'A Warning to the Curious' : The 'Nicely Managed' Mind of M. R. James

Article excerpt

The ghost stories of M. R. James, considered by many to be the best in the English language, are currently enjoying critical attention. Yet despite their richness in imagery suggestive of modern critical concerns - sexuality, cultural/political anxieties - this paper argues that James's gothic imagination was spurred by a particular cognitive condition which distinguished the scholar/author. Arguing that James's intellectual outlook which was noted as perplexing by his contemporaries and biographers, was the result of an autistic spectrum condition, this paper aims to demonstrate how James's cognitive style dictated his choice of literary form and narrative style. The analysis explores the way in which James's insistence on 'reticence' in the creation of horror reflects his own essential nature, and argues that James 'managed' his fear of change and the uncontrollable in and through his fiction - all of which resulted in significant innovations in the ghost story form.

keywords: M.R.James, gothic, gothic literature, ghost story, ghost stories, Victorian literature

url: http://www.clas.ufl.edu/ipsa/journal/2009_purves01.shtml

In his Informal Portrait of M. R. James, Michael Cox writes of James's ghost stories:

It is misguided to approach the ghost stories as if they were examples of the highest artistic and literary endeavour. They are amongst the very best of their kind; but it is easy to claim too much for them, and even easier to impose on them a weight of critical analysis and speculation they can hardly bear. A clever professional psychoanalyst, with some justice, or a foolish amateur one, with none, may discern significance in certain images, names or situations for, as Algernon Blackwood once remarked, 'the subconscious always dramatizes'. But this is to miss the point and character of Monty's stories. 1

In this warning to the curious, Cox's aim is to preserve the stories from psychoanalytical dismemberment. According to Cox the stories were 'the work of a moment': fireside entertainments written by a great scholar who also happened to be a connoisseur of ghost stories. Herein lies their 'point and character', and not in the possible instances of dramatized subconscious to which psychoanalyitical critics may be drawn, alerted perhaps by the richness of imagery suggestive of modern critical concerns.2 However the very fact that James started writing (in earnest) Victorian ghost stories at the beginning of the twentieth century, a period of unprecedented social upheaval and technological advancement, is enticement to speculation enough. It is difficult to ignore the fact that Victorian ghost stories are an odd choice for a writer facing the new age of modernism; difficult not to read in that choice a kind of retreat from the modern world, and to be curious about why such a retreat was preferable. This paper constitutes an attempt to discover why M. R. James made the fictional choices he did thereby perhaps skirting Cox and his William Ager-esque aims,3 yet still looking a little more closely at M. R. James and his tales than a study informed by his own research principles might permit: principles with which Cox's horror of 'psycho-critical speculation' (p. 141) are entirely in keeping.

To the outside world James had solidly Victorian tastes and one of these was for the Victorian ghost story. He loved the deliberation, the leisurely pace - one might almost say the Victorianness - of the form (by contrast, he found the style of the new writers such as Joyce highly objectionable 4). A formidable and accomplished manuscript scholar and provost of two traditionalist educational institutions, James was characterized by a profound sympathy for tradition and orthodoxy. This attitude, friends and colleagues agreed, limited him intellectually. As a scholar James was a paradox: intellectual, yet as his lifelong friend Arthur Christopher Benson said, 'inaccessible to all ideas' and with a hatred of discussion and speculation. …