Nov 09


Blog 7 + FT + Pumpkin Publog13 comments • 3,797 views

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.


  1. 1
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 29 Nov 2009 #

    I think the tidiest future-horror device he invents is the point where he realises the sarcophagus is opening and flees: “I only know that there was something more than have written that alarmed me, but whether it was sight or sound I am not able to remember.” My instinct with this kind of thing is to hunt for clues what the “something more” is: but while in Kipling or a similar proto-modernist of similar date, we would find it, even f it meant decoding hints from things said, or the the tiniest element of setting, here with James, the purpose is to leave us unsettled and grasping round, filling in the horror with our own — far more terror-ridden — imaginations. We know what we’re scared of: this must be something like, and in it goes, and here’s the fear.

    This is the opposite of Lovecraft, who slathers “unspeakable horror sauce” over every rattled doorknob, and you can’t reach and supply the fear, because no one has ever encountered “cosmic terror”.

    Sociologically, we are moving from the era when any reader would have had intimate memory of death in the home, and the phyisical fact of the dead — would have seen bodies and so on. Within a generation — excluding wars and epidemics — this would begin hugely to recede: we are now quite hygienically sundered from such things; and cope with them via horror films or via the telly. James is think writing right on the cusp of the start of this change: he can dwell on grisliness very effectively, given his somewhat mannered Victorian air — which also functions as a device, even if it also reflects his character

  2. 2
    lonepilgrim on 29 Nov 2009 #

    Perhaps worth linking to the story here:


    I find the details of the tall figure in the ‘broad hat’ disturbing for some reason – perhaps that sense of the uncanny where familiar objects become displaced.
    Suggestion is almost always more disturbing than explicit horror – I can recall being more chilled by the glimpse of the red coated figure scuttling in the background towards the end of ‘Don’t look now’ than the final scenes.

  3. 3
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 29 Nov 2009 #

    I’ve banged on about this before, but I am reasonably confident that the section in Eliot’s “The Wasteland” where he talks about there being another being walking beside them — which he obfuscates in the notes as merely being a reference to something in one of the accounts of the various South Polar Expeditions* — also has a touch of Wraxall’s extra travelling companions:

    Who is the third who walks always beside you?
    When I count, there are only you and I together
    But when I look ahead up the white road
    There is always another one walking beside you
    Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

    *It’s actually in the the Shackleton expedition, when Shackleton, Worsley and Crean are crossing the mountainous central plateau of South Georgia together: hallucinating with hunger, exhaustion and probably mild oxygen starvation, they feel someone else is with them, which they all interpret religiously. Eliot emphasises the Christian reading in his gloss, but it’s surely not the only thing there. (After all, the notes also omit the poem’s rather obvious little bob towards Dracula hmself…)

  4. 4
    tom wootton on 29 Nov 2009 #

    Great stuff. Count Magnus was always one of my favourites. Re-reading it recently for a blog post here –


    I think one of my favourite details was when he inspects the brass engravings on the sarcophagus, and expecting to see… well, here it is –

    “Let us see how the huntsman is pictured: doubtless it will be a demon blowing on his horn.” But, as it turned out, there was no such sensational figure, only the semblance of a cloaked man on a hillock, who stood leaning on a stick, and watching the hunt with an interest which the engraver had tried to express in his attitude.”

    That ‘interest’ is chilling.

    Incidentally, of all the ghost stories that might serve as an inspiration for Kingsley Amis’s The Green Man, it’s this one that is the most likely – the use of a conjured familiar, and the implication of eternal life (or an inhuman form of it) both reflect aspects of Amis’s novel, and, once again, that studied ‘interest’ seems very much a part of The Attitude of Dr Underhill.

  5. 5
    Tom on 29 Nov 2009 #

    Two things make this the scariest James for me (it’s also up there as one of my favourites).

    i. The way the pursuit of Wraxall slips into nightmare logic: there is no reason whatsoever for the Count and his mysterious henchthing to wait until Wraxall is back in England to eat his face up, so there’s a sense of being toyed with by something unspeakable which is quite unpleasant. Particularly effective is the scene where Wraxall, having got the fastest possible transport once back in England, looks out of his coach window and glimpses the pursuers idling at a crossroads.

    (it’s cartoon-logic as well as nightmare-logic of course – the more you try and get away from Droopy, the surer you are to encounter him)

    ii. For James, this is a curiously linear and merciless story. There is no twist: the protagonist does something stupid and dies horribly for it. It’s obvious fairly early on that he’s going to do it, he does it, and the story continues on for several more pages, with James’ own voice somewhat amused by his own character’s silliness (“Poor Mr Wraxall!”). Most horror stories have this Zone of Inevitability between the curse being triggered and its falling, but a lot of them hinge on successful attempts to escape the zone. No such luck here!

