Firstly, mostly to get them out of the way, two boring anecdotes.
Semi-irrelevant anecdote #1:
Once when I was working in Waterstones in Oxford, I sold lovely David Mitchell a book of M R James’ ghost stories. The end.
Semi-irrelevant anecdote #2:
I went to a supposedly haunted school. The school was in the Thames Valley, reasonably old although not much predating the 20th Century, at a guess (I’m sure I could find out but my interest is limited) and situated in some rolling countryside that I am sure I would have found impressive had I not been brought up as a yokel and thus seeing a massive field of oil seed rape as a massive field of oil seed rape, rather than a burning golden sea, etc. The school itself was in old farm buildings, the former barn and stables made a sort of three-quarters-enclosed courtyard, with an ancient, crippled weeping willow tree in the centre and this was where the junior school basked sunnily, the buildings whitewashed and their insides at least semi-efficiently converted to schooling purposes.
The senior school occupied the old farmhouse, which was at once more conveniently school-enabled and also completely ridiculous; the library was only accessible through the English classroom and the corridors were sharply-twisting, crowded things. Originally, the entire school had been in this building and the attic had been used as dormitories but had long since been abandoned, its accessibility being even more limited than the rest of the place, as a dumping ground for old play costumes and props. In certain conditions, light would shine through the attic windows and from the playground, you could make out a dress or a mannequin’s head and everyone would run round describing the fact they’d seen the ghost of the girl who’d killed herself out of the attic window. This girl had various different names, as far as I can recall but there actually had been someone who’d died (I think of TB) there and so there was a semi-taboo over the whole thing from the teachers, who considered it half-bad taste and half-hysteria, not incorrectly.
The attics themselves were fabulously creepy; I went up there possibly four or five times, usually to retrieve play costumes. There was no electric lighting up there, so we had to go in the afternoon when the light would be suitably angled as to illuminate the racks of mouldering furs and tea dresses and consequently, the rooms would be heated specifically according to the sunbeams, making some areas baking and stinking of dust and mothballs and others freezing and full of dank, a disorientating sensation to experience as you crossed a stooped, poorly-lit room and trailing rags brushed against your head and shoulders. This was fairly par for the course, however and since my own room in my parents’ house was similar it didn’t freak me out enough to overwhelm my curiosity about the costumes and the jewellery and the boxes of photographs up there.
What freaked me out utterly and completely and turned absolutely everyone into a screaming idiot, teachers included, was the rooms the other side of the hall. These were never lit up at the same time, due to the sun-angling lighting and so were in a sepia-darkness that made them seem timeslipped; old iron bed frames rested against the walls, never removed and they cast odd, long shadows, decaying leather straps that had once supported mattresses hung like torture-restraints and the paint was peeling off the ceiling in curlicues but there was no evidence of it hitting the floor, which was utterly black in a layer about an inch-and-a-half thick of dead or half-dead bluebottles. Thinking about those rooms now, well over a decade after I must have last seen them, I can feel the hair on the back of my neck standing up and hear the noise of these dying flies buzzing a steady, low drone that rose and fell. I never saw one airborne in there and I suppose that there must have been insecticides used by the caretaker to kill them but there were so many of them and in such drowsy, fitfully mortal states that it was like some overwhelmingly surreal, morbid scene from …well, I want to say a Hitchcock movie but I don’t watch films and don’t really know, so I’ll have to say one of those lasting images from M.R. James.
These rooms filled me with incapable, sick fear and seemed portentous but without reason; why were the flies there, why were they dying in such numbers and why were they always carpeting the room thus? Rather like the more terrifying bits of James, there wasn’t any explanation offered, merely the fact of their existence.
