“All magic — I repeat, ALL magic, with no exceptions whatsoever — depends on the control of demons. By demons, I mean specifically fallen angels. No lesser class can do a thing for you. Now, I know one such whose earthly form includes a long tongue. You may find the notion comic.”
“Let that pass for now. In any event, this is also a great Prince and President, whose apparition would cost me three days of work and two weeks of subsequent exhaustion. Shall I call him to lick stamps for me?”
— James Blish, Black Easter or Faust Aleph-Null (pub.Faber & Faber 1968, p.25-26 Penguin Edn, 1972)
A man discovers that recent deeds have created for him a fierce and a bitter enemy. Sinister events unfold and it becomes clear a fatal spell has been cast. If it is not lifted, the man will die, rather horribly. In the event, friends are able to help, forestalling the danger and defeating the terrible foe. Victory is theirs — but at cost of their best opinions of themselves. No longer can they quite self-describe as decent, rational, civilised, ‘modern’. They have become what they fought.
More Ghost Stories, the collection containing M.R.James’s ‘Casting the Runes’ was published in 1911; Life’s Handicap, the collection containing Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The Mark of the Beast’, was published in 1891. The short summary in the paragraph above accurately describes both stories.
So was ‘Beast’ a conscious inspiration for ‘Runes’? Nearly everyone was reading Kipling between those dates — in 1907 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature — and M.R.James, a specialist in the ghost story, was surely now and then checking out the master of the English-language short story, especially for one of his rare but ruthless forays into horror.
There are no overt signs of debt, it’s true. And Kipling’s tale has a coarseness to it, a deliberate, admitted, relished ugliness that’s a wide world away from James’s sensibilities. If both paint pictures of bachelor life, MRJ’s are fussy bookish fellows where Kipling’s have an empire to run. ‘Beast’ begins with what the narrator calls a “wet” night — which is to say, the men in it are celebrating New Year and they are beastly drunk to a man. The narrative is queasily physical from the start and becomes more so, moving into territory that’s as startling morally as it is shocking the ways horror stories are more usually shocking. Kipling’s writing has a vulgar energy and a brutal effectiveness: the magic and counter-magic he writes about have virile, practical effect, with all that implies. Is it a reach to suggest that James’s Karswell functions as a figure for Kipling in ‘Runes’? I don’t know that I could prove this is actually what James had in mind, but the allegory would stand up. Certainly it would place the two writers in the correct relationship.
Both tales are about class war waged at the cultural level: in both, the violence immanent in the system breaks entirely through the surface. Kipling’s is about mastery of a contested space, a geopolitical and horizontal clash in the present-day management of cultures made neighbours by colonial force: can Empire, it asks, maintain order in India without losing its soul? (Answer strongly implied: no. Strongly — and also unexpectedly, given Kipling’s politics…)
James, by contrast, is describing something more vertical and historical: a clash of class, about how and why we write history (and who this “we” is). The James story is about maintaining a safe space for a particular kind of intellectual/academic discussion; above all safe — as the story implies without over-stressing — from the actual supernatural facts in the case. ‘Runes’ is structured to open with a mounting in medias res of ultra-polite rejection letters, each more coldly formal and officious than the last — but the epigraph to ‘Beast’, a native proverb likely of Kipling’s own invention, would certainly fit: Your Gods and my Gods — do you or I know which are the stronger?
There’s a phrase endlessly quoted in the 60s, which purports to tell us where such strengths reside: “Political power flows from the barrel of a gun.” Mao said it first, all the way back in 1938, just two years after Kipling and James both died (in June and January 1936 respectively). And Mao was talking about the social architecture of their world; about colonialism and its overthrow, and class structure upended.
