Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

'You Know Where I Am If You Want Me': Authorial Control and Ontological Ambiguity in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James

Academic journal article The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies

'You Know Where I Am If You Want Me': Authorial Control and Ontological Ambiguity in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James

Article excerpt

Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is a lot of blatancy in recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.

Montague Rhodes James1

'Those who are familiar with University life', declares the narrator of 'The Mezzotint', one of M. R. James's best-known ghost stories, 'can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects' with which College Fellows entertain each other at Sunday breakfast.2 To read one of these narratives by the distinguished medievalist, antiquarian, and bibliophile is, on the face of it, to enter a world that is hermetically sealed, politically, socially, and aesthetically. James's biographer, Richard William Pfaff, records that his subject 'had little interest in politics', and modelled his life on that of Henry Bradshaw, Cambridge University's Librarian (1867-1886): that is, on an academic and confirmed bachelor living in the quads of Cambridge - and later, in James's case, Eton College.3

The social milieu presented by James's protagonists is certainly a narrow one. They are professional or amateur scholars, usually Oxbridge-based or educated, and exclusively male. By admitting that his interpretation of the ghost-story form is 'somewhat oldfashioned', a 'nineteenth (and not a twentieth) century concept', for which a 'quasi-scientific plane' is too elevated, the author is also being deliberately anachronistic.4 Moreover, James's terse, deliberately anti-theoretical writings on his own art eschew overt cultural commentary in favour of technique. The compositions 'do not make any exalted claims', he states in the preface to the first anthology, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1904), 'beyond causing their reader to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking alone at night' (p. viii). Instead, James places a high premium upon evocation of time and place; plain diction, or 'plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail'; a gradual incursion of the supernatural 'ominous thing' into the 'placid', quotidian lives of what he calls his 'actors', and upon 'atmosphere and the nicelymanaged crescendo'.5

Critics have been divided about the aesthetic value of this highly schematic approach, in particular its preoccupation with form at the apparent expense of ideological content or psychological depth. For H. P. Lovecraft, James has 'an almost diabolical power of calling horrors by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life'.6 Conversely, for David Punter, the writer's tone is 'shockingly bland', and the stories represent a 'falling away of originality' within the gothic mode - indeed, its 'final decay into formalism'.7 James has 'no interest' in characters' thought processes, Punter asserts, only in producing a repetitious narrative 'model' that induces 'fear in the mind of the reader'.8 Julia Briggs goes even further, claiming that 'psychology is totally and defiantly excluded from his writings'.9

In this article, however, I will argue that James's narratives, although not consistent in quality, ultimately present a more substantial achievement than his detractors allow for, and afford rather more complex readings than his own meta-critical writings might suggest. Analysing his stories, primarily two works from James's first collection, '"O Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad"' and 'The Ash-tree', discloses not 'blandness', but rather what Andrew Smith, for example, recognises as a 'critique' of it, a sophisticated use of the prosaic, to which urbanity and understatement are central.10 As I argue here, James's stories display a careful, conscious mediation of gothic and folkloric tropes, a mediation infused not by insularity but by an awareness of, and engagement with, a diverse range of discourses drawn from folklore and other sources. Further, despite James's own stated distaste, as indicated above, for the explicit and for the depiction of sex, his stories present a distinctively unpleasant interpretation of the supernatural, and it is notable how many of them end in the most private spaces occupied by the hero, usually the bedroom. …

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