Like all new Freaky Trigger series, the idea for this one came in the pub. I had been re-reading MR James’ Collected Ghost Stories and started talking about them with Mark and Rick: within moments I thought, “let’s blog it”. Hence Hauntography: a collaborative reading of the James stories, by whoever wants to be part of it.
It’ll work in a kind of “book club” style – we all read the next story, one of us blogs about it (along whatever lines they see fit) and we all pile in in the comments box. You do too, since even if you’ve never read James before most of his stories are available online. (Or you could pick up the Wordsworth Books edition for a couple of quid.)
What do we hope to achieve? Diversion and entertainment, as usual, but also I expect we’ll think about ghosts, history, academia, dialect, what makes stories frightening, what makes them funny… we will approach the stories like Jamesian antiquaries ourselves, pottering around and following our noses – hopefully not awakening any restless spirits, but I guess there’s always a risk.
Join us next week to read Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.
I read a lot of so-called genre fiction, but I have never read many ghost stories. Even my brief dalliance with horror fiction tended to lurch towards scientific horrors rather than the supernatural. As a rationalist, I have little time for the spooky. And I expect to not be blown away, as a short ghost story has very little room to manoeuvre outside a straight up tale of the unexpected with or without twist. In our circles this is known as “there b’ain’t a signpost ‘ere for twenty year”. I am of the opinion that ghost stories don’t have a lot to throw at me that will shock, and thus scare me. That said, I like good cinematic ghost stories, The Orphanage last year was one of my favourite films. So perhaps I should just enjoy the sensation without holding on for the scare.
So this is my first proper M.R.James story. I approached Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook without a forensic eye, I wanted to be entertained and to see what a good short ghost story could do for me. So I racked up lots of spooky music (thanks Spotify for Spooky Tooth) and read. And quickly got the hang to what seemed to be M.R.James’s core trick: obsessive detail. James is marvellously specific with his times, place and reference. He manages in a few paragraphs to sum up this French village and this haunted verger (I prefer the term to sacristan).
An elderly man takes in his orphaned young cousin. It is surprising, given that the man is known as something of a recluse, a retiring academic type – specialist in the later pagans and their mystical beliefs – seemingly more comfortable with books than persons. Or maybe it is not surprising for a man to take an interest in the welfare of a young relative, if interest of a distant kind. He asks the boy’s age, and such, and sends him off to be looked after by the housekeeper; and the housekeeper tells him, one day, of her master’s kindness, that he has taken in children before, a little gipsyish girl and a little foreign boy, although being gipsyish the little girl ran off after a few weeks, and being a foreign ragamuffin and naturally unruly so too did the boy.
Strange dreams this young cousin has, of a thin thin body lying moaning, hands pressed to its heart; and he sleepwalks at night at times; and there are rats in the house too, huge ones they must be, for there are scorings on the young boy’s door and even scratches on his nightgown, all down the left side of his chest, after he has spent another night in a dream he cannot quite remember; and it might be rats or the wind in the cellars at night but the butler will not go down to fetch the wine once dark has fallen, for in that dark such scuttlings and sighings have a sound uncommonly like speech.
And, now the boy is eleven and a half, something dreadfully exciting is to happen: for his uncle has asked him to sit up until quite eleven o’clock, and to come and visit in his study.
“See that space between the panels? That’s what comics aficionados have named “The Gutter!” And despite its unceremonious title, the gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics! Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.”
– Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics
A ghost story about a picture that comes to life might or might not be frightening. “The Mezzotint” isn’t one. It’s a ghost story about a picture that turns into a comic strip, and as McCloud says, it draws its fear from what’s happening – or what might be happening – from one frame to the next.
“In March 1644 [Matthew Hopkins] had some seven or eight of that horrible sect of Witches living in the Towne where he lived, a Towne in Essex called Maningtree, with divers other adjacent Witches of other towns, who every six weeks in the night (being alwayes on the Friday night) had their meeting close by his house and had their severall solemne sacrifices there offered to the Devill, one of which this discoverer heard speaking to her Imps one night, and bid them goe to another Witch, who was thereupon apprehended, and searched, by women who had for many yeares knowne the Devills marks, and found to have three teats about her, which honest women have not
(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.
ie two books by james that aren’t ghost stories, and another book that isn’t by james
i: Old Testament Legends:being stories out of some of the less-known apochryphal books of the old testament, by montague rhodes james, which i bought a facsimile copy of about six weeks ago and now it has rather sinisterly VANISHED oo er — illustrations by the great h.j.ford (see left, “solomon summons a demon”)
ii: the new testament vol.1, edited by m. j. james, assisted by delia lyttelton, engravings by eric gill, which i just gathered in from the room-full of books my aunt c is about to give to charity
iii: a copy (from same source) of w.h.ainsworth’s “old st pauls: a tale of the plague and the fire“, a 19th-century novel about treasurehunting and urban conflagration in the 17th century, very briefly mentioned in “canon alberic”
more on these when i find where i put i and have time to read ii and iii
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.
Another in our series of posts about the ghost stories of MR James. You can find this story here.
“Oh Whistle” has the reputation of being one of MR James’ most chilling and effective stories. It’s also – not coincidentally – one of his funniest. He’d already mastered the techniques of hiding secrets in a half-sentence, and covering his tracks and clues with a layer or two of ornamental description. Now he applied that fully to the social life of the English don – as full of ritual and unburied grudge as any of the dark histories he’d conjured.
You probably want to read The Treasure of Abbot Thomas before you read this.
In M R James’s universe everyone who matters is fluent in Latin. It’s not so for the modern reader – or at least this modern reader – and there’s an interesting gap left between the Latin that he so liberally scatters throughout his stories, and the translations we read.
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas begins with some big chunks of Latin, which our antiquarian protagonist – Mr Somerton – gets straight down to translating. What he ends up with isn’t immediately clear to him, either, but he follows up the clues within and is lured into a hunt for buried treasure, departing to parts foreign, and for now out of our sight.