M.R. James

It can be surprisingly easy to write your way out of enjoying something (or very nearly), as I discovered while trying to compose this review. It may be that James’ stories in particular don’t lend themselves to thoughtful reflection; he himself, in the essay On Ghost Stories (appended to his Collected Ghost Stories), declares that his writings were meant purely for entertainment. And I think that that attitude actually makes his work better – or at least, more enjoyable – than most 19th century gothic fiction, which suffers from self-indulgent aestheticism and dull conservative moralising. But James was still resolutely a Victorian, even if he wrote well into the 20th century, and so scratching the genial surface of his stories will reveal the usual attitudes of the English upper classes.

But first, a bit about the works in question. Montague Rhodes James was a well-to-do English antiquarian who dared to ask that greatest of historical questions: What if an artifact was so cursed? A question which he answered in myriad ways via the short ghost stories he wrote as a hobby from the 1890s to 1920s. These mostly follow a formula; the protagonist, usually some sort of historian, acquires a curse via some object he should not have sought or accepted – or learns of some spooky goings on in the past via textual bric-a-brac – and someone suffers a supernatural attack which ends their life or leaves them shaken (but not broken; this isn’t Lovecraft).

James may have had an obvious comfort zone, but he does a great job of varying the finer points, finely balancing consistency with novelty. He is also a very good writer on a technical level, perhaps owing to his training as an academic; I am frequently impressed with his ability to pack so much information into concise and grammatically faultless sentences (an ability I notably lack), allowing the action to flow without interruption.

Another talent of James’ is for maintaining a satisfyingly spooky tone and atmosphere without veering into the truly disturbing. It’s a matter of taste, perhaps, but I find the real world and its histories more than disturbing enough; what I’m after in fiction is Walpole’s gloomth, a pleasing chiaroscuro balance between humour and horror. James was preoccupied professionally with the English past and its grim chapters, but he seems to have been too pleasant a man, leading too pleasant an existence, to let anything too realistically horrible happen to his characters.

If I wanted to get psychoanalytical about it (and I’ve read some rather tenuous interpretations of his works in that vein), I could argue that the curses, the hellish creatures that stalk, the ghosts of a more brutal past, are all symbolic of the horrific realities just at the edge of James’ comfortable world. And maybe he was more aware of the latter than his affable tone suggests; James was a lifelong bachelor, after all. But, if present, any such anxieties on the author’s part are hidden well below the surface of his stories, which express a worldview that most of his readers would find familiar and unobjectionable.

I’m seldom pleasantly surprised by 19th century authors, but James expresses less than the usual bigotry. This is partially due to James confining his writing to what he knew - namely, Englishmen and English history – and to his concise style. But all it takes is a single turn of phrase to ascertain that an author is nasty, and James manages to avoid letting any such revelations through in all but a couple of instances (an allusion to Irish folk magic in one story, and an eastern European villain in another). His few female characters are granted individual personalities, and one story even passes the Bechdel test. His transliteration of working-class speech, though still patronising (authors seemed to feel an obligation to do this in the late 19th century), are at least legible and humorous (unlike Stoker’s, to name just one).

In fact, the most well-known screen adaptation of a James story, the 1947 film Night of the Demon (mentioned in the opening track of The Rocky Horror Picture Show), actually added sexism and racism into the script. James was apparently not bigoted enough for golden age Hollywood. The movie is also, as it happens, a very bad adaptation on a technical level, and if you’re really after films based on James’ works I would sooner recommend the TV specials the BBC produced in the 70s for their A Ghost Story for Christmas series*.

If you’ll permit me a bit of a whimsical conclusion, perhaps we can think of James’ stories as analogous to the cursed artifacts described within them; interesting, antiquated objects which are best appreciated casually, not examined too closely. Let the over-inquisitive beware...

*The new instalments in the series, airing not-quite-annually since 2005, are also good spooky fun. My absolute favourite is Martin’s Close, which really captures that balance of humour and horror James so consistently achieved.