M R. James and the Limitations of the Ghost Story by S. M. R. James (1862-1936) — from a Review by S. T. Joshi, 1988

Spectral Tales. 4_1988_Cover

 Cover Art by Jason C. Eckhardt.

M R. James and the Limitations of the Ghost Story by S. M. R. James (1862-1936) — A Review

S. T. Joshi, 1988


M R. James and the Limitations of the Ghost Story is the subject of universal respect: Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and other fantasists have paid homage to [James]; modern critics like Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, and others have discussed his work almost reverently—and acutely; James has inspired a miniature school of disciples, [which included authors such as] A. N. L. Munby, E. G. Swain, and perhaps Russell Kirk. The Provost of Eton College, a recognized scholar on Medieval manuscripts, was of such a genial temperament as to have inspired hallowed treatment in the accounts of such of his friends and associates as Stephen Gaselee and Shane Leslie. It seems difficult to say anything bad about James: he perfected the ghost story; his polished, understated, erudite style is as different as possible from either the perfumed prose-poetry of Dunsany or the dense texture of Machen or Lovecraft. Only James could successfully set a ghost story almost entirely in a library (“The Tractate Middoth”) ; only he would open a story with a stunning and flawless imitation of a late Medieval Latin treatise, a 150-word passage in Latin followed by the narrator’s tiredly casual remark, “I suppose I shall have to translate this” (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”).

If I take a dimmer view of James’ work than many of his devotees, it is because I am frustrated that James knowingly limited his talents to a very restricted field and was profoundly out of sympathy with related branches of the weird tale. Lovecraft could enjoy both James and Dunsany, although he realized that they were at “opposite pole[s] of genius”; for James, his contemporaries, Machen, Blackwood, and Lovecraft (whom he may have read) all wrote in vain, while he pays only the most frigid respect to Poe. My first concern with James is to examine the nature of his “ghost.” Curiously, it seems remarkably material, and there are actually relatively few tales where it retains the nebulosity of the traditional spectre. Many commentators have noted the hairiness of the James ghost; perhaps Lovecraft expressed it best when he said that “the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy—a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man—and usually touched before it is seen . ” This is true enough, and the prototype is the figure in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”: At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate.

Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy. (11-12) What such a ghost symbolizes for James—the scholar and academician—is the routing of intelligence. The Jamesian ghost embodies all those traits of primitive man that are most frightening to the civilized and rational: not merely Ignorance, but aggressively violent 28 / Spectral Tales ignorance. The effect is achieved in remarkably subtle ways: hairiness is frequently used as a symbol for barbarity, but note the simple description of a figure “crawling on all fours” (A3) in the peculiar mezzotint in “The Mezzotint”; or the dog-motif that crops up in “The Residence of Whitminster ,” “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” and “An Episode of Cathedral History.” The dog, too, one supposes, is representative of primitive savagery. The taint of primitivism affects even the human characters in the tale. Of the evil scholar in “Lost Hearts” it is said that he wished to re-enact “certain processes, which to us moderns have something of a barbaric complexion” (33); needless to say, the victims of the “processes” return to exact ghostly revenge. Analogously, the central character in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” “screams like a beast” (176) when the monster embraces him in the well. The rational mind cannot endure contact with the supernormal, and itself descends to barbarism.

There is, in fact, only a single story—”Casting the Runes—where a character even attempts (here successfully) to counteract the effects of the supernatural agency; in all other instances the Jamesian figure is singularly passive and resigned. The “eccentric composition” of some Jamesian ghosts is remarked on by Lovecraft; he in particular found effective the “face of crumpled linen” (148), italicized in pseudo-Lovecraftian fashion, in “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.'” I wonder, however, whether Lovecraft or others have perceived that this tale—or, rather, the ghost in the center of it—may actually be a parody of the old-time ghost story with its sheeted figure mistily floating down some centuried corridor. Here the figure materializes itself in a prosaic seaside inn where a professor is vacationing; but I think we are to regard the jarring juxtaposition of unconventional setting and pseudo-conventional ghost—here literally manifesting itself in a bedsheet—as a bit of fun on James’ part.

This is by no means to deny the unquestioned power and, even, originality of the conception; for the ghost is of course not the bedsheet itself but some invisible monster who can only be seen when embodied behind some material substance like a bedsheet. The loathsome creature in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” is initially described as “some rounded light-coloured objects . . . which might be bags” (175)—a hideously colloquial description. But later the monster, more clearly seen, is said to be a “horrid, grotesque shape—perhaps more like a toad than anything else” (179). Similarly, in “The Haunted Dolls’ House” we en- counter “a frog—the size of a man” (484). I can trace no especial symbolism behind this amphibian motif, save in its repulsiveness. The “Abbot Thomas” ghost not merely appears, however, but ” put its arms around my neck” (175—those charming italics again)—a grotesque parody of affection. It is a theme similar to that of Robert Hichens’ famous story “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” (1900), where, I think, it is handled even better.

