The Dead of Night: Mark Gatiss Explains the Art of the Perfect Festive Ghost Story
Gatiss, Mark, New Statesman (1996)
Christmas feels like the right time for ghