THE NATURE OF THE BEASTS
The Ghosts of MR James Part II

As we observed in the first episode of this little series on MR James, ghosts have been haunting literature for a very long time. Even the tale of Athenodorus recounted by Pliny the Younger and Tacitus may well have been circulating in the oral tradition for a good many years before our redoubtable Classical gentlemen recorded them. And some would even go as far to suggest that perhaps a ghostly tale was one of the first stories spun by the flickering light of a campfire in the long night following humanity’s dawn. And this a quite reasonable proposition when one considers the wealth of material in the anthropological field which shows us time and time again that the faiths of so called primitive tribes often are built upon the giving of reverence and necessary appropriations to the ancestors. Henceforth in a culture that so readily acknowledges the spirits of dead, it is not without logic to suggest that tales told for entertainment may well feature more than the occasional ghost.

However, when one looks upon the diverse manifestations of the spectral through our culture and traces it’s line back through the woods of antiquity, another insight presents itself. Though this may sound somewhat alarming to some of you, it is clear that that throughout the long centuries humanity has been haunted by not one, but two sets of ghosts. For there is are distinct difference in ghost stories that suggests two species of spectres, and this was a separation that MR James, being a learned man well versed in ancient history and literature, was well aware of. In an article which appeared in London Evening News on the 17th of April 1931, entitled Ghosts – Treat Them Gently, he writes –

The story that claims to be “veridical” (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be brief, and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts – as I am quite prepared to believe - the true ghost story need do no more that illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may well be as mild as milk.

The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that, must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.

And obviously being extremely mindful of these structural differences in the stories of hauntings, James arranged the details of his tales very carefully. As we saw in Part I, one of the reasons his ghostly fictions are so successful is due in part to the skilful way he subverts and bends the conventions of the typical fictional ghost.

He eschews making any resolution too neat and is careful as to exactly which areas of his ghost’s shadowy background he chooses to illuminate. And given that these tales were penned in order to be read aloud, often upon a Christmas night, the often conversational tone of the prose, lends the stories the veneer of a witness account; almost as if James himself were presenting us with the curious but entirely real facts of a case history. Indeed several later tales, notably Two Doctors, do read as oblique mysteries in which the sharp witted reader may connect the facts of the incident and construct their own order of events.

But despite this borrowing of constructions from the mystery genre, James never felt compelled to create a detective figure, for when such a fellow appears in supernatural fiction the tendency is to give some knowledge of the intimate workings of the supernatural world. As he remarks in his Preface to More Ghost Stories of An Antiquarian -

I feel that the technical terms of “occultism”, if they are not carefully very handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane.

While other writers such as HP Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson, would create their own elaborate mythologies and arcane laws that govern the supernatural in their tales, or Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen were drawing upon real world occult traditions, James always felt that it does not do to explain your ghosts even by invoking invented mystical or psychic rationales. The danger is presenting a too complete a picture of the mechanism of a haunting is that it is only a short distance in the reader’s mind from “So that is what it is!” to “Oh so that’s all it is!” and thus all the eerie uncertainty and the fears that proliferate in the vacuum of the unknown are swiftly lost and not be to recovered.

All of which may give us some indication of why the ghosts that populate James work are quite so enigmatic. Aside from often having origins shrouded in the necessary amount mystery to make them effective, the various forms their manifestations demonstrate perplex in themselves. For a defining feature of the Jamesian spectre is its scant regard for appearing in the usual ethereal version of a human being.

Indeed, it may come as something of a surprise to many readers but when one examines and tabulates the diverse hauntings contained in James’ canon, a curious thing becomes apparent – only but a handful feature what we may recognise as the usual ghost, that is the reappearing image of a person since deceased. Now this may appear to be something of a foolish claim to anyone familiar with the thirty five tales that James wrote, but allow me to elucidate.

At this junction, the reader unfamiliar with the entirety of the James canon is advised that several following remarks may be considered what young jackanapes these days refer to as ‘spoilerific’. Proceed at your own risk!