James reveals a virtual obsession with the mechanics of narrating the ghost story. In many of his tales the narrator or central figure (very often they are not the same) pieces together various documents and presents them in artfully edited form. This method serves several purposes: it first emphasizes the fundamental rationality of the character, as it does in Machen’s “Novel of the Black Seal” and Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu,” otherwise tales as profoundly different from James’ as can be imagined; secondly, it distances the narrative, frequently by several stages. This idea of “distancing” was very important to James. In his introduction to Ghosts and Marvels he notes: “For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable.” Here he refers, of course, to chronological distance, and this accounts for another curious phenomenon in James: the setting of many of his stories in the eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. James’ method appears to require a modern setting, since he remarks in an essay on the need for the “setting and personages [to be] those of the writer’s own day.”

This statement appears to contradict the “haze of distance” idea, but only superficially: for a scholar like James, accustomed to dealing with the ancient and Medieval world, the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries would have appeared—as they did to a similar antiquarian, Lovecraft—a “fairly recent yesterday.” Hence “Two Doctors” is set in 1718; “The Residence at Whitminster” begins in 1730, then advances another century or so; “Lost Hearts” is set in 1811- 12; and “A School Story” is set around 1870. There is, however, a problem with even this pseudo-remoteness. The specificity of dates used by James compels the reader to envision a precise historical period, and the sense of familiarity with the characters and settings is, if not destroyed, at least muted. James warns against this by saying: “It is almost inevitable that the reader of an antique story should fall into the position of the mere spectator. ” This certainly argues a very elastic conception of history—and, perhaps, more elastic a one than James could rightfully assume in his readers. He would have been better off, I think, being a little vaguer in the dating of events. In only one tale, the very late “Rats,” does he skillfully solve the problem: “I cannot put a date to the story, but I was young when I heard it , and the teller was old” (610).

In an entirely different way, “Martin’s Close” is a tour de force in its attempt to reproduce the actual diction of a late seventeenth-century court case, presided over by (as we all know from Macaulay) the redoubtable Judge Jeffreys. This is merely an extension of a principle running through James’ work: the inclusion of pseudo-documents in his tales. We have already noted the lengthy Latin passage that opens “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” but we can also marvel at the perfect replication of the platitudinous eighteenth-century obituary (reputedly from The Gentleman’s Magazine ) in “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” or the paraphrasing of various eighteenth-century documents in what might be James’ most powerful story, “The Ash-Tree.” This finally brings us back to the role of the narrator or central figure, who acts as “editor” of this documentary material. The degree to which the narrator wishes to dissociate himself from the actual events is frequently remarkable: in “Count Magnus” the narrator paraphrases the victim Wraxall’s paraphrase of documents he has discovered.

Perhaps the greatest indirection occurs in “A Warning to the Curious,” where at one point we have the principal (unnamed) narrator paraphrasing the account of a subsidiary (unnamed) narrator who meets a traveller, Paxton, who has heard a curious legend from a rector—and the rector himself has heard this legend from the “old people” (567) of the community. This is certainly narrative “distance” with a vengeance! In fact, the principal narrator never returns after he has yielded to the subsidiary narrator; just as well, one supposes, as by the end we have forgotten about his existence. James can carry this indirection too far. In “The Rose Garden” the tale is so obliquely told that it is difficult to ascertain what exactly happened; in “The Residence at Whitminster” the many layers of narration ill conceal the tale’s pointlessness and prolixity. James’ narrator can also be quite disingenuous: in “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral” he remarks at one point that “I digress to put in a document which, rightly or wrongly [my italics], I believe to have a bearing on the thread of the story” (282). This false ignorance fools no one.

James also has a peculiar inclination to obtrude himself in the narrative at odd moments. “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” begins with a third-person narration about the character Dennistoun, but all of a 30 / Spectral Tales sudden we encounter this passage: *”Once,’ Dennistoun said to me, ‘I could have sworn I heard a thin metallic voice laughing high up in the tower. . . . It is significant that this is the first intimation of the supernatural in the story, but the very abrupt “distancing” is clumsy. In “The Mezzotint” we have this strange interruption: He lighted the candles, for it was now dark, made the tea, and supplied the friend with whom he had been playing golf (for 1 believe the authorities of the University I write of indulge in that pursuit by way of relaxation); . . . (40) This will, no doubt, be cited by James’ supporters as an example of his dry wit; dry it certainly is.

