M.R. James: The Father of the Modern Ghost Story

February 25, 2011

(this is a slightly altered version of an article that didn’t quite see print)

I really must tell you about Montague Rhodes (M.R.) James. James—born 1862; died 1936—remains unchallenged as the “Father of the Modern Ghost Story.” Not only did he single-handedly revive the moribund ghost story genre, he also laid the groundwork for what we recognize today as the modern horror story.

James wrote his tales during a period in which ghost stories had devolved into thinly veiled Victorian morality tales packaged in a supernatural wrapper. The ghosts of these stories are generally benign, and the stories themselves are crafted to generate sentimental wonder and yearning rather than fear. In his very first collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1904), James banished this sanitized spirit, placing in its ethereal stead a ghost of immediate and palpable danger. Boldly dismissing the conventions of his day, James restored the well-worn genre tale to its visceral roots. “The ghost should be malevolent or odious,” he said. “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.”

In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, the first story in James’s landmark collection, a lone English tourist visiting a crumbling French cathedral purchases a strange book comprised of odd accounts and images plundered from numerous volumes in the cathedral’s library. For James, whose life was one long love affair with mediaeval manuscripts, this alone must have constituted an outrage. Dennistoun, a fairly typical Jamesian protagonist, pores lustily over his unique find, curiosity blinding him to the nightmare into which he is haplessly falling. The exact nature of the horror is withheld until Dennistoun encounters the vengeful form of Canon Alberic himself. The spectre’s appearance is sudden, unannounced, and very real. As H.P. Lovecraft correctly noted, “The average James ghost is usually touched before it is seen.”

Pacing was another of the keys to James’s success, and his narrative trajectory has been well-travelled—whether consciously or not—by nearly every horror writer since. “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are,” he wrote, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

Most of the eight stories that comprise “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” were originally presented by James as a series of annual readings for his Cambridge friends and colleagues. But what he called his “Christmas amusements” so enthralled the members of the Chitchat Club (as they called themselves) that his small but loyal following was soon pressing him to publish his ghost stories in book form. He reluctantly acceded, unaware that his diversions would prove to secure his immortality, outliving even his great contributions to myriad antiquarian disciplines. The first small print run of “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” sold out quickly, and the book has never since been out of print. It is widely considered to be the most-read collection of twentieth-century ghost stories.

Many have wondered how the gentle Cambridge don—a staunch Anglican who was by all accounts affable and highly extroverted—could exhume such nastiness from his own kind heart. James was, after all, a decidedly stable and good-natured man. He feared spiders and loved cats; he was a man who liked jigsaw puzzles, detective novels, and playing solitaire. He helped friends in need.

Although numerous theories have been set forth (some of the more obscure ones take a psychoanalytic approach), James himself provided the most likely answer in a 1931 interview: “What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. It was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage. Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.”

Let James permeate your dreams. Order the book or read an e-text of the collection at http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/8486.

(As a sort of appendix, I found a chilling description of just such a dream as James likely experienced. The passage is from his story, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”, which appeared in his collection, “A Thin Ghost and Others”. I may include it in my next entry, as I think I’ve said enough for now…)

Thanks for reading.

Calvin

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