Comforting old haunts

Lawrence Parker takes a closer look at Montague Rhodes James, whose ghost stories will have enlivened many comrades' Christmas

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) - linguist, palaeographer, medievalist and biblical scholar - has never been more popular. But not for any of the above pursuits. It is as a writer of ghost stories that MR James is now remembered.

The BBC4 Christmas schedules for the last two years have repeated dramatisations of various MR James stories made by the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s, and this year BBC4 broadcast a new adaptation of A view from a hill.

The Guardian (December 17 2005) treated this as something of major significance for the Christmas television schedules (not surprising really when the likes of Five responded to the onset of Christmas by showing an old episode of George and Mildred), supplying the usual ‘weighty’ ideas - which fall to pieces under any serious examination - to explain James’s continuing appeal.

Thus, Sarah Dempster draws on horror writer Ramsey Campbell: “He [James] had a focused desire to be as frightening as possible, which was pretty unusual at that time. There’s the realisation that it’s the everyday stuff we take for granted that turns out to be an instrument of the supernatural.” This sounds plausible enough, but what if the “everyday stuff” is also a means of making a story less frightening?

In a preface to a collection of his stories, James wrote: “Do I believe in ghosts? To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.” Which doesn’t sound like the words of a writer intent on scaring his readership out of its collective wits. Such rational reflections are an outgrowth of the social function of these stories. This is not to indulge in a boring sociological critique that reduces the unknown into humdrum authorial circumstance, but to understand that James set out to frighten his readers under a particular set of limitations.

James told many of these stories to small gatherings of friends and pupils at King’s College Choir School in Cambridge and Wailing well was read around a camp fire to the Eton College troop of boy scouts (no sniggering, please) in 1927. Indeed, there is a certain tradition in English culture of gathering around the fire on a cold winter’s evening (itself a scenic device used by many writers of ghost stories) to listen to tales of the supernatural. BBC4 channel executive Mark Bell talked of “continuing a classic tradition”. This tradition can only be a social one and these stories have been designed to cohere groups of people, which means that they have to deal with opposites: the everyday alongside the fantastic; the comfortable with the frightening.

But this is not just a matter of James setting up contrasts. It is the frame and context in which he places his stories. Consider this not untypical opening gambit from the aforementioned A view from a hill: “How pleasant it can be, alone in a first-class railway carriage, on the first day of a holiday that is to be fairly long, to dawdle through a bit of English country that is unfamiliar, stopping at every station. You have a map open on your knee, and you pick out the villages that lie to right and left by their church towers.” Indeed, what could be more pleasant.

Of course, James’s detours into the supernatural leave a rather more unpleasant taste in the reader’s mouth, but even then some of the academic buffers that he sends into the nether world come out relatively unscathed. For example, in Canon Alberic’s scrapbook, Dennistoun visits a French town near Toulouse. While there, he goes to St Bertrand’s Church, and after a distinctly eerie tour, his guide, the sacristan, sells him a 17th century book, complete with a picture of King Solomon presiding over a demonic figure.

Dennistoun goes back to his lodging house and is visited by this figure. “He flew out of his chair with deadly, inconceivable terror clutching at his heart.” But Dennistoun recovers with the aid of “two sturdy little serving-men” who sit up with him until the next morning. Although “still shaken and nervous”, he is “almost himself by this time”.

In Mr Humphreys and his inheritance, the chief protagonist makes the mistake of visiting a maze long since shut up by his deceased uncle. Lady Wardrop duly visits and Mr Humphreys offers to draw a plan of the maze for her impending masterpiece on this topic. While working on the plan late at night in his library, Mr Humphreys notices a smudge at the centre of his guide. Out of which comes the visage of a burnt human face “with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple”. Poor Mr Humphreys ends up in bed with concussion, but on the other hand we do have the calming knowledge that he was able to marry Lady Wardrop’s niece.

Even when these ghostly encounters have more dire consequences for James’s characters, the author’s comfort blanket is still securely in place. For example, in The stalls of Barchester Cathedral, archdeacon Haynes has the misfortune to handle some grotesque statuettes in his cathedral stall. After experiencing a quite miserable time in his residence, Haynes dies after apparently falling down his stairs. “The vertebral column was fractured in more than one place. This might have been the result of a fall: it appeared that the stair-carpet was loosened at one point. But, in addition to this, there were injuries inflicted upon the eyes, nose and mouth, as if by the agency of some savage animal, which dreadful to relate, rendered those features unrecognisable.”

Nasty though this is, it has all been filtered by an introduction and conclusion that puts the story within the frame of the author working inside a college library, where he comes across archdeacon Haynes’s papers. The author also pays a visit to Barchester and fleshes out some of the history of the statuettes that are the apparent cause of the good archdeacon’s untimely demise.

This is typical of James. Indeed, reading him is always to be aware of his face peering at you over the page margin. Thus, in A neighbour’s landmark, he interjects into a friend’s opening ramble concerning the familiarity of readers and libraries: “‘You begin in a deeply Victorian manner,’ I said; ‘is this to continue?’” James always parades his work as fiction and his filters always compress the terror into more benign territory for the reader.

But why did James go down this compressed route? Most of his ghost stories were written between the 1890s and 1930s. The author was therefore party to a world in which the old certainties of mid-19th century capitalism, in which the working class was effectively incorporated into its structures, was broken down into militancy, threat of revolution, the challenge to Britain on the imperial stage and the horror of World War I.

We are not given the impression that James was well equipped to respond positively to these reverberations. For example, in The diary of Mr Poynter: “It may be a disappointment to you to learn that Rendcomb Manor was new; that I cannot help.” But aside from his occasional musings on architecture, James’ response to his age is embodied in the structure of his ghost stories. The freaks and bogeys of his imagination are consistently acknowledged, even let out for a malevolent after-dark wander, but then firmly clamped and filtered into place. James, then, offers supreme consolation to his conservative readers by suggesting that the security of a past mythical stability can be constantly re-enacted, even in the face of the most malign threats.

Interesting in this regard that the recent BBC4 adaptation of A view from a hill reworked the cosy methodology of its writer into a dysfunctional social landscape and, therefore, a much more disturbing story (despite its thorough surface saturation with twee signifiers). This, after all, is the age of zero certainties. The end of the programme saw lead protagonist Fanshawe waiting at a leafy Suffolk train station. Visible on his neck are the welts he has received after narrowly escaping being hung on a gallows by a group of spectres. In the original story, Fanshawe gets nothing worse than a sprained ankle and a puncture on his bicycle (and even this is only recounted to a friendly squire and his butler around the dinner table).

Readers may need the consolation offered by the original stories (sanctified by the imprint of the past), but a literal modern reproduction of them would, I think, be dismissed by most viewers as unbearably dated and as ideology of the crudest type. To be of any use, ideology has to renew itself with ‘realistic’ elements that have a graspable relation to people’s lives. You cannot merely reproduce traditions.