In Beast is of course, the politics is the issue of mastery in India — can a white man be allowed to be extrajudicially threatened for mocking and dishonouring a local God? A very drunk Fleete had flailed into Hanuman’s temple and ground out his cigar on the forehead of the image-statue of the monkey-god — and in retribution the curse of a silver-skinned leper-priest strips Fleete of reason and is evidently (if this word makes sense in this situation) shortly about to kill him. Nastily.
Right is really very little but might in this story: not least because barrel of a gun is so grimly literal. The metal barrel of a dismantled shotgun, held in the fire until red hot, is used by Fleete’s two friends – Strickland and the narrator – to torture the leper. Who holds out for many hours before lifting the curse, and being let go. Fleete recovers, without memory of any of his ordeal. The power structure has indeed been maintained — but all rational and moral armature have been stripped out of it. In the face of active magic, off-the-books violence. In other tales, Strickland appears as Kipling’s ideal colonial administrator, able, unflappable, wise, fascinated and knowledgeable about local customs, more decent towards the locals than Kipling believes they often are to one another. Publicly admitting to the unsanctioned violence, he says in this story, would instantly lose him his job; and acknowledging the magic would lose him his freedom, to an asylum.
On the surface, Runes is far more genteel and placid — it’s primarily about writing, recognised or Runic, and the effects of exchanges of writing. The stakes surely seem lower: basically Karswell wants admission into a particular, highly policed intellectual elite, but has been refused it. The pretext for the refusal is that he doesn’t know how to write ‘correctly’ (“written in no style at all — split infinite and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise,” as Harrington’s brother puts it). But at the heart of it is that he knows — genuinely knows — things his refusers don’t. In academic terms, his book may be trash, but it has the virtue of being true: it’s an alchemical manual. Karswell knows that magic works; and he knows how to work it.
And the consequence of the refusal – via Harrington’s and then Dunning’s devastating reviews of his work – is that people die. You do have somewhat to cede that that writing, for all its surface of order, can be terrible in its effect, more terrible even than the grisly person-on-person acts in the Kipling tale.
Kipling drives the logic of his story through to the end. Colonial gumption – and willingness to wield red hot metal – defeat the foe, at cost of honour and the comfort of any prior scepticism. James is more circumspect. Like Harrington before him, Dunning has been passed – without noticing it at the time –
a slip of paper with the Runes written on it, marking him out for fatal assault by demon. Dunning turns the spell back on Karswell by returning the slip of paper. Neither of these encounters is in the moment at all violent; quite the opposite, in fact, since both seem the essence of British politeness: in a sense, etiquette is the terrain the war is being fought on, with some of its gestures the weapons. And perhaps as a consequence, Dunning agonises about the consequences – which to be fair he and Harrington’s brother do not quite know, any more than they can translate — or even identify — the Runes. A warning is sent: “‘If I wired to the hotels there in Joanne’s Guide, “Examine your ticket-case, Dunning,” I should feel happier. This is the 21st: he will have a day. But I am afraid he has gone into the dark.’”
What’s more, though Kipling invokes “my Gods” and “your Gods” in his proverb, Hanuman the monkey-god has no actual role in the encounter. But a third party is very much involved in the James story, besides Karswell on one side and the Dunning/Harrington team on the other. And there’s the ghostly edge of a suggestion that this party is a semi-free agent, pursuing its own ends. This is why I quoted James Blish up top: because Black Easter is a novel in which the demons — the Princes and Presidents of Hell commanded by sorcerers to do their petty bidding — very much have their own agenda, and swerve fully towards it as soon as they find themselves able.
Blish’s purpose in the novel, he says, was to describe what “real sorcery actually had to be like if it existed,” as based on the existing manuals and grimoires of magicians practising in the “Christian tradition from the 13th-18th centuries”. James was a medieval manuscript archivist and bibliographer, and this tradition was one he knew intimately. Blish makes two further claims, which – if accurate – James must also have been familiar with : that any working spell requires the actual physical presence of a demon, whose presence can be assumed in the vicinity of the target as long as the spell is effective, and that the denizens of Hell richly detest all humans, including — perhaps most especially — those who have bound them into their command. Faust’s famous compact gave him power and knowledge on Earth in exchange for his soul: Mephistopheles sees him dragged down to Hell at the story’s close. Thus end all who traffic in magic, white or black, says Blish – and this is how he reads the Christian tradition he says he draws on.