A School Story is one of my favourite of his stories, for this reason. I enjoy matter-of-fact ghost story telling, as James does it; there is little or no effort made to rationalise the events with supporting background stories, such as the vengeful ghosts you tend to get in supernatural mystery stories (although I like them, too, for B-Movie reasons) and there’s rarely a potential get-out for the victims of the tale. I particularly like that in this one, the narrator knows no way to make any sensible link between the events and so any and all conjecture about how things come to unfold is entirely our own. Like the rooms full of flies seemed to me, the narrator knows that the events are in some way portentous or significant and certainly frightening but without any ability to define why, each being seemingly innocent in isolation.*
The first ghostly or apparently significant incident occurs during the description of Sampson, a favoured tutor who had travelled the world and seems to have been a bit of a rogueish figure, in a disciplinarian manner, who had on his watch-chain a charm fashioned from a Byzantine coin. The narrator, possibly with retrospect, describes the tutor as having “rather barbarously” carved his initials and a date across the coin. This is pretty much a red herring, of course but James’ drawing the reader’s attention to it and indeed, the rare occasion of him describing something in detail (a paragraph ago he has dismissed bothering to describe one of the protagonists except to say that he was entirely unexceptional and Scottish) means that instantly this appears to be a hinge-point in the tale.
It is slightly offputting, then, that “the first odd thing” then happens a paragraph later in Latin class. Again, the Latin is a red herring; although, as it’s been noted before in this series, anyone who is anyone in an M R James story can speak Latin there’s no more significance than that to the setting, I suspect, although it works well with the Byzantine coin to throw suspicions off-kilter as the reader looks for a pieceable mystery.
McLeod, the unexceptional Scot, is delayed in delivering his Latin sentence using the verb “memini.” I have never learnt Latin and can’t read it in the slightest, so whatever memino librum meum means goes right over my head but is no doubt a hilarious error but apparently, this is “the sort of rot” that some of the boys will have come out with as they wait to pass in their sentences to Sampson. McLeod, seemingly in a dream-state, doesn’t fill his in until, berated by the rest of the class, he finally scribbles down a sentence he doesn’t understand but which seemingly Sampson very much does; “memento putei inter quattor taxos.”
Apparently inspired by a vision that popped into his head before he wrote it, McLeod says to the narrator that it means “remember the well among the four yews,” with a small discussion of which tree he is referring to placed prominently enough that the reader is led to dwell on the trees. And yews are sinister and conjure visions of churchyards, which coupled with Sampson’s spooking seems obvious that there is something unwholesome occurring and that this is a warning shot of some kind. It is not a particularly scary one, however, being too specific to be a common fear and too disjointed to be obviously leading and the boys seem to largely forget the incident as McLeod is taken to his bed for a month with illness and the nameless narrator only retrospectively sees it as suspicious.
The next event is also set in the dull surroundings of the Latin classroom, embedded amongst notes on grammar and a complaint against conditional sentences (which I won’t pretend to know the specifics of) and again an incident where Sampson is alarmed by a contribution to the boys’ testing. This time, our narrator steps in as a Boy Investigator and, after the teacher runs from the room, discovers the slip of paper which has alarmed him. The sentence, belonging to no one in the room according to their dying oaths and some weak CSI handwriting analysis, is innocuous enough that our narrator steals the piece, the paper itself obviously offering no sense of foreboding despite the decidedly sinister message of “If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you,” which is the sort of fantastically stalkerish thing that would unnerve anyone.
The disappearing ink is a weak way to make the paper seem unnatural; the fact of it existing is creepier and it annoys me to some extent that James uses that fact to confirm its supernatural origin. A paper that has appeared, written by no hand in the class, by no ink in the class and by an apparently extra person in the room, unnoticed, is much more alarming for its physicality and continued existence than otherwise and so the message disappearing after the narrator steals it is frustrating, especially given the next events seem to suggest something far more corporeal, if no less unnatural, going on.
