Casting an Eye: M. R. James at the Edge of the Frame
Brewster, Scott, Gothic Studies
To cast an eye over old things, to glimpse that which is enthralling and disturbing at the edge of the frame, to fail to see straight even as one gazes in fear and fascination: this skewed, distracted vision is a recurrent feature of the ghost stories of M. R. James, where we peer through a spectral frame that confines and confounds the eye. Our eye catches something extra that is not just incidental or accidental, but it is a 'something' that re-frames the scene we survey and attempt to comprehend. In a typical James story, the random or unassuming detail suddenly assumes an alien or unsettling aspect, as he outlined in his introduction to V. H. Collins's collection, Ghosts and Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales, in 1924:
Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.1
From the edge of the frame, the insistent 'ominous thing' emerges to challenge idle observation: to cast an eye over the familiar is to summon or awaken that which lurks in the margins. The phrase 'to cast an eye' has a number of suggestive associations: it implies the speculative, casual look, but 'cast' can also refer to a twist or inclination in vision. In James's stories, the eye never ranges too freely or clearly; invariably, it falls upon a sight that thwarts perception or casts it adrift. By way of an exchange of glances between his ghost stories and Hoffmann's 'The Sandman' and Margaret Oliphant's 'The Library Window', this essay will suggest that the haunted edge of vision, which reels in the observer, is a recurrent signature (or a persistent mark, perhaps, in the margin) of the Gothic.
On the Edge
James has never been fully in the frame as a figure in the Gothic tradition, despite his acknowledged influence on the English ghost story. His background and public persona - we think here of his academic renown in the fields of palaeography, biblical studies, medieval art and iconography, or the ritual of reading a new ghost story each Christmas to friends at King's, Cambridge - allied to the limited palette of tone, setting and characterisation in the stories, hardly seem to place him at the experimental edge of supernatural fiction. As Michael Cox observes, the antiquarian and scholarly trappings of James's stories are more than technical devices to 'suspend the reader's disbelief'; they also introduce a faintly self-mocking note.2 There is also a markedly ironic attitude towards the conventions of the Gothic. While the stories are often set in hallowed ground - churches, cathedrals and the college rooms of ancient Universities - the ghostly is equally likely to invade modest country houses, the genteel suburbs and boarding-houses in seaside resorts. These settings appear to be wan imitations or hollowed-out parodies of 'original' Gothic architecture, with its ruins, castles, cavernous interiors and sublime vistas that physically embody morbid symptoms. James's stories distrust a depth of perspective; his protagonists may show a fascination with the past, but to dwell there courts danger. In 'An Episode of Cathedral History', Gothic Revival renovations lay waste to 'beautiful wainscot oak' and 'lovely old gilding work', but this attempt to fashion an alternative heritage opens a space in the altar within which a recrudescent demonic force can lurk.3
James's self-deprecating authorial persona, and the carefully cultivated sense that the tales were merely jeux d'esprit, has led critics to overlook the subtlety and complexity of his stories. David Punter argues that, in his ironic familiarity with the assumptions of Gothic, James establishes 'a dialectic of the predictable'.4 Punter remarks that the principal interest of the ghost story in the twentieth century is concentrated on 'a single dialectic . …