  6. 6
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 29 Nov 2009 #

    I love that the landlord here — compared to Number 13 — is pretty much “plz to f.off you total English tw@t…”

    Also inspired by this story, of course: “Spectre vs Rector”: The Rector was the Hampshire! The spectre was from Chorazina!

  7. 7
    marna on 30 Nov 2009 #

    The devil-fish tentacle reference makes me think of the vampire squid from hell.

  8. 8
    ledge on 30 Nov 2009 #

    I do have a small problem with an apparent lack of motivation in this tale. Most of James’ baddies either have a specific grievance against their target, or are more mindless creatures giving the willies to whoever crosses their path. Magnus isn’t mindless but nor does he seem to have much a reason for killing Wraxall – indeed shouldn’t he be grateful to him for setting him free? And what happens to Magnus afterwards, is he still at large?

  9. 9
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 30 Nov 2009 #

    I have always read it that CM and his squat squidbot were able to get out any time they chose: this is bascally about hunting and hunting rights; the count enjoys watching his beasts bring down their quarry, though for various reasons he chooses not to do it every day… wraxall is GAME, and there are rules set on when and what he hunts, though they are entirely self-policed, presumably so as not to denude his woods of game entirely, or upset the delicate ecological-political balance

    that great work QUEEN OF THE DAMNED is abt a struggle between vampires who wish to farm the huntable human and vampires who prefer to go hog wild on em…

  10. 10
    ledge on 1 Dec 2009 #

    But if he’s free, why the charade with the three padlocks and their unlocking via the three repeated wishes to see the Count?

  11. 11
    tom wootton on 2 Dec 2009 #

    I’m not sure he is free. Most ghosts require some sort of invitation. (‘Be sure, there are RULES’ as James once said.)This is one of the aspects of James that has recently interested me – the complicity of the character in their own demise.

    Magnus requires someone to set him free, and, rather like the E war Woo war character in the Wicker Man, the victim has to be someone of a specific type.

    Academics are peculiarly suited to fill this role – they have a sort of sceptical curiosity, they are both innocent and drawn in by apparently dry mysteries. Their attempts to understand the past can result in them making semi-faustian wishes for knowledge beyond that which they can reasonably be expected to have (‘How I would like to see you, Magnus’ etc). In this respect he is somewhat similar to Magnus himself – who has pursued secret knowledge beyond that which mankind is supposed to have.

    But he also utters his wishes to see Magnus in semi-dream states, which suggest that he is in some way being lured to release Magnus.

    (see also Maurice Allingham’s sudden realisation at the end of The Green Man – he thinks he has been investigating Dr Underhill, but realises that in fact he was chosen for his special suitability – alcoholic, unwilling to open up to other people, teenage daughter etc.)

    Uncertainty in this area is not just to be expected, it is to be desired – it contains in it the germ of the nightmare where you know the terror is coming, but you can do nothing to avoid it – the events tend inexorably to doom.

  12. 12
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 2 Dec 2009 #

    My thesis is that yes! there are rules here, but CM, at the ruthless heart of the aristocracy, has to power effectively to manipulate them at his whim. So it’s like aristocrats hunting grouse before the glorious 12th: it’s against the rules, but if you’re powerful enough no one can actually stop you — the rules are there really to amuse CM himself, as part of the elaboration of frivolity. There’s no hint that the poachers in the tale the landlord told “called him up” by repetition or indeed were Wraxall types; they entered the forest and alerted the squid-weapon, who set upon them with sucky relish — while Magnus doubtless leant on his stick and watched with “interest”!

    But it may be that, yes, like Dennistoun in re Alberic, the magic is set in motion by cupidity of some kind: tho Wraxall’s villainy is vanishingly minor! Not much more than a faintly patronising attitude towards the locals and their foolish tales!

    I’m interested how other readers interpret the fact that the locks appear to be “spring loaded” or whatever MRJ says. Of course, as I noted above, he gives deliberately unreadable “clues” now and then — not red so much as BLACK herrings! — and this may be one of them. But I think we’re meant to read something into it: I read a kind of Houdini machinery into it, where the apparently bound man is perfectly able to free himself when he feels like it. And “feels like it” is when the right kind of prey happenes along. Poor Wraxall!

  13. 13
    Brian_Artillery on 22 Jun 2016 #

    I was always struck by the thought that Count Magnus was ‘cleaning up’, ensuring that nobody knew that he was abroad. Mr. Wraxall was the last person to know conclusively of the Count’s resurrection, and was taken out of the equation. Which leads me to the most chilling part: The Count, and his ‘friend’ from Chorazon are, presumably, still roaming about somewhere…

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