The description of the thing which McLeod (although notably, not the narrator) sees at Sampson’s window is one of my favourite passages in any of the ghost stories; like a lot of the rest of the story, it is the mundane turned sinister by some creeping suspicion that, whilst unconfirmed, is bad enough in its suggestion. Originally describing the situation to the narrator as there being a burglar at the teacher’s window, visible from their dormitory, McLeod makes the bizarre excuse for not raising an alarm of not knowing who it is, as though burglars are generally known to the victim and something about this phrasing is obviously off-kilter enough to support the creep the narrator feels when, looking out to an empty courtyard and realising somehow that there is indeed something wrong afoot.
These suspicions are confirmed, when the boys begin speaking again, with McLeod’s description-
“I didn’t hear anything at all,” he said, “but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson’s window-sill, and he looking in and I thought he was beckoning.” “What sort of man?” McLeod wriggled. “I don’t know,” he said, “but I can tell you one thing – he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,” he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, “I’m not at all sure that he was alive.”
Insofar as a burglary is mundane, this is the inverse to most accounts of supernatural events in that McLeod at first claims to have seen a break-in, then post-rationalises it to be an incident involving the undead. Normally, we would expect him to start with the notion that he’d seen a zombie and then suggest raising the alarm in case of a break-in, whereas here terror actually seems to grow with distance and why not? The image is a disturbing enough one that even someone who saw it probably wouldn’t think of all they’d seen until a few moments later. Initially, you see a man breaking in, then you think perhaps he’s beckoning, then you think about how thin he was and his wetness and a dread that perhaps you have seen something more awful than you really want to think about sinks in.
The idea of faces at windows terrifies me. No, wait, right. There’s a bit in Tolkien’s Father Christmas Letters, which was a staple of scaring the pants off me as a very small child, where Father Christmas wakes to find goblins have once more invaded his house. The actual description-
“One night, just about Christopher’s birthday**, I woke up suddenly. There was squeaking and spluttering in the room and a nasty smell – in my own best green and purple room that I had just done up most beautifully. I caught sight of a wicked little face at the window. Then I really was upset, for my window is high up above the cliff, and that meant there were bat-riding goblins about – which we haven’t seen since the goblin-war in 1453, that I told you about.”
which isn’t as earth-shatteringly terrifying as I remember it because a) I am now nineteen years older and b) at some point during those nineteen years I think I concocted an entirely different passage, which I believed I’d learnt pretty much verbatim from the book, enraptured by terror although after a quick investigation by Mark and I, I’ve realised is probably from a dream (there was a supposed accompanying illustration but I think I’d invented that as well, since it doesn’t follow Tolkien’s bright inks style) and which went as follows;
“One night I awoke to silence; there was heavy snowfall and it seemed the fire had gone out, making the room freezing and dark and at first I thought it was this that woke me. Crossly getting up to stoke the embers, if possible and cursing the Polar Bear for his choosing wet logs I smelt something wrong. There are plenty of smells here; soot from the fires and wood in the workshops and spilt ink and soap and the Polar Bear’s coat smells something awful when he hasn’t dried it properly but this was none of them and I began to be afraid that something dreadful had occurred. There was a soft noise at the window, settling snow dripping off the roof I thought and something made me turn to move the curtain where, pressed nearly against mine I saw a pointed little face and knew they were back.”
Which demonstrates an overactive imagination but is also one of the things that to this day utterly and totally terrifies me, despite being almost entirely of my own elaboration. The idea of the creature at Sampson’s window frightened me completely when I first read the story (aged about eleven, I think) in the same way the tapping of tree-things at a window in another ghost story I read around the same time (mostly forgotten and of infinitely lower quality than James’ but I was largely constricted by the school library) and the way the goblin at Father Christmas’ window had when I was four. My room, which occupied a peaked bit of the former attic of my parents’ house, had a window just behind where I slept, which I couldn’t see through from my bed but which, if something had been pressed against it, I could have noticed. I lived in the country and the bloodcurdling screams of mating muntjacks (which are genuinely awful noises, choking and howling like they’re dying) don’t wake me up, equally the busy cross-county main road that ran through the village ensured that there was a heavy enough stream of HGVs etc. to ensure the thing that really freaked me out was when I woke up to dead silence, presumably where the invented Father Christmas passage comes from.
