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The Original Master of Ghost Stories

(Source: newyorker.com)

Lost keys, a snagged button, a wine glass upset—you spilled it, didn’tyou, the wine didn’t spill itself? “The Complete Ghost Stories,” by M.R. James, first published between 1904 and 1935—and reprinted this yearby Macmillan, in a hardbound pocketedition,perfect for reading in a stalled subway car—incorporate what the author,the master of the modern ghost story, called “the malice of inanimateobjects.” Might that razor, so benign every other morning, know something? Does ill will ferret out, precisely, where we live? Thestories start quietly. A young man inherits a country house from anunknown uncle; a print collector finds himself drawn to an oddlyundistinguished engraving; a provincial hotel doesn’t—or does it?—have aroom numbered thirteen. The humdrum, muffled tone of these storiestransmits an atmosphere of almost superannuated ordinariness—fustyantiquarians, old books, the slightly dampish vistas of university life,train platforms in out-of-the-way stations—places and people that mimicthe life of the author himself, until they don’t.

Montague Rhodes James was born in Dover, in Kent, in 1862. His father,Herbert, was an evangelical Anglican clergyman. James was the youngestof three sons, and known as “Monty.” The religious strain was strong—hisbrother Sydney became an archdeacon. When Monty was three, the familymoved to the Rectory in Great Livermere, in Suffolk. The village recordsdate to 907 and predate the Domesday Book. An 1880 census counts lessthan a hundred and fifty people living in the village; five of them werethe James family. The watery landscape is moody, and the region producedrushes for thatch. Even today, some local residents believe that ghostsare attracted to the village by the vapors of the mere; there arenumerous contemporary sightings of a small man or boy wearing a jester’scap. James later set a number of his ghost stories in the village,including “The Ash Tree” (“What is it that runs up and down the stem ofthat ash?” Sir Matthew asks. “It is never a squirrel? They will all bein their nests by now.”) His last story, “A Vignette,” takes place onthe grounds of what seems to be the Livermere Rectory, where a spectralface appears in a hole in the gate. Scholarly efforts have been made tounearth the early trauma that would account for James’s succession ofwraiths, screeches, hairy faces, and skeletal hands creeping out fromunder the pillow. He reported his own childhood as happy.

James never married. He spent his life in one incarnation or another ofthe schoolroom, first at Eton, and then at King’s College, Cambridge,where he earned a double first in classics, ensconced himself, and roseto the level of vice-chancellor. From 1883 to 1908, he served as thedirector of the Fitzwilliam Museum, at Cambridge, where he catalogued themuseum’s archives and expanded the collection of paintings andmanuscripts—activities that absorb the tweedy protagonists of hisstories—and then returned to Eton, where he was the provost until hisdeath, in 1936. Although he objected fiercely to over-intellectualism(one Cambridge anecdote, perhaps embellished, has James reprimanding twoundergraduates dissecting a philosophical question with the order, “Nothinking, please, gentlemen!”), his particular scholarly interestsincluded the haunted world of the Apocrypha and early-medievalmanuscripts. And among his many academic publications is a meticulousintroduction to Thomas of Monmouth’s “The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich,” writtenin 1173, in which James refuted the widely held idea that William, atwelve-year-old boy, had been killed in 1144 by Jews as part of a ritualsacrifice. (William’s murder was the first such recorded medievalaccusation.) At Eton and at Cambridge, he liked telling his scarystories to boys and undergraduates around the fire in a dimly lit room,and presenting a new story to friends at Christmas. He was happy to knowthat his tales had given “a certain pleasure” to many readers. Besides“thinking,” James’s objections included sex in contemporary supernaturalstories, writing, “They drag in sex, which is a fatal mistake. Sex istiresome enough in the novels, but in a ghost story, or as a backbone toa ghost story, I have no patience with it.” He rode his bicycleeverywhere and went to bed early.

“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” was the favorite of thenovelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose own work often touches with graveeconomy on the penumbra left behind, like a thumbprint on glass, whensomeone simply vanishes. In my own two favorite stories by James, it is as though the object itself isdreaming: a print of an unidentified house changes over the course ofmany hours, as a shadowy figure appears and then leaves with a child inhis arms; in “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” a doll house complete to thelast detail—hats, walking sticks, wallpaper, copper pans—comes to lifeto replay a suspicious death. A last entry in James’s book has theendearing title—endearing, at least, to those who have tried to concoctany kind of tale: “Stories I Have Tried To Write.” These are simplyideas, in which nothing happens, or, at least, nothing much. A mantravelling in France sits by chance in a railway carriage with a womanhe has not seen before; he is reading a novel set in a fictionalprovincial French town; when she gets off the train, he sees that herluggage is marked with that address. In another unfinished story, thetrue tale of two sixteenth-century Cambridge undergraduates who wereexpelled for “magical practices” is rounded out with a nighttime visitto a witch in Fenstanton, a few miles away, where they arrive to findher newly dug grave.

One of the odd things about these stories is that, without fail, atabout a third of the way through, I found myself a little bored. Thenarrative comes to a snag. It’s as if James himself, getting sleepy, hadleft the room. When this happened again and again, I began to wonderwhether the stop was in the story, or in myself; was it engineered bythe author to provide a little pause before the plunge into theunknown, a moment in which one might decide, after all, not to go aheadwith it? Last year, at a screening in Harlem of the movie “Get Out,”right before the actor Daniel Kaluuya opens the door of the basement,the audience, knowing what was coming, yelled, “Don’t go there!” Theworld can probably be divided into those who open the door and thosewho do not. James builds that frisson into his stories before drawingthe reader into his spiderweb.

And another odd thing: over the week or two that I made my way through thesepages, the book kept disappearing. I put it down on the kitchen table,and when I looked for it, it had vanished. Then it would appear, itsthin gold ribbon marking my place, tucked between pillows on the sofa,or on the piano. One evening, I found it on the stairs. On a morningafter I had neglected it for a few days, evil thoughts seemed to alightone after another, like harpies, on my shoulder. I not once but threetimes spilled my coffee, and a potted plant upset itself on thewindowsill, though there was no wind.  At the close of “Stories I HaveTried to Write,” James records, “Late on Monday night a toad came intomy study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with thisappearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topicswhich may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidablevisitants. Enough said.”

One of the earliest recorded ghost sightings is in the Book of Samuel,when the witch of Endor tells Saul that she has divined the ghost ofSamuel; in the Odyssey, Homer meetsthe ghosts of Achilles and Tiresias among the company of the dead. A fewweeks ago, at BAM, the German theatre company Schaubühne Berlin endedits eviscerating German-language production of “Richard III” with a ghoststory. Face smeared white, almost naked, Richard, the mad, sad king,lies in his bed, a lit microphone swaying like a noose above him, whilethe ghosts of those he has murdered hover around him. (In thisproduction, the young princes in the Tower of London were depicted byfull-sized jointed puppets, which made their fate both more and lessunbearable.) A scary play for scary times. “The Devil doesn’t wearPrada,” the actor Lars Eidinger, who played Richard, said in one of hisasides in English to the on-edge audience, which responded with nervouslaughter. How do we dream up what haunts us? What does the bogeymanwear, this season of weird weather, as he lays in wait, the sound ofmanic laughter twittering from the bonfire piles of autumn leaves?

More Info: newyorker.com

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