"I Shall Most Likely Be out on the Links": Golf as Metaphor in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James

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Celebrated author, medievalist, wit, raconteur, Provost of both Cambridge University and Eton College, Montague Rhodes James is described by E. F. Bleiler in his introduction to the Dover edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary as "in many ways the epitome of the brilliant but slightly eccentric British scholar," a genuine Renaissance man who produced some of the most popular ghost stories of his or any other generation (5). Distinguished by their nonpareil "urbanity, suaveness, and economy" (Sullivan 90) and found in practically every anthology of the supernatural published on either side of the Atlantic for the last hundred years, James's elegant and measured turn-of-the-century narratives usually recount the tribulations of well-educated Victorian and Edwardian elites who stumble into contact with the otherworldly and then have to cope somehow with the irrational, non-intellectual horrors they have unwittingly, often stupidly, unleashed.

In his wonderfully crafted and harmonious tales, James frequently makes use of man-modified landscapes to append meaning to his stories, to layer, enrich, and deepen their import, in short, to give them "larger reverberations" and render them more than mere pulp thrillers (Sullivan 8). For instance, in "The Ash-tree," easily one of the author's most gruesome and macabre efforts, the powerful English squire class has cleared the primeval forests of East Anglia and turned the virgin wilderness into vast estates and private hunting preserves, with open rolling pastures and rich grazing lands. The towering old-growth forests of ash and oak and elm that once dominated the region have been eliminated, while the land has been partitioned into precisely measured parcels: acres and hectares to be bought and sold as commodities. Thus, in surface appearance at least, the ancient land--once so dark and shadowy, so mystical and inviolate--appears conquered and docile, bludgeoned into submission by the mighty English broadaxe and the muscular backs of the yeomanry until there is nothing left but an insignificant "fringe of woods" surrounding the clear-cut landscape (James, "The Ash-tree" 40). That placidity is all illusory, however, for beneath the surface of this sunny and ordered land lurk what Herbert A. Wise and Phyllis Cerf Wagner describe as "the old fears," the displaced pagan beliefs--Celtic and Druid and Wiccan--which once dominated the dark green forests of ancient Britain (Introduction xiv). And, in the end, those primordial powers--long dormant beneath the surface facade of order and control--rise up to destroy the prideful English squires who had so abused the land, had sought to subdue and dominate and reconfigure it to their own narrow ends.

In similar manner, in many of his other ghostly tales, M. R. James deftly employs the genteel sport of golf--and the open, verdant courses upon which this supremely patrician and strictly ruled game is played--to foster a false sense of security, of quiet order, in a tranquil locale into which something paranormal, illogical, and uncontrollable is about to be suddenly and horribly unleashed, summoned by accident from "among the primeval shadows" or conjured up on a foolish whim (Wharton 8).

For example, in the masterfully executed "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad"--arguably the finest ghost story ever written in English and certainly the best titled--a haughty and pedantic college professor named Parkins, a modern man of science and fact and empirical thinking, goes away to the English seacoast for a well-deserved holiday. Like many of James's protagonists, Parkins is a self-satisfied scholar, a heavily starched and formally lettered man who enjoys a cloistered and cliquish existence. His is an "orderly and prudent life" far removed from the lives of regular folk whom he casually dismisses due to their backward beliefs and unscientific attitudes (James, "Oh, Whistle" 83). In a quaint village on the east coast of Britain--a world away from the tidy, tome-lined halls of the College of Saint James--this smug, no-nonsense academician plans to read a few good books and, in his own sweet time, compose a scholarly monograph or two. …