(This is a series in which FT contributors read the ghost stories of M. R. James. Hey! It is not going as slowly as some FT series! But er yes, it has taken me quite a time to get round to this one. If you want to read it first — and do, bcz there will be SPOILERS — it can be found here.)
It’s all about the numbers, obviously, so let’s begin there. This is a nicely turned haunted-room tale, with four very excellent aspects to it, and five oddities. Actually it’s a subvariant of the haunted-room tale. The classic would be something like F.Marion Crawford’s “The Upper Berth“, where those who stay overnight in Room 105 on the ship Kamtschatka encounter something pretty grisly, and respond accordingly. This subvarant is probably better termed the “hauntING room tale”, as it’s less a matter of the unsuspecting visitor to the house being at certain times troubled by the room’s occupant, as of the building being at certain times troubled by the room.
It’s also, less obviously but very wittily, about social unease caused by variance in social practice: an Englishman abroad, in a Danish hotel; fascinated by local custom — they don’t seem to have a Room #13 — and then increasingly caught up in the awkwardness of how to respond to ambush by extreme weirdness. Plus of course deeply unsettling strangeness of numbers themselves; how they are and how they’re not…
It begins wth a lightning sketch of its setting, the historic town of Viborg in Denmark: MRJ uses a trick he’s fond of, pastiching the tone of a guide-book, which he immediately and wittily squelches: “But I am not writing a guide-book.” Perhaps he SHOULD have written guide-books; at least they wouldn’t have been boring — this paragraph shifts from “a handsome but almost entirely new cathedral, a charming garden” to the lovingly described assassination by multiple maceblow of King Erik Glipping in 1286, which didn’t even actually HAPPEN in Viborg.
And already the tone is set: “It’s pretty here. Here’s how pretty: PEOPLE GET HORRIBLY KILLED. HERE’S HOW HORRIBLY etc etc”
But if this is the opening excellence, it also features the first two oddities. The first being that, as per wikipedia at least, King Erik Glipping was *stabbed* 56 times, not bludgeoned: and that this number derives from legend, rather than as discovered (as James claims) by counting the dents in his skull when his tomb was reopened (stabwounds are generally hard to discern on 500-year-old bodies).
The second oddity is this: yes these names are fabulous, and yes they are historical. King Erik Glipping was a ne’er-do-well womanising wastrel villain of a monarch, known as “Glipping” — or “Klipping”, the Danish equivalent of “Clipping” — because (a) he blinked a lot, or (b) he WINKED a lot (viz at other men’s wives), or (c) he engaged in cutting little bits of the coin of the realm so as to short-change one and all. And the man MRJ calls Marsk Stig — meaning Marshal Stig — is indeed his historical assassin. Except he is more usually known as Marsk Stig Andersen. Which means that (secretly) he has the same name as the English protagonist of this story: the narrator’s cousin “Mr Anderson”. Is this just a coincidence? It adds nothing concrete to the story except, well, what, exactly?
Anyway, Mr Anderson arrives in Viborg for the purposes of historical research, and installs himself in his hotel. He is amused to note that there is NO ROOM NUMBER 13 on the blackboard — brief digression here on the Danish custom at the time of chalking up the name of a room’s occupant by the number of the room occupied. After a satisfactory visit to the library archive he’s back, and getting ready for bed; notes without thinking about it that there is in fact a No.13, whether or not available to stay in; feels something is strange and different about his room; plus can’t find his luggage. While smoking at his window, he also spots the shadow silhouette of his neighbour, like him leaning out and watching the world.
Next morning there’s his luggage plain and plain — not before he’s embarrassed himself with the maid — but number 13 is not there. He wangles a late-night visit from Mein Host, ostensibly to look at photos of other Danish towns he’s visited, actually to confront him with the strange goings on. More archive research — an intriguing exchange during the religious conflicts that made up the Danish reformation, the beleagued Catholic bishop of the time embarrassed by the disgraceful, perhaps satanic behaviour of his tenant, one Mag. Nicolas Francken — and once more to bed: again the room seems strange, but Anderson has moved his trunk to another part of the room and it’s still there. Tonight his neighbour appears to be dancing alone in his room, judging by the capering shadow. The landlord arrives: as they chat and look at Anderson’s snaps, the man next door starts singing “in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad.” And gradually over the next few pages, a group of guests and hotel staff assemble to tackle these bizarre developments…
But this is mere narrative, which you can read for yourself — we are sweeping past the excellent details, which are worth savouring (I think in some ways this may be my favourite MRJ story). The first (or rather second, after the opening paragraph) is just this: be he the ghost of Mag. Nicolas Francken or whatever he be, he is one of the most excellent inexplicable beings in fiction. The spook in “The Upper Berth” is — a bit like the skeletal figure in “The Mezzotint’ — a kind of pro forma dead-not-dead revenge-beast, all dank rotting bodyform, still very engaged with the shape and habits of the world it’s supposed to have left. This whatever-it-is is loudly up at all hours, chuckling to itself, breathing heavily at or groping the other guests, basically behaving as if only its own whims and amusements signify. It doesn’t seem troubled in its inability to leave our dimension: exactly the opposite — it’s, well, BOTHERD. If it could dance and yell along to LOUD TECHNO till dawn, selfishly encroaching on the personal space of others — but hey! This is almost exactly what it DOES!