The film that’s semi-faithful to the James story is called Night of the Demon — an unconscious echo of ‘The Mark of the Beast’? — and we see this demon at the close of the film, to the delight of some and the irritation of others, tearing a tiny animated Karswell to pieces. By contrast, whatever it is in ‘Runes’ is never even identified as being a demon (and certainly not named, as are Hanuman or Mephistopheles). Manifestations of a ‘something’, a presence, are suggested: warm gusts of air where there should be none, the additional passenger uneasily sensed by train guards and ticket-inspectors, never quite visible, not to mention the hideous non-human toothed face Dunning touches on the pillow. There’s the image that was sent to Harrington, of a “frightful fiend” walking behind a benighted traveller, a woodcut by Bewick torn from a book (see above; the fiend is smaller than you expect from the story’s description). There’s also the “hopping creature in white” from Karswell’s magic-lantern slide for the children — with the implication that Harrington was fleeing something similar when he died. (As well the Runes and the woodcut, Harrington was sent a calendar with all the days torn out after the three-month mark; Dunning is sent notices of the three months Harrington was allowed.)
Let’s straight away acknowledge that the evidence that whatever Karswell has called up is an independent agent arrives obliquely, if at all — so that perhaps only lower-level participants, like train guards and ticket inspectors and Freaky Trigans, can sense it, and even they can’t be sure.
First: there’s a curious little supplementary tremor of synchronicity to the supper that the Association Secretary and his wife (the Gaytons) have with their Warwickshire friends, which is the means by which Dunning and Harrington’s brother are brought together to compare stories and prepare their response. Dunning is the expert who’d rejected Karswell’s paper from the Association’s journal; Gayton is protecting Dunning from Karswell’s wrath (by means of the icily polite letters of the opening); Mrs Gayton and the other (unnamed) wife between them drag the story from poisonous business-as-usual in the academico-critical game to a sense of how nasty Karswell is less elevated terms (for example, his throwing a part for local children purely to scare them silly); Gayton and the husband then piece together the Harrington backstory, from the scholastic but scornful review of Karswell’s History of Witchcraft to Harrington’s bizarre death, and introducing the fact of the brother, so far the only one who seems fully to have grasped what Karswell’s abilities actually are.
All this is standard exposition and anticipatory set-up, deftly achieved in classic Jamesian fashion, complete with narrative elements at second and third hand — and no, there’s nothing particularly odd about an unnamed couple knowing facts about a villain who happens to be their neighbour. Or that the unnamed husband also knew the late John Harrington at college, and remembers some details of his death and the brother’s obsession with it. But — even though it’s a way of establishing in advance that Karswell has unexpectedly been seen in London — isn’t it a bit of a needless extra coincidence that the unnamed wife should actually just have come from spotting him there, coming out of the British Library? It’s true thishis also allows her without being prompted to explode with crossness at the awfulness of the “Abbott of Lufford”, as they sardonically term him — but Mrs Gayton had already planned to quiz her about him, so this irritation was always going to come out.
After this, Dunning comes into view, in a superb few pages of mounting puzzlement and claustrophobic fear, alone and in public. There’s the announcement in the train-car — “Three months were allowed” — somehow set into the glass, yet vanished the next day. There’s the flyer put in his hand on a lonely street and almost immediately twitched out of it again — he’s not wearing his glasses and can’t quite read it, or make out the face of the hawker who does this, and this sense of naked vulnerability is one his fellow-glasses-wearers will recognise. There’s the sound of doors opening in his house when no one else is there, and — of course — the non-human face waiting for him on the pillow. (For years after reading that as a kid, I devised complicated ways of getting into bed that ensured I touch my own pillow with my feet first, ready for fight or flight.)
