Book review: Collected Ghost Stories by MR James
Stephanie Merritt has some rational praise for MR James's classic tales of the supernatural
Collected Ghost Stories by MR James (Oxford University Press)
I don’t believe in ghosts. Self-evidently, you might think, given where you’re reading this. But I do love ghost stories, and I do believe in the power of stories to disturb and unsettle even the most firmly rational mind. Often I find the rationalist in me at war with the novelist, who secretly wants to believe in the possibility that there is more to the world than we can measure.
I’ve always loved ghost stories, perhaps precisely because I’ve always been very susceptible to the echoes they left in my imagination. Judging by the audience figures for the theatre show Ghost Stories, I’m not alone in this almost embarrassing desire to be scared witless by something I don’t believe in. But it’s relatively easy for a play or film that sets out to frighten its audience; it can always rely on visual effects, and the old trick of simply making you jump.
Prose writers have a much harder time of it, which is why the ghost story is perhaps the hardest literary genre to pull off. Few writers achieve that elusive alchemy of atmosphere and image that lingers in the reader’s mind without tipping into cliche or melodrama, though many have tried. The English ghost story became hugely popular in periodicals of the Victorian age, but perhaps its greatest exponent remains the early-20th-century academic and antiquary MR James.
Montague Rhodes James was a deeply conservative man who spent most of his life in Eton and Cambridge producing scholarly works on biblical apocrypha and medieval manuscripts, producing his ghost stories as Christmas entertainments for friends. His settings reflect his interests; libraries, cathedrals, ancient colleges and ruined abbeys feature prominently in the stories, as do manuscripts or long-buried relics that unleash terrible vengeance from the past. The stories are quintessentially English, of their time and class: restrained, polite, evoking wood-panelled drawing rooms, starched linen and a complete absence of women (except of the servant class). It’s easy to sneer at them now, in daylight, for their narrow preoccupations and comically appalling attempts to recreate the speech of the working classes.
And yet there is a curious power in James’s stories. Their images lodge in the mind and grow more unsettling when you try to sleep. OUP’s new edition, edited by Darryl Jones, is interesting not just for the inclusion of three previously uncollected stories but also for the appendix of James’s own thoughts on the nature of ghost stories. For him, they were purely literary entertainments. “If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall … my purpose in writing them will have been attained.” Elsewhere he writes scathingly of outfits such as the Society for Psychical Research; he seems almost uninterested in whether ghosts could exist. “I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me” is his neat avoidance of the question of his own belief, though he often follows the convention that any character who firmly announces his scepticism at the beginning of a story is asking to have the bejeezus haunted out of him.
James’s stories succeed, I think, precisely because they hover at the margins of the unknown. His memorable images recall the night-terrors of childhood: the glimpsed figure on the lonely beach, the malevolent voice that whispers in your ear on a dark staircase. James’s watchword was “reticence”; the half-seen, the implied, the threat of violence frighten us at a deeper level than mere gore.