Firstly we must disregard After Dark in the playing Fields and A Night in King’s College as these two short whimsical pieces do not feature ghosts, and though they have their charms, do not properly fit into the category ghost stories at all. So then to begin in earnest with the remaining texts, we have several tales that feature supernatural agencies, which while they may be from the other side of the veil, are not derived from human souls. In around ten stories (there are several which are indeterminate, readers understandably may wish to subtract or add to this figure according to their own interpretations), we have entities or forces summoned by magic. Witchcraft, sorcery and all manner of folk magic was a frequent component in the background to James' tales (and the curious reader may explore this matter further here).

In Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, The Ash–tree and Casting The Runes, The Fenstanton Witch, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, and Two Doctors we have the products of sorcery making themselves manifest and demons called forth to plague the living. Additionally in Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas we have things that may be some form of elemental, that act as formidable guardians to their attendant items.

I have no clue what exactly are the strange creatures that are found in An Episode of Cathedral History or the precise nature of the diminutive hooded companion of Count Magnus but suffice to say we may conclude they are not, nor ever have, been human.

Next we must recall that in some three more tales, The View From a Hill, A Neighbour’s Landmark, and The Malice of Inanimate Objects, the strange goings-on appear to be directed by a restless human ghost but we never actually see or hear of the phantom manifesting into visibility. We may also add into this category those tales of human ghosts that reveal themselves in oblique fashions; the four following stories all feature unusual phenomena related to deceased persons. The A Haunted Doll’s House has it’s poisoned patriarch returning as a frog-like spectre, and The Diary of Mr Poytner hints at a similar post mortem transformation with its furry phantasm, though considering the agency by which this hairy figure is called forth some readers may wish to place this story among the magical beings category. An Un-common Prayer-Book largely features the work of unseen hands until the finale when a guardian apparition appears as something like an unfurling dusty roll of flannel. And An Evening’s Entertainment has the dead dabblers in the dark arts are linked with the appearance of some curious flies and reportedly appearing as odd patches of hovering mists.

To this count we may conceivably add Number 13 in which the shadow of a phantom is seen, but perhaps more properly this should be understood as a tale about a ghostly room. Although the recent BBC4 adaptation makes a good deal more of the occupant, the original text is more concerned with the curious phenomena of a lost room that returns at times than the malefic machinations of its resident.

So then you may think that this would leave us a grand total of fifteen tales – less than half – featuring what we may describe as typical fiction ghosts who may count themselves as descendants of Athendorus’ chained spectre. And sadly, you should be wrong to do so, for only a small fraction of these may be properly classified in this manner.

The spirits to be found in Lost Hearts, The Rose Garden, Rats, and A Vignette all feature what we may consider the typical literary ghost – the spirits of the unquiet dead reappearing in human form. Also we have a human spectre in Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance but unlike the more traditional spirits in the preceding three tales, the unwelcome visitant in this story is a post mortem survival engineered it would appear through the arcane arts.

Additionally The Residence of Whitminister although this story has the ghost of Lord Saul appearing in the usual fashion of a traditional haunting, it also boasts other less well defined and distinct non-human spirits, not to mention some unusual insects; it’s human phantom is far from the focus of the spectral mayhem related in this tale. Considering the variety of manifestations in this text, some may wish to place it with the products of magic group.

Similarly we should note that The Haunted Doll’s House also features some human spirits in its replay of the haunting. However as we clearly have a central ghost wreaking revenge, I had elected to place this story in the human spirit appearing in non human aspect category.

But hold fast sir, I hear you cry, what of the remaining nine? Does not The Mezzotint have a dire figure walking abroad? And what if not a ghost of the lost crown’s last guardian is tormenting and pursing Mr Paxton in A Warning To the Curious? And though my memory may be growing dimmer with each passing year, surely Mr Moon yours is clouded by an excess of port, for is there not a quartet of dead lurking in Wailing Well?

Well, on one hand it is true that these remaining tales do feature the returning human dead, however strictly speaking the figures in these tales cannot be exactly classed as ghosts. Rather than the typical insubstantial phantoms, the dead in these tales are horribly physical in their manifestations; they are not just appearing after death, but are actually bodily rising from their graves in order to go about their business. Therefore technically speaking what we have in this nine stories are not spooks and spectres but an older form of the returning dead, the revenant.