The third excellent detail — just because it’s so unnecessary and yet so inventive, in its slight and silly way — is the poem that Anderson composes about his dancing neighbour, who he at this point assumes is the lawyer in no.14, while he awaits the arrival of the landlord: “I dance all night upon the floor/and even if my neighbours swore/I’d go on dancing all the more/For I’m acquainted with the law/Their protests I deride”
Which is Anderson’s expression of amused tolerance: the private quirks of others are their affair. Once the raving starts, it”s like a door flung open on a hidden shame. When I started writing this up, I flirted a little with exploring it as a gay subtext: the highly closeted encounter between Anderson and the landlord — blatantly flimsy pretext to get him to visit Anderson’s room late at night to “smoke a cigar”, which pretext code is neverthless accepted — set against the outrageous public flagrancy of his disco-queen bachelor neighbour. But actually I think this is misleading: projecting a more recent source of homosocial awkwardness, accessible and familiar to us today, back onto something that’s more interesting in its own right, the fourth area of excellent detail. The Englishmen — reserved, observant, laissez faire — is thrown among foreigners trying to work out the etiquette of response and intervention: what counts as unacceptable here, what do we do about it? Is it OK to be scared and embarrassed in public? How are these people so unobservant? OR ARE THEY? Exactly what do they already know about the er Ghoulephant in the Room…?
And it’s in this area — of what is not being seen or said or acknowledged — that the remaining three conundra come in. Questions you can’t help asking once you start thinking (too?) hard about this story. First, when the lawyer comes down the passage from No.14, to complain about the hideous racket he assumes is coming from No.12, he has to come *past* No.13. It’s true that he’s as blithe about the way his room changes shape at night as Anderson is. But how does he miss the door, or not sense the distance between rooms? (Anderson had seen a light under the door the evening before, so presumably the corridor is dark — but he also hears the occupant breathing, so how does the lawyer go past the door without realising it’s where the singing is coming from, even if he perhaps misses the light in his fury…) (Adding: I think this is actually probably an error, rather than a deliberate oddity…)
Second: is Anderson the first guest really to notice what’s going on with this room and its occupant? Has it all been manifested just for his benefit — because of his researches? (The landlord says that he heard it once before and thought it was a cat. Perhaps that WAS a cat!) (Or an urban fox…) Whereas “The Mezzotint” has the sense of a “message in a bottle”, a story unfolded so that supernatural justice wll be seen to have been done, no story is unfolded here — we don’t actually know if what they uncover, as the (presumable) cause of the disturbances, has anything whatever to do with Mag. Nicolas Francken; or even if the hotel is actually what remains of of the Archbishop’s house.
Third and last, and, well, weirdest of all: how does the ghost room get to land up in the space left for No.13? That’s to say, when the hotel designers were numbering Nos.12 and 14, how did they know to place them on either side of a room that wasn’t there? Or would the room have appeared between wherever Nos.12 and 14 were placed?
Footnote: there’s actually one last tantalising detail, which I refuse to number with the others, for my own reasons. The narrator describes a manuscript he’s aware of — which I take to be something real, that MRJ himself had seen (an “astrological work”, with a woodcut frontispiece by Hans Sebald Beham) — with handwriting on the flyleaf: “during the ten years in which I have owned the volume, I have been unable to determine which way up this writing ought to be read, much less what language it is.” The idea of the writing reminds me a little of the Voynich manuscript and the Rohonc Codex — was MRJ aware of either? I guess I want to know if this is another half-obscured clue, or — like Stig and Glipping — a subtle, secret tease.
The next story we’ll be reading is Count Magbot