My first M R James story was Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, which is also the first in the book. I talk about it at some length here, and most of the way through it I have to confront the issue that I did not find it very scary as a ghost story. So now coming back to James and in particular Count Magnus I wondered if he had developed his hang on the chills which need to go with his detailed prose and his generally excellent pacing. And it is interesting that Count Magnus, a tale which shares a huge amount with Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook (including much of its plot) is by degrees considerably scarier, but only due to the use of what seems now like quite hackneyed set pieces. From the Canon to the Count there is a development which pre-figures Lovecraft by adequately also maps a general shift in how horror has developed in the last 100 years too.
Count Magnus is yet another of James’s second hand tales, this time our narrator is telling the tale of Mr Wraxall, a learned but potentially slippery writer of travel books. As is often the case James is comfortable with having his leads as academics, researchers or authors, but you get the feeling that Wraxall is seen in a less favourable light than Alberic’s Dennistoun. Wraxall is nearly a fellow of Brasenose, and yet his only published work seems to be of his travels in Brittany. The almost imperceptible sneer in the text about Wraxall’s achievements has the effect of making us care slightly less for him – useful if he is going to come a cropper later in the tales. And even Wraxall’s version of the exotic seems a touch more mundane than Dennistoun’s trip to France. The heathens here are Scandinavian’s. Sweden in particular, which gives the story enough exoticism whilst also imposing a set of values around the hero – here the cold, crisp landscape and helpful people hides something more sinister.
Wraxall goes to research his book, comes across yet another one of Europe’s endless creepy churches, this time with a mausoleum containing the count. A spooky tale within a tale about the diabolical nature of the Count’s life and we are set up for repetition, deviation and in the end someone being frightened to death. Wraxall appears to summon up not just Count Magnus but potentially his whole satanic entourage, and by the time the party returns to England, Wraxall has taken his life. But then what has been summoned up is significantly scarier than the ghostly hand of Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. Or so we are led to believe because this is where James appears to invent the entire career of Lovecraft.
The problem with monsters and unspeakable evils in literature is that the more that is written and described, the less they can scare. Fear of the unknown is most of what this kind of tale trades on, the more described the easier it is to rationalise. The traditional Gothic ghost story would often be quite happy to talk about its evil, think of how much we know about Dracula by the time Bram Stoker gets him to London. James understands that the more you know, the less scary it is. But this causes a problem for latter points of a tale. The monster has to have some sort of effect, has to attack the hero somehow, but in doing so it shows its hand and thus becomes underwhelming. If there is a way of maintaining the mystique, without neutralising the evil, well that would be the secret. It strikes me that James up to this point had figured out part of this via the second hand nature of many of his tales. By having his stories narrated via the interpretation of someone elses papers there is a get out around the time of what could be called the attack. If the protagonist is killed, they are unable to write about the moments of death, how they died and potentially how they were dispatched by the monster. Just a flip back to our storyteller matter-of-factly telling us “he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed his body fainted, seven of ’em did, and none of ’em would speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God”. It strikes me that this kind of ghost story is the only time when tell not show seems to be the rule of order.
This came to mind when watching Paranormal Activity last night, the ultra-low budget horror which trades on its verisimilitude. A couple of key quotes of James of what he believes a decent ghost story requires are central to what makes Paranormal Activity work.
“Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, 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.”
There is nothing more normal than a suburban house and suburban couple. And to James, there would have been nothing more normal than scholarly research, or fieldwork. Its a device to take Wraxall out of his comfort zone so that the second key point can be made:
“Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: 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.”
This is certainly the case in Paranormal Activity – a film which slowly deals its hand to its terrific conclusion. Interestingly whilst I didn’t find it all that scary, much like James, I can see how it works and enjoy the chills even if they don’t chill me. And of course part of this comes from its handheld cheapness, its subtle crescendo and then its unseen, unknown horror.
The unseeable, unknowable, unspeakable horrors is also what Lovecraft’s Cthuluan hordes trades on – that and a horror so unspeakable it drives the protagonist into madness. This happens here in Count Magnus when the Count and his party have materialised. We get a few descriptions of these constant companion to Wraxall, but none really explain the dread he has of them. But then this has already been set-up by the building blocks of the tale. There are two key developments as the story winds on that leads us to the final outcome.
a) The breach of Count Magnus’s sarcophogus
b) the tale of the Black Pilgrimage and the landlord grandfather.
Both of these show an escalation in how M R James tries to scare us. As opposed to the general creepiness of the church in Alberic, we have a crypt, sarcophagus with a bizarre carving where James is going for as much shock value as possible.
“The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish”
Tentacles! There is something remarkably reductive in describing the fiend as being like a devil-fish, if you consider how the devil-fish was named. And yet just by throwing that in and the strange form of a fiend it is clear that James wants us to be in no two minds about the evil of the Count. We are post Count Dracula here, so we are probably well disposed to counts being evil anyway. And that is before the fairytale like repetition of the three locks dropping off of the sarcophagus. Three knocks on the doors, five Candymen in the mirror, repetition drives it home and when Wraxall turns up in the crypt for the third time we all know what is going to happen. Of course James does not really know what to do about the opening of the coffin and just gets Wraxall to scarper to be pursued by unspeakable horror. Probably better off than a smackdown with a dusty old zombie corpse that even stuffy Wraxall could win.
The tale of the landlord grandfather and the Black Pilgrimage is really a case of James having his cake and eating it. He gets to slip an old school folk horror tale within his more sophisticated tale and laugh at superstition. The sucking of flesh off the bones is now a standard horror (and even kids film) trope. Premature aging, going pale, fainting, the walking dead all tied with a pilgrimage that hasn’t exactly got a subtle name. The Black Pilgrimage needs little explanation, because we know Count Magnus is a bad ‘un and ITS CALLED THE BLACK PILGRIMAGE. In unreconstructed days with less thought of the meaning of this word, this is just more black magic, black cats and the devil is involved (and indeed sends a minion back).
Count Magnus is a good tale specifically because it does throw the old and new at us. Wraxall is a classic M R James hero, but for once we seem to have a fully fledged villain too. It is a bit of a pity that the ending relies so much on a fade out, another mysterious death left for us to mull over (though the story has no doubt about what was responsible for the death). But it is also the beginning of a kind of end for these kind of stories .A fiendish tentacle can only become more tentacles, glowing eyes, smells of sulphur. The mysterious presence of the walking dead can only become less mysterious. Once you start showing, you have to keep showing. I am interested to find out if M R James does follow this line or whether he retreats to the subtle cosier air of the previous stories. He may have locked himself on course, but the locks can always drop off, one by one, by themselves. A tencaled push will help though.