M.R. James and the Archaeological Uncanny

Article excerpt

It is thus seen that nothing is safe in this imperfect world, and that antiquaries, above all men, had better be careful. Mediaeval scrapbooks, Saxon crowns, unauthorized glimpses into the past, the treasures of Abbots, and interesting whistles picked up on the sea-shore are no doubt very fine things, but the wise man will do well to approach them with caution (Lloyd 2007: 70).

Welcome to the supernatural world of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), a distinguished medievalist, biblical scholar and antiquarian who served as Provost of King's College, Cambridge and of Eton College. Despite his formidable intellectual and administrative achievements, he is best known today, as he was in his lifetime, as the author of some 30 examples of what John Betjeman called "the most frightening, learned and humorous ghost stories" (1979: 8). These writings, first brought together in his 1931 Complete ghost stories (2007), have enjoyed lasting acclaim: they are widely regarded as the most skilfully crafted of their often undistinguished genre and have remained in print continuously.

Critical studies of James' supernatural writings began to accumulate in the late 1970s, including Julia Briggs' Night visitors (1977), Peter Haining's M.R. James book of the supernatural (1979) and the periodical Ghosts & Scholars. Joshi and Pardoe's edited volume Warnings to the curious (2007) brought together many of the most substantial contributions to the field, including works by the folklorist Jacqueline Simpson and the writer H.E Lovecraft. Studies of the ghost stories have focused on a number of themes including sexuality and gender (there is a marked dearth of female characters), morality and retribution, and the nineteenth-century scholarly traditions of European folklore and magic that James drew upon deeply and often (Simpson 1997).

James' fascination with the past is reflected in several aspects of his ghost stories including their settings (generally historical), their protagonists (often barely-disguised self-portraits), and the titles of his early published collections: Ghost stories of an antiquary (1904) and More ghost stories of an antiquary (1911). More recognisably archaeological are the ancient artefacts and monuments that function as the triggers for the generally unpleasant supernatural denouements in several of his tales. A number of studies including those by Doig (2005) and Davies (2007) have examined the roots and forms of these antiquarian themes as well as their affective functions. My aim in this paper is to explore and expand upon these themes, examining the aspects of James' ghost stories that are specifically and recognisably archaeological. In particular I want to consider his employment of an affective form that I have previously described as the "archaeological uncanny" (Moshenska 2006). I will argue that an archaeological interpretation of Freud's concept of the unheimlich or uncanny-itself a common theme in studies of supernatural fiction--offers a viewpoint on James' writings and their enduring capacity to fascinate and frighten. First, however, I will briefly survey James' scholarly life and works, focusing in particular on his modest but notable contributions to classical and medieval archaeology.

Student and scholar

If the path of Montague Rhodes James' education conformed closely to family tradition his subsequent career did not, and his achievements marked him out as exceptional. Like his father he progressed from Temple Grove preparatory school to Eton College and King's College, Cambridge. Though his father Herbert, son of a Jamaica slave-owner and Rector of Livermere, Suffolk, hoped that his third son might follow him into the church, James demurred. While his oldest brother Sydney became Archdeacon of Dudley, James' religious convictions--like his father's, on the evangelical wing of the Anglican church--led him to an intense and lifelong fascination with the Apocrypha of the Old and New Testaments and the medieval art and imagery that they inspired. …