THE GRANDFATHER OF THE MODERN GHOST STORY:
WHY M.R. JAMES STANDS APART
In considering why scholars identify M. R. James as the preeminent master of the ghost story for the twentieth century, we only have to look at his collection entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Each of his stories follows a relatively uncomplicated plot structure. In each story a friend of the narrator’s—it is to be assumed that the narrator is James himself but not that the protagonists are anything more than fictional characters—or someone he has heard of travels to another part of the country or world, allows curiosity to lead to an investigation into the unknown, only to uncover a supernatural horror. When the protagonist escapes it is generally just barely, and the horror is rarely explained or understood. But this accomplishes three goals for James: (1) invites a sense of reality in the prose (in that he has personal relationships with the protagonists); (2) engages in the ambiguity of the supernatural horror; (3) the ending of the stories aren’t dosed with heavy handed morality.
In his first story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” James introduces us to a friend he names Dennistoun, a Cambridge academic who travels to this small French town to visit a particular church, searching for various historical and religious relics to deliver to the museum back home. What he finds is a book that the vicar is all too eager to part with, an old book of obvious value that the sacristan gives away, a book that enthralls Dennistoun. Soon he finds out that a demon is connected with the book, and the story ends with the creature making a brief appearance before Dennistoun is rescued by friends and the book is delivered to the museum.
With this story we have all three elements. The curiousness of Dennistoun nearly accounts for his downfall, and his friendship with the narrator is what invites the idea that this could have really happened. As well, nothing satisfactorily and solidly explains the demon that haunts the book, only that it could be responsible for the Canon’s death years ago. Finally, there is no moral judgment, for James listens attentively without casting dispersions on Dennistoun, and relates the story without added impressions on whether or not he found Dennistoun’s actions foolhardy or wise, brave or cowardly. If anything by the end of each of these stories, there is a sense that the narrator is disheartened by the terrors faced by his friends, and he seems to offer a glimmer of pity for them.
The relationship to the protagonist is closer in the short story “Number 13,” as the narrator describes the man as his cousin. Here the cousin has gone to a Danish town for academic purposes, not unlike Dennistoun in the previous story. The hotel he stops at offers him a room, but at night the room appears smaller, and the man notices noises and strange reflections from the room next door. At night he also notices that the room number above the adjoining door is ‘13’ but during the day, the room is larger and the adjoining room is ’12’—his room number is ’14.’ At night things appear moved and missing in his room, only to reappear during the day, and during the day he has three windows when at night he only has two. After a particularly loud disturbance one night, his neighbor in ‘12’ and the landlord join the narrator’s cousin in examining the door, but before they can bust it down, the sun rises and ‘13’ vanishes, the door disappearing and becoming just a wall. Just before that, as the landlord was summoning servants to bust down the door, it opens a crack, and a hand reaches out and swipes at the shoulder of the cousin’s neighbor. The man’s back was turned so our protagonist is the only witness, and finally again the story is related to the narrator, who then relates it to us.
In this case the curiosity is not directly tied to the research that initially brought the protagonist to this location, but involves his lodgings and his stay, and diverts his attention from his real reason for being there, but as is the norm with James, the horror is never satisfactorily explained, which leaves the reader struggling with the sense of the unknown, a piqued curiosity and so a stronger connection to the story. If James had given us a ‘why,’ then that would have diminished the fright. As I heard in a horror movie once, It’s scarier when there’s no motive.
“Count Magus” deviates only slightly from the formula, in that the curious protagonist is the narrator himself, who stumbles on a series of papers that tell the story of the last days of Mr. Wraxall, who uncovers a tomb and a haunted legend of a satanic count dead for hundreds of years. This is also the story that comes closest to “preaching” a moral, the lesson learned is learned by the narrator himself at the expense of Wraxall, who after allowing his curiosity to unlock the padlocked crypt, is followed by two dark specters all the way home and to his death.
Even though there is no direct relationship between the narrator and the main character—Wraxall—the believability of the story comes as the narrator finds the papers he believes to be historical accuracies. Still, however, an in-depth account of why Magus returned and who he was is never fully explained, although legends suggest a dark connection to supernatural evil.
Finally there is the iconic story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” the story of Professor Parkins, a man encouraged by his friend the Colonel to get away for a weekend to work on his golf game and get some academic work done himself. His curiosity is piqued during a walk on the beach, where he uncovers an old bronze whistle, whereupon he cleans and blows into the instrument and summons a great wind that assaults the peninsula, and something else — a phantom that haunts the people in the community, settling finally in the spare bed in Parkins’ hotel room. He is rescued by his friends, of course, but is forever shaken by the experience.
Again the story is related to the narrator, without fully divulging his relationship to Parkins, though there are inferences that suggest this was another personal acquaintance. The only moral offered at the end is that Parkins’ views on the supernatural were changed and that his nerves were forever unraveled, so that he had many sleepless nights in his life long after the horror was abolished.
The takeaway point of all these stories centers on the curiosity of the protagonists. These aren’t men actively searching for the supernatural, the horror. They aren’t—to compare to a contemporary of James in Lovecraft—actively seeking and reading the Necromicon after express warnings to avoid such evil. These are men whose natural nature was of curiosity, only what they discovered was something dark that had—for the purposes of the story—merely waited to be discovered. And it is this fact, along with the attempt at realism with the narrator’s association with the protagonists, and the unexplained nature or motive of the horror, that lends a power to James’ stories and why scholars still refer to him as the twentieth century master of the ghost story.