Which is all a massive digression from M.R. James but one I think is necessary. The narrative of the A School Story begins with two men in a smoking room; I imagine them wearing particularly fine red smoking jackets, drinking port and looking like old MPs, which is to say fat and rendered red-nosed and tough-faced by years of pompous outrage. One begins by recounting (without the prompt for this anecdote being included) that at his school they had a ghost’s footprint. Whether this is in response to those ridiculous, soft-touch non-ghost-imprinted schools these days or not is never specified, however he does say that there was never any story behind it, merely that it existed as a quite unremarkable feature except that it was on a stone staircase. It’s discarded fast enough that whether it was an actual indent or merely a mark is never even specified.
The man continues by describing ghost stories told at schools, which is a standard enough thing; anyone who’s ever been in any educational establishment will have at least half a dozen fairly generic tales to recount that supposedly definitely really happened in some specific but varied spot not far from the school.
It’s a nice touch that the two men first rubbish these stories as ridiculous and almost certainly removed from literature; one suggests to the other that he write about it- “There’s a subject for you, by the way – “The Folklore of Private Schools” but the first speaker demurs on the basis of the scantiness of material on which to draw, “I imagine if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories, for instance, which the boys at private schools tell each other, they would all turn out to be highly-compressed versions of stories out of books.” M.R. James: early Lars Ulrich of the Intellectual Property world.
“Nowadays, the Strand and Pearson’s, and so on, would be extensively drawn upon,” -kids these days, eh? They’ll rip off any old sh1t. This is something I quite like about James, though; in discussing ghost stories within his ghost stories (and this is far from the only time it happens, often the characters pause to discuss the supernatural or are engaged in researching the very thing that comes to haunt them) he justifies his prose style, which is not on the face of it something to chill the blood. The way he recounts the stories, almost always through second-or-third party narrators, is (and excuse me whilst I stab myself in the face for my own pretension here but) Herodotian in its gossipy, editorial style. The oft-discarded characters (“and I shan’t bore you with a description,” ie: I can’t be bothered to write one, repeatedly features in one form or another) and the fact that we are hearing stories twice or thrice edited by their characters and then by James’ own, fictional researcher-author character means that the sparse style, retaining only the juicy bits or those that have been considered important adds to the apparent disparity of events’ significance. Which is possibly lazy writing but I take quite a lot of pleasure in authors who make their writing a character and so I find it quite charming.
It’s this editing that makes the creepy bits really creepy to me, too. The actual conclusion to A School Story is necessary but unfrightening. A third party in the smoking room discovers, by identifying Sampson’s Byzantine charm, that he was found dead in a well amidst a yew thicket in Ireland, with the body that presumably attacked him and dragged him back there “arms tight round” him. This is unnerving to the person who found the bodies but our distance from Sampson and the lack of any explanation of how events came to be this way means it strikes me as merely archaeological. Or possibly I’ve just watched too much CSI but nonetheless, the story at that point has taken on the same meaning as the stories rejected in the smoking room at the start; “a man was found dead in bed with a horseshow mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don’t know why.” And neither does the reader really know why two bodies were found in a well in Ireland; Sampson had obviously feared it but no explanation for his knowledge is offered and the fact that he died is not especially frightening, given we know him by little more than the few token identifiers that allow the body to be named his.
Allowing my own fears to perhaps bias me though, the thing that frightens me about A School Story is the false clues, the strange feelings of dread and the lack of understanding. Nothing about the two incidents in Latin class suggests that a corpse will turn up at Sampson’s window, late at night (although Sampson himself presumably fears it) and although there is a little hint perhaps of something unspecified, when McLeod mentions that Sampson questions him about his origins it’s obvious that the coin and the old language are misleading. The thing in the well presumably has no classical significance or if so, is unlikely to be Byzantine in origin (although I suppose coins are flung into wells traditionally and Sampson’s tale about Constantinople could be a bizarre lie but I prefer the lack of explanation) and its link to its victim is inexplicable on the evidence we have.