And then Dunning meets up with Harrington’s brother and the plan is formed and executed. And again, some hard-to-read micro-swerves and synchronicities. For one thing, why is Karswell alert and wary one minute, and credulous the next? He scans the faces of his fellow passengers, and even goes out into the corridor to peer back at them, to check if they know one another (they are not discovered). But then he’s handed his own ticket-case — which had fortuitously fallen to the floor — with the Runes now hidden in it, and quite unguardedly lets the return exchange be made. What is he on the look-out for earlier, if not precisely this? I like the idea that this end-run gets is cocooned within classic English politeness — a cultural spell too powerful easily to override, so that you have to accept something handed to you that’s yours, and say thank you — but this same classic English politeness is exactly what he, Karswell, always already deployed, when passing over the Runes in the first place. And we know he’s cast this spell at least three times, twice in the story, and once — actually probably more than once — to test it before it got written up in his History of Magic: “The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I’m very much mistaken if he hadn’t tried the greater part of his receipts,’” says Harrington’s brother (“receipts” being Victorian for recipes).
Has he just cast it so often he’s becomes blasé, and – in a blizzard of its deadlines – loses track of individual ones? The trip to France seems to suggest he’s going abroad to dodge a return sally, but it’s never actually stated so on the page. What exactly did he think the result would be of publishing his History of Magic? Recognition of his knowledge and mastery surely means more sorcerers, some of them outside his circle of acquaintance (and control). Mr Karswell, we’ve been told, is an astute man — so what’s dimming his perspicuity here?
And then there’s the fortuitous tumble of the ticket-case. Yes, of course such things happen on trains — but isn’t it a little too lucky, at least for Dunning and Harrington’s brother? Just here, just now? In fact, come to think of it, aren’t the accidents that allow Karswell to return pamphlets or “quires” (a quire is a sheaf of paper) to his victims also always a little too lucky? No dropped whatever, no demonic assault.
Or are these “accidents” also part of the spell? Does the writing out of the Runes call up a demon who first manoeuvres something belonging to the victim somewhere where the spell-caster can lay hands on it, to secrete the Runes in it, and hand it back, seemingly so courteously?
The demon, remember, is present all the time: always at the victim’s back, says Blish somewhere, until the deadline arrives. And this is what the story has told us — indeed, much of the power of the story is down to the feeling, at once isolating and terrifyingly claustrophobic, of being in the constant presence of something not-human, and malevolent. Present in the carriage with them all, the demon cannot be unaware of the plan to to return the Runes. One of its powers — required by the spell — is causing the unobserved fall of something suitable, to be used to hand back the Runes: in this instance the ticket-case. And another is a power of some sort over eyes and other senses, a power to cloud the victim’s grasp of exactly what’s around him: this too the story has expanded on, in Dunning’s anxious sensation that others are seeing, or half-seeing, something that he can’t. (Note another classic Jamesian element here: the people who can semi-spot it never seem to be the well educated upper classes. They’re officials on trains and boats, with faintly comic speaking patterns.)
All of which is an elaborate, suggestive and entirely speculative way of arguing that it’s actually the demon that has decided it’s time Karswell got his, and has nudged this entire narrative to its conclusion, bringing together Dunning and Harrington’s brother, and ensuring Karswell is so enwebbed in the polite encounter that he forgets to be wary, for just long enough. For there is no one a Prince or President of Hell feels more disgusted loathing for than the human who can bind it to his or her command.
Of course the other thing emphasised in Blish’s book, that James leaves unexplored, is that according to the Christian tradition at issue, everyone commanding a demon, for whatever brief purpose, for magic black or white, as it were – in other words pro or con the Empire – is also eventually headed, if not into the dark, then into the flames. And doesn’t this now include Dunning, at least?