Monday, January 22, 2007

M. R. James – ‘Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories’

A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ (p. 255, from the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary)

For the modern reader, the distinction James makes here is a fine one. The early 1900s are a century behind us, and he writes – as he admits – in a Victorian style which takes him back a further 50 years. Though one is easily drawn into the stories here, and frequently gripped by them, they do not come across as ghostly intrusions into the modern world. Unless you’re a historian or an archaeologist, these cautionary tales do not work as such, and unless you’re an academic, and a bachelor, their milieu will not begin to match your own. I can’t help but think that this double strangeness works to their advantage, though, and that James is being disingenuous claiming the setting as normal. In the stories he is disingenuous all the time, most obviously in his descriptions of ghosts. For example:

Sir Matthew stopped and said:

‘What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.’

The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs. (p. 40, from ‘The Ash-Tree’)

So much is withheld that only a blur remains in the mind: not a squirrel, moving, indistinct in colour, ‘more than four’ legs (not a precise number, despite the ‘sharp outline’). It is the slipperiness of such descriptions which lend them their power. They create a chasm of apparent uncertainty, suggesting impossible beings with inexplicable powers, pursuing all too rational all too inevitable revenge. ‘Apparent’ uncertainty because, of course, as soon as you come across a passage such as the above, you know very well that this is what the preceding patina of historical records and artefacts has been building towards: this, ladies and gentlemen (but mainly gentlemen), is the ghost.

This kind of moment is similar to what happens in Sherlock Holmes stories when the truth (or some of it) becomes apparent. When a beggar’s twisted lip is washed off with a wet sponge and he is revealed as an un-scarred ex-accountant. It’s what you’ve been looking for all along, and you judge the success of each such moment by how little you saw it coming. ‘Silver Blaze’ was always my favourite for that, ‘Thor Bridge’ not far behind. M. R. James sets up stories in a similar way, always attempting to have it appear as though the evidence in each case is speaking for itself, but palpably working behind the scenes to achieve his effects. In one story (I seem curiously unable to locate it – perhaps it moved) the relation of the supernatural happens on the golf course, but its author is so uninterested in the game that he invites the reader to insert golfing comments as appropriate. This highlights two things: that the author is not necessarily to be trusted, if he’s going to go about his realism in such a sloppy manner; and, more importantly, that however much he may affect to be dispassionate in describing his stories’ situations (and he is usually more careful than in the golfing story), absolutely everything in them is there in order that a ghost may walk in their midst, just as everything in Holmes is there to illustrate the canny solution of a crime.

Usually I’m fantastically snobbish about motives like this: who cares if someone’s head got bashed in, or if they got up and wailed for a hundred years afterwards? I prefer precisely the kind of story which makes me think: ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ – see last week’s awe of Richard Yates. Just occasionally though, a bit of hokum is just fine, and this was pretty fine hokum.

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