And that’s what’s really terrifying and what, readers, has led to me having to recruit Mark to sit in the same room as me to finish writing this because the fireplace is making rustling noises and the window opposite is darkened and empty. The seemingly mundane turning terrifying is a common tool in horror; a glamourous young lady wakes in the middle of the night to a strange noise in the kitchen, potters down the stairs in her nightie to investigate if it’s the cat again, decides she must have imagined it and the next thing we see, she’s mostly dismembered behind a police line. I have no delusions that I will be killed in a glamourous nightie, being mostly found in flannel pyjama trousers and a Pantera t-shirt but the fear of Things At The Window makes my blood run cold still.
The significant events that lead up to Sampson’s disappearance are frightening for being apparently explicable, to at least some extent; boy daydreams in Latin class, writes something weird, annoys teacher; extra slip of paper is stuffed into pile by hilarious prankster (which is why the ink disappearing annoys me I suppose) and again, annoys teacher into having a migraine. Sampson’s fear up until that point is alien to me but in the conclusion as recounted by McLeod the idea that a thing he knew was likely coming, which had sent him warning shots, appears in the dark of night, silently. When he woke he must have felt terror, then perhaps a sense of brief reassurance that there was nothing immediately there until he looked to the window and the terror was all the worse for the moment of respite as the possibly-not-alive thing beckons to him.
In a brief “I have freaked myself out too much to continue writing” crisp break in the kitchen, Mark said that the thing that’s frightening there is the fact that this time, we haven’t seen any of this but imagine if the supernatural comes calling and we have to be the retelling witnesses to such. We’ve all had moments of suspicion about events that presumably turn out to be entirely mundane; there’s a rustling in the fireplace, it’s probably a spider and of course the window across the road is out, the occupants are probably down the pub like any sensible person at this time on a Sunday.
At my old school, the attic door was once open when I got in. I wanted to close it because I could hear the buzzing of the dying flies (or thought I could) and because at that time I arrived at school a good hour before most other people, it scared me to be the only one with this noise leading me, seductively fearful, to this place that scared me. I thought the caretaker might be up there though and didn’t want to lock him up there, so I steeled myself and got about seven steps up the stairs before I thought I saw something move (probably dust disturbed by my feet) ran back and slammed the door shut because the idea of seeing what made the dead flies pile up there, although it’s probably nothing more sensational than a can of Raid, was too sickening. The confirmations of our paranoia, irrationally displayed, are just too horrible; in A School Story there’s no sense of conclusion beyond the fact Sampson dies and there’s no assurance for the narrator or poor indescribable McLeod that what they witnessed was one thing or another.
The temptation, in a lot of horror movies or stories today, is to provide a motive or a cause (and James does that often enough; it’s apparent why, say, the bedcloth creature appears in O Whistle) and to rationalise it into a solvable thing, in order to give it some kind of narrative but James’ casenotes style in the ghost stories doesn’t demand anything more explanatory than a simple recount of events as they are known, the evidence not necessarily leading to anything more satisfying than an apparent occurrence and for a reader rationalising noises they can hear from where they sit or lie with the story, that’s much more a dread likely to make you unable to get up and turn the light off than any clarity could. James’ talent lies in giving just enough to activate one’s imagination but not enough to reassure you.
*Unlike a room full of dead flies, which is just fvcking creepy whichever way you look at it. But bear with me here.
**Sidenote: whilst looking for this passage, Sukrat and I also gleefully discovered a letter which ends:
P.S. (Chris has no need to be frightened of me -PAGING THE UNRESOLVED ISSUES POLICE.