So what are revenants? Andrew Joynes in his excellent volume Medieval Ghost Stories (Boydell 2001) defines them thus –

Revenants are dead people who come back in a recognisable physical form, but profoundly altered in that, for the most part, they are now enemies of the living

Hence these are not spirits but reanimated cadavers walking abroad, and unlike our usual phantoms which may have the same varieties of temperament as the living, they are exclusively malevolent. And they are peculiar to English folklore in the Middle Ages, although as Joynes points out they are probably a British development of the earlier Scandinavian tradition of the draugr and indeed it would appear that cultural trappings aside tales of the English revenant and the Northern European draugr appear to be depicting the same species of undead being.

As they are violent and very corporeal, some writers have identified them as a native English variety of the vampire and others as an obscure branch of the zombie family. However as they appear to be possessing intelligence and rarely if ever feast upon the blood of the living, this writer does not feel that the revenant may be classed as a variant of either of these two more well known forms of the risen dead.

And James was undoubtedly familiar with the revenant traditions in the history of these isles. In An Evening’s Entertainment, the opening paragraphs make clear that he has pursed the genre of supernatural fiction which he so admired as far back as written records would allow –

We hear, indeed, of sheeted spectres with saucer eyes, and – still more intriguing – of “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” (an expression which the Oxford Dictionary traces back to 1550), but the context of these striking images eludes us

Furthermore, in 1922 James published a piece entitled Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories in the English Historical Review. This little collection of tales collected from various sources – after all, James was a considerable authority on medieval texts - includes some reports of revenants, proving beyond doubt that he was familiar with this now largely forgotten folkloric being. The reader is advised to also recall that James had travelled widely in Scandinavia – as evidenced in Number 13 and Count Magnus - and it is unlikely that he was unfamiliar with the associated similar traditions of the draugr.

As we have observed earlier, James avoided using either the arcane systems of the occult traditions and the psychical theories of the paranormal investigators of his day. But in his preface to The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James (1931) he did remark –

I am not conscious of other obligations to literature or local legend, written or oral, except in so far as I have tried to make my ghosts act in ways not inconsistent with the rules of folklore

Now as we also saw in the first part of this article, James has no use for “the friendly ghost” who in legends delivers warnings or reveals secrets. And neither did he have much truck with the neat resolutions usually found in folklore – his ghost’s origins are often nebulous. Nor do we receive a conclusion where the spirit is laid to rest – an increasingly common feature the further back into history one traces the ghost story.

Indeed the entities found in James’ work are so varied and possessing so many different forms, his comments about abiding by the rules of folklore may seem perplexing to some. However one needs to delve into the canon of medieval ghost stories in order to see the connections and find the folklore to which he was referring.

But while he may have jettisoned the Middles Ages theology that underpins many tales of haunting from this period, with the troublesome spirits being souls trapped in Purgatory and requiring prayers and Christian burial in order to go on to their eternal rest, other elements he has retained. For example, as can be seen in Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories, the medieval phantom was prone to shape shifting, appearing in a variety of baffling forms rather than the stereotypical ethereal apparition. Clearly the stories in our second mooted category – human ghosts appearing in non human formats – are drawing from this protean aspect of the spectres detailed in medieval manuscripts. (Further discussion of the influence of medieval ghost stories in James work may be found in this excellent article at the Ghosts & Scholars website).

However the strongest connection is his ghosts’ antipathy toward the living which has an obvious precedent in the lore of the English revenant and the Scandinavian draugr. But in addition to the disposition towards physical violence and general spite towards the living, we do have bona fide appearances of revenants in his stories.

There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard is explicitly about a corpse making its way out of the earth in order to pay a thief a nocturnal visit, and the quartet of “bad ‘uns” in Wailing Well are obviously revenants too – persons too evil to lie quietly in their graves who instead roam a small patch of land and hunt down any who would venture into their territory.

