“There was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson`s window-sill, and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning……………….He looked as if he was wet all over: and,” he said, looking around and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, “I`m not all sure that he was alive.”
M.R. James was the peerless master of the genre of the ghost story: there really has never been anyone quite like him; he wrote in a deceptively casual, understated and subtle style that relied upon the implied and the imagination to fill in the blanks. His protagonists were usually university medievalists, lost for years in dusty research of obscure Latin texts and legends, suffering from the overweening intellectual hubris that afflicts academics from time to time. These were men who thought that they knew best; armoured in the steel protection of their knowledge and modern scientific certainties.
His ghost stories are peerlessly unpleasant examples of toe curling horror, instilled drip by drip by a genius of the slow burn build-up. We follow unfortunate victims, as they are stalked through dreams, darkest night and wide awake daylight by shuffling, creeping, malignant entities barely caught out of the corner of an eye before sliding furtively away into the shadows of the imagination.
Montague Rhodes James was born in Kent, England in 1862 and died in 1936. He was an antiquarian, a medievalist and a scholar, don and finally provost of the august establishment of Kings College, Cambridge. This was a man who knew his onions so to speak, and who took great delight every Christmas Eve, to read a newly written ghost story to selected undergraduates in front of a roaring fire in his rooms at Kings.
James`s intention was to “…..put the reader into the position of saying to himself: `If I`m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!`”
He always claimed never to have any use for “amiable” spirits, seeing them as a waste of space: for a man who had spent his entire life studying Latin manuscripts and medieval superstition, the supernatural was not something to laugh at and take lightly. He knew that every legend has a kernel of truth however preposterous or unlikely it may be.
His stories are deliciously creepy and unnervingly slimy. A short passage from the classic, Casting The Runes is a nice case in point…………………..“The electric light was off. The obvious course was to find a match: he might as well know how many hours of discomfort awaited him. So he put his hand into the well – known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.”
M.R. James was much admired in his lifetime, but for his extensive work on biblical apocrypha and the cataloguing of medieval manuscripts rather than ghost stories. James`s great gift was to coax a deeply unpleasant and disturbing atmosphere from everyday settings and props. It`s a deceptively innocuous modus operandi, but one which has proven to be beyond most subsequent writers: it`s a perfect balance of form and content which might arrive for most writers, once or twice in their careers, but for James, it seemed to be in permanent residence.
Though he insisted that his ghosts and ghouls must be “malevolent and odious”, he despised the Gothic histrionics of his American contemporaries……..”as too crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption”. He loved the comment of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, who exclaimed that…………” I want to makes your flesh creep.”
James had no truck with psychological insights and mental dissections of his protagonists actions: the only lesson we can possibly take from his stories, is that intellectual conceit always deserved a damn good thrashing.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is best read in sequence; then, for those who like the sensation of their flesh creeping, there is a certain uncomfortable pleasure in the slow accumulation of the various malignant, barley humoid horrors that slide and shamble noiselessly like a…………” horrible hopping creature in white…..dodging about among the trees”.
M.R. James isn`t just the master of all things that go bump in the night, but of everything that doesn`t need legs or arms, but slither from the deepest, darkest pit of endless night you cannot possibly imagine.
“…………..the reader will hardly, perhaps, imagine how dreadful it was to him to see a figure suddenly sit up in what he had known was an empty bed”.