Magazine article The American Conservative

The Greatest of Ghost Stories

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Greatest of Ghost Stories

Article excerpt

A museum curator purchases a mezzotint that changes each time he and his colleagues look at it, to depict a child-kidnapping that took place a hundred years earlier.

A travel writer finds himself pursued by a man in a "long black cloak" and a shorter figure "in dark cloak and hood" after he visits a mausoleum in Sweden.

A man, placed under a curse by a malevolent alchemist, puts his hand underneath his pillow to find his matches--but to his horror touches a mouth, with teeth and "hair about it" but that is "not the mouth of a human being."

Welcome to the macabre and terrifying world of M.R. James, described, accurately I think, as "the best ghost-story writer England has ever produced."

James died 80 years ago, in June 1936, just three years before the outbreak of World War II. Barring three that appeared in magazines later, all his ghost stories were published in one collection in 1931. And what a volume it is! "Do I believe in ghosts?" James asks in the introduction. "To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me"

Montague Rhodes James was the son of an Anglican curate and educated at Eton, England's most prestigious public school, and King's College Cambridge, where he studied classics. He didn't stray too far from these two historic educational institutions in his adult life. He spent 36 years living at King's, where he was at various points dean, tutor, and then provost. When he was in his mid-fifties, he accepted the provostship of Eton.

It's been claimed that what James was really terrified of was not ghosts and ghouls but progress. His stories, we're told, are all about keeping the modern world at bay.

Well, James was a medievalist, paleographer, and biblical scholar, so it's reasonable to assume he had a particular affinity for the past. But 21st-century hipsters who pass on him because they believe James is too old-fashioned for the iPhone age and consequently has nothing to say to us are missing something really special.

While he may have spent most of his life in a cloistered environment, James was anything but blinkered. He traveled extensively--by bicycle--in Britain and in Europe. The man who became the world's leading authority on Apocryphal literature and who claimed to have visited all but two of the cathedrals in France was interested in new things too--in his final days his sister Grace revealed that he took great delight in "a radio-gramophone of the latest type," which his friends had bought him.

Monty James was a convivial sort, as pipe-smokers usually are, and

seems to have got on well with almost everybody. His stories are often disturbing, but James himself, despite later claims that he was a repressed homosexual, seems to have been a cheerful soul. He possessed a good sense of humor and was still chuckling away even when he was dying of cancer. He took a lot of things seriously, but, most importantly, not himself. "Do you know, I have written an immense deal of stuff and find myself almost incurably frivolous," he said in his later life.

Many of James's stories were first told to his pupils and students, who adored him, in front of a roaring log fire in his study at the old Provost's Lodge at King's.

The Encyclopedia of Horror tells us that James established three simple rules for his ghost stories.

Firstly, the ghosts had to be evil. If you want comical spirits who make us laugh, then James is not your man--try H.G. Wells's The Inexperienced Ghost or just watch Ghostbusters. "Must there be horror? you ask. I think so ... you must have horror and also malevolence" James wrote in 1931.

Secondly, there had to be no "unnecessary occult verbiage" by way of explanation. James's second name was Rhodes, but the "R" could equally have stood for reticence, which he believed was "not less necessary" an ingredient than horror and malevolence. …

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