The gaunt figure that stalks through The Mezzotint too is likely to be one of this medieval English undead. Observe the way what the characters deduce is the hanged poacher crawls into the manor house and abducts a child – clearly the modus operandi of a reanimate corpse bereft of the traditional ghost’s ability to pop in and out of the ether.

Note too the curious details of Dr Rant’s burial in The Tractate Middoth - James was the master of which facts to include and what to omit for maximum effect, and therefore as he made a point of informing us that the old clergy man had insisted he was entombed in his ordinary clothes and seated in a brick room of his own design, these facts are surely pertinent. And indeed, from what we may term the physical evidence which accumulates in this story, we may assume that it is not the restless shade of Dr Rant but his ambulatory remains that stalk and assault the dastardly Mr Eldred.

Similarly the particulars of a burial are highlighted in The Experiment. As in There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard, James takes care to point out that the deceased party is not interred in a difficult to escape coffin or casket and that the two miscreants in this tale turn themselves over into the hands of the law, preferring hanging than risk a more prolonged justice at the hands of the reanimated old Squire.

In A School Story and A Warning To The Curious too it is the little details James gives us that indicate the presence of a revenant. While there is a good deal of the work of unseen hands in the main body of both tales it is the particulars of the resolutions that are important to our case here.

In the former, the fact the body of the missing teacher is much later discovered in an old well locked in an embrace with another skeleton heavily suggests that the other party had left its hidden grave in order to bodily carry off Mr Sampson. And in the second, the memorable detail that the footprints of William Ager show signs of decomposition suggest that the old farmer has physically risen from his resting place in order to carry out the family duty to guard the lost crown Paxton has discovered.

Finally we have Martin’s Close and The Story of A Disappearance and An Appearance, which sees the victims of murder most foul rising again to mete out revenge. Now arguably these events in these tales may not be the work or revenants but again the specifics of the manifestations do point to a more corporeal from of the returning dead than your usual insubstantial spooks. In The Story of A Disappearance and An Appearance it is notable that the mystery figure not only physically attacks the Punch & Judy man but actually chases him through the streets and across the fields to the murder site. Note too that the figure appears exactly as the murdered uncles does complete with its head swathed in cloth.

And in Martin’s Close, the murdered Ann is not only seen rising from the pond where her body is discovered but actually hides in a cupboard at one stage. All of which suggests a physicality that is more than ghostly – your average spectre tends to vanish when in a sticky spot rather than hastily conceal themselves and leaving tell tales ends of garments poking out of the crack in the door.

Of course we may add to this tally of nine revenants a further tale – Count Magnus. Though we have already filed his hooded familiar in the magical category, there is still the matter of the Count himself. We should note that Mr Wraxhall’s troubles begin when he leaves the eponymous aristocrat’s tomb unlocked, foolishly disregarding the local lore he had gathered which suggests the Count’s mausoleum is kept secured because of his habit of walking abroad rather than resting in peace. All evidence points to the Count being a revenant and it is therefore unsurprising considering the confusion between vampires and revenants that this tales frequently makes an appearance in anthologies devoted to the legendary blood sucker, despite there being no evidence of James’ Count indulging in the activities we associate with Stoker’s.

Naturally some may dispute these evidence of revenants in James stories, and cite, for example, Lost Hearts where there is a good deal of physical violence. However the vengeful children in this tales appear as they did when they died rather than displaying the ravages of the grave which would indicate to me that they are spirits. And indeed a note in Mr Abney’s notes makes it explicit that we are dealing with “the psychic portions of the subjects”.

And of course yet others may well assert that drawing such distinctions between, familiars, spirits and revenants is an activity analogous to the proverbial follicle bisections, arguing that ‘ghost’ is a term to cover a multitude of supernatural sins. However I feel that in acknowledging the different varieties of hauntings James has to offer, the reader gains an enhanced appreciation of this gentleman’s literary talents. And that when one looks analytically at the phenomena that arises in James’ tales, one gains (I hope) a greater understanding of the evolution and heritage of the humble ghost story itself.


JIM MOON, 22th December 2010


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