In later stories James is fond of placing the central narrative —or, at least, the portion of the narrative that definitely involves the supernatural—into the mouth of a half-educated person who tells the tale in a roundabout and colloquial fashion. Two goals are met by this method: narrative distance is achieved, and the corrupting influence of the ghostly phenomena on those closest to it is suggested. Even James, however, never—thankfully —carried this practice to the grotesque lengths that we find in the sub-narrative of Zadok Allen in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth .” James frequently goes out of his way to avoid any suggestions of sensationalism as his climax approaches. The italics to which he succumbed in “’Oh, Whistle'” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” are rare exceptions; in other stories the purported climax is handled with absolutely no fanfare. This is doubly peculiar in that James speaks of the need of a “nicely managed crescendo” at the end of a tale. To be quite honest, I find no such crescendoes in James; in fact, often the reverse is—quite consciously—the case.

The “climax” of “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral,” the death of Archdeacon Haynes, is conveyed by a euphemistic eighteenth-century obituary; similarly the death of Elred in “The Tractate Middoth.” The curious result of this and other of James’ elaborate self-conscious narrative methods is to draw attention away from the events and to focus it on the narration itself. There may also be a partial contradiction of James’ principles of ghost-story writing. In speaking (presumably with Algernon Blackwood in mind) derisively of the intrusion of “psychical” theory, James writes: I feel that the technical terms of “occultism,” if they are not very carefully handled, tend to put the mere ghost story . . . upon a “quasi-scientific” plane, and to call into play faculties quite other than the imaginative. While James does not indulge in occultism, this quasi-scientific atmosphere is exactly what we find in much of his work.

I am not referring to all the pseudo-scholarship (imagined Medieval texts, bogus footnotes, and the like) that abounds in his writing; rather, it is more like what Lovecraft experienced when reading some of H. G. Wells’ stories: “I can’t derive a really supernatural thrill from matter which keeps ray mental wheels turning so briskly; and yet when I think of some of his things in retrospect , supplying my own filter of imaginative colour, I am reduced to doubt again.”

Analogously, in James the reader must frequently expend so much energy simply following the obliquely narrated plot that there is no room for the “imaginative” faculty to come into play. It is as if writing a ghost story has become an intellectual game for James . James has profounder limitations than this, and the principal one is simply that all his tales resolve, morally, into a naive tit-for-tat vengeance motif. James is certainly right to emphasize the “malevolent or odious” nature of the ghost; but in almost every one of his stories the malevolence is directed at someone who has committed some obvious moral outrage. This is a limitation, evidently, of the traditional ghost story in general, and gives to James’ tales a curious repetitiveness and one-dimensionality; it is simply not possible to ring many —nay, any —changes upon this one theme.

In some stories, of course, we are faced with apparently hapless characters who are destroyed by what seems to be the random vindictiveness of the ghost; but what conclusion we are to draw from this is not clear. Jack Sullivan writes: The characters are antiquaries, not merely because the past en- thralls them, but because the present is a near vacuum. They surround themselves with rarefied paraphernalia from the past—engravings, rare books, altars, tombs, coins, and even such things as dolls’ houses and ancient whistles—seemingly because they cannot connect with anything in the present. This sounds very pretty, but there is no textual evidence to support it. James’ antiquarians are either professionals or amateurs who pursue the past merely because it is their job or because it amuses them; the metaphysical angst implied in what Sullivan calls the ‘”Waste Land’ ambience” of the stories is just not there. Occasionally we have dim indications that these characters have brought doom upon themselves: there is, in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” a hint of Dennistoun’s irreligiousness when he scoffs at wearing a crucifix to protect himself (“Well, really, Dennistoun hadn’t much use for these things” [13]); while, in “‘Oh Whistle,’” Parkins’ radical disbelief in ghosts itself amounts to a religious dogma: “Well,” Parkins said, “as you have mentioned the matter, I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position,” he went on, raising his voice a little, “cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects. … I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all that I hold most sacred.” (123) But these hints are vague and, in the end, harmlessly jocular.

The fact is that it is simply not possible, as it is with many other authors of weird fiction, to derive a general philosophy out of James’ stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world-view. The tales are all technique; a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposely avoids drawing broader implications. It is not even especially fruitful to trace themes through his work; for both the vengeance motif and the ghost-as-savage theme remain virtually unchanged throughout his corpus. The vengeance motif is, moreover, not merely monotonous but ultimately unconvincing: this moral accounting for supernatural phenomena will simply not work for modern readers. Some sort of pseudo-scientific approach must now be used—either the quasi-scientific method of Lovecraft or, indeed, the very occultist rationalizations so scorned by James in the work of Blackwood: whatever we may feel about occultism, supernatural phenomena “explained” by it at least become subsumed into a viable Weltanschauung .

It is also quite obvious that James’ inspiration began to flag very early on. If we concede that the eight tales in Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904) are nearly perfect examples of the form, we must also add that the rest of James’ work does little but ring increasingly feeble changes upon those tales. James’ first collection is all that anyone need read of his work. It is particularly unfortunate to see James spin such an in- credibly tedious tale as “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance” (avowedly written to “fill up” his second volume); all the later tales are dogged by hints of this sort of prolixity. As it is, perhaps James is rather more interesting as a critic and theorist of the form.

We are now concerned with three documents: the Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911); the Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (1924); and the lengthy essay “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories” (1929). The first two are principally theoretical, and impeccable as far as they go; they prove that James had clear principles for ghost-story writing (Sullivan makes much too much of James’ apparent coyness and indefiniteness in this regard) and that he followed them closely enough, with the exceptions noted above. The final essay is a fascinating history of the ghost story—fascinating precisely because it is so bizarre. Admittedly, James seems to be narrowly restricting himself to the avowed “ghost story,” so that perhaps it is understandable that such figures as Machen or Dunsany have no place in James’ account.

But James’ highly ambiguous stance toward Poe is of interest. The editor of Ghosts and Marvels had selected Poe’s “Ligeia” for inclusion, and James was forced to comment upon it; his cautious remark, “Evidently in many people’s judgements it ranks as a classic,” scarcely conceals his distaste. “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories” is ambivalent, as he speaks of “some Americans” (i.e., the pulp writers) who fancy that they “tread … in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable)”; however, the hint of disapproval is strong. What offended James so much? Clearly it was the concentration on what he felt was the merely physically gruesome, as can be inferred in his slap at Bierce and also in his comment on E. F. Benson: “He sins occasionally by stepping over the line of legitimate horridness.” Certainly he has nothing good to say about the American pulp writers: “They are merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating.”

This is really an unprovoked attack, since the pulp writers never considered themselves “ghost-story writers” and should therefore not even have been mentioned in James’ essay. I think James’ squeamishness prevented him from appreciating the fact that there is a lot more to the work of Poe, Bierce, Machen, and Lovecraft than merely loathsome physical horror; James’ idol Le Fanu can be just as revolting, but evidently his indirection appealed to James. I have not much enthusiasm for James—this much is obvious from my discussion. I sincerely believe he is much inferior to the other writers mentioned here, largely because his work is ultimately thin and in- substantial. James showed little development over his career; if anything, there is a decline in power and originality, and a corresponding preoccupation—bordering upon ob- session—with technique.

He is clearly the perfecter of one popular and representative form of the weird tale; but in his very perfection of that form he showed, I believe, its severe limitations in scope. I have nothing to say about his disciples; only Russell Kirk—if we are even to consider him a “disciple” of James—has escaped these limitations to write work that is vital and significant.

The ghost story as such does not allow very much room for expansion or originality; when some writers attempt to do so, they either fail (James’ followers) or, in succeeding, produce tales that can no longer be called ghost stories (Oliver Onions). It is quite possible that James came to realize this, and that this is the reason for the very peculiar, self-reflexive nature of his later work: with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James [had] already exhausted the form, and could do nothing but move his limited number of components into various permutations to create an illusory sense of newness. But it didn’t work, and few of his readers, even his most valiant supporters—if they would only admit it—were taken in.


Collected Ghost Stories (New York: Longmans, Green; London: Ed- ward Arnold, 1931), p, 151. All subsequent references to the tales in this volume will be cited parenthetically in the text. ^The description is repeated in the late story “Wailing Wall” (638). ^”Introduction” to Ghosts and Marve Is , ed . H. V. Collins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1924), p. vl . ^”Sorae Remarks on Ghost Stories” (1929), in The Book of the Super- natural , ed . Peter Haining (London: W. Foulsham, 1979). p. 23. ^Letter to James F. Morton (c. 1937], Selected Letters V , eds. August Derleth and James Turner (Sauk City, W1 : Arkham House, 1976), p. 431. ^”Introduction” to Ghosts and Marvels , p . v i i . ^ Ibid. , p. vi. ^”Preface” to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), p. v. ^Lovecraft to Vincent Starrett (6 Dec. 1927), Selected Letters II , eds. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1968), p. 210. I0»*preface” to More Ghost Sto- ries , p. V. ^ * Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from LeFanu to Blackwood (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978), p. 75. Illuminating as I found Sullivan’s treatment, I think he wildly overstates the case for James. His comparisons of James to Yeats, Eliot, Pound, and Waugh are so grotesquely Inapposite that 1 can only assume his enthusiasm got the better of him. I2″preface” to Collected Ghost Stories , p. ix. ^ ^ The Book of the Supernatural , pp. 26-27 . , p . 26 . ‘5lbld .. p. 27. It would be interesting to know if Lovecraft is covered by this judgment , since James is commenting on the Not at Night anthologies of the late twenties, in which Lovecraft was included.




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