazingly, and Joe Pasquale and Brian Blessed, disappointingly) and his wife, while BBC Radio have adapted a fair few of them into plays. For television there have been productions that leaned heavily on the fact that the tales were designed to be read aloud, and it must say something about the awe in which James' unearthly beings are held that only Jesus and Dracula (Robert Powell and Christopher Lee, the latter playing James himself) were felt to offer sufficient insurance when telling these stories to the camera. But just as old Monty himself would gather his friends around the fire at Christmas, so the best-known versions of his stories result from the BBC's periodic urges to produce a ghost story for Christmas. This idea sprang up in the late 60s and has been occasionally revived ever since.
In common with so much else in life, it's the more recent efforts that most disappoint. Most of the productions aren't entirely faithful to the original stories, but 2010's 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You' finds a grimly suffering John Hurt in an adaptation that keeps little more than 'being very scared in an East Anglian seaside hotel' from James' yarn, while 'The View from a Hill' and 'Number 13' make the mistake of taking characters who were no worse than academic and reserved and making them rudely unsympathetic. 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' from 1974 fares better; the story is still altered to no great dramatic gain, but the slithery sound design is hugely memorable. Best of all are 'A Warning to the Curious', a powerful reminder (by means of a very wheezy ghost) of Peter 'Grouty' Vaughan's substantial acting range; 'Lost Hearts', after which you'll never hear a hurdy-gurdy again without it conjuring the image of some very creepy children; but best of all is Jonathan Miller's classic 1968 adaptation of 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad', a genuinely terrifying cocktail of beaches, rags, and Michael Hordern frantically sucking his thumb, wrong in all the right ways.
(All of these productions can be found on YouTube, according to a barely glimpsed shadowy presence).
'Penetrans Ad Interiora Mortis'
Obviously the passage of time has removed the shock of the new from James' stories, but that's pretty much the only type of shock that's missing. Modern life is as far removed from his Edwardian settings as he was from the gothic traditions he was superseding, but some things remain effective no matter which era you're trapped in. An anecdotal, almost chatty style...casually inserted information that resonates and grows until it overwhelms...and horrible great spiders.
All voyages to the unknown (if safely returned from) will teach the traveller something, and with James being a tutor as well as a scholar he teaches the reader a great deal. Such as...
* When the Manic Street Preachers told us 'Libraries gave us power' what they really meant to say was 'Libraries are fecking dangerous.'
* If a French bloke offers you a book for way, way less than it should be worth, he's up to something. They aren't generally a generous nation when dealing with the English.
* If you see a red circle on a map, it's unwise to enter it. It's either the lair of a group of bloodthirsty ghosts, or a railway station.
* Grave robbing is a seriously bad idea.
* Seeing as wells are a bit grim and dark too...I wouldn't bother with them either.
* Performing black magic upon children can rebound upon you terribly. It's probably illegal too.
* Most nasty curses and warnings of dire supernatural retribution tend to be written in Latin...it's not too late to start a correspondence course in Classics.
* By all means join the Scouts...but be aware that there are some things they just won't be able to prepare you for.
* And curiosity may eventually run out of cats to kill...take care.
'YOU'VE GOT IT!'
And when it all gets too much, when the darkness overwhelms and the shuffling sounds deafen and the smell of damp mould overpowers, and you want to take refuge under the bed clothes...remember what can happen when you blow a whistle. Thanks to Montague James even my Duvet of Invulnerability simply can't be trusted anymore.
Massively classy, highly accessible, hugely recommended.
(Previously on Ciao)