M. R. James lags behind in my poll on early horror writers for the moment, although he has more votes than poor Le Fanu and Chambers, who don’t got none. (Chambers I can understand, since he’s the most obscure on the list. But what’s the deal with Le Fanu? Has nobody read “Carmilla”? I must get a post on that while I’m so busy throwing around classic horror authors in season celebration.)
I’m going to throw some business Mr. James’s way for this post, because he deserves it. When we think of the term “ghost story,” what we imagine is an M. R. James tale. He was the pinnacle of the Victorian ghost story, the master at this polite form of horror. The way the mystery community refers to traditional British whodunits as “cozies,” so I think of James’s stories as “cozy horror.”
This isn’t because James’s work lacks unsettling and frightening effects. It has to do with the polite and proper milieu of professors and tea and the ordered English gardens in which they take place, and James’s mannered, leisurely prose given with a pedagogical twist. Furthermore, these stories were hatched for a particular season, Christmas, when they were told next to roaring hearth fires with the smell of plum pudding overwhelming the air.
For a North American, the idea of ghost stories told at Christmas sounds bizarre. We associate the spooky story with The Greatest Holiday of All Time™, Halloween. But in the British Isles it has always been Christmas when the spook stories come off the shelves and into the homes. It’s no accident that the most famous of Christmas fables, A Christmas Carol, is a ghost story. And an often scary one at that. (The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is one shivery phantasm. Personal Note: I played this ghost in a tenth grade drama production.)
M. R. James’s ghost stories were fashioned with the jolly season in mind, and there’s a wonderful familiarity to their telling. You can hear James sitting by the fire in front of a collection of children—and the adults who aren’t ashamed to admit they love a good fright at the Winter Solstice—and rolling out leisurely tales of brushes with the supernatural in between sips of hot tea. James’s writing has this special storyteller quality to it, right down to some often funny narrator interruptions.
James’s subtlety with his terrors is one of his strengths. His polite seekers into the unknown, who usually have no intention of finding the supernatural, get a whisper, a taste, a tingling brush with something beyond and inexplicable. The sample is enough—any more and James’s style wouldn’t be able to handle it. It would pass to the next generation of horror writers to explore the cosmic territories beyond ghosts, specters, and devils. James brings us to a peak of excellence in his subgenre… and then invites others to take the genre down the next turning on the path.
One of James’s most anthologized and read stories is “ ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad,’ ” first published in 1904 in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. It’s quintessential M. R. James and shows him putting his best effects to use. A Professor Parkins, a proper rational chap who wants to improve his golf game while on a beach holiday, agrees to investigate some Templar ruins on the shore at the bequest of an archaeologist acquaintance of his. The Professor finds a metal whistle with a mysterious Latin inscription on it—surrounded by swastikas, not yet perverted by Nazi ideology—that translates as “Who is this who is coming?” The professor blows the whistle, and odd things start to gradually occur, which the Professor would pick up on more quickly if he weren’t so interested in honing his golf game with the Colonel and listen to the Colonel’s anti-Papist rants. (James makes a hilarious swipe at golf during a narrative insert. Dry humor is a specialty of the friendly narrator voice.) But the strange occurrences keep becoming harder to ignore. There is a strange whistling sound on the wind. The Professor has dreams of a black figure stalking across the beach. The second bed in his hotel room seems to be slept in and messily disordered. A boy reports seeing a mysterious shape moving about in the Professor’s room. Oh, it’s probably nothing, our rational and cheerful Professor Parkins thinks.
He’s in for a shock. A rude awakening next to whatever is lying in the other bed. Hint: it’s not Charlize Theron or any other pleasant surprise.
After pages of this pleasant build-up and sly hints that forces beyond unflappable Professor Parkins’s understanding are marshalling against him, James finally unleashes the horror, and it must have been good for a few jumps and shivers from the audience at the Yuletide hearthside. I know I enjoyed it.
I always relish my time with Montague Rhodes James. Next time, I’ll pay a visit to his other famous story, “Casting the Runes,” the source material for the classic British horror film Night of the Demon.
Until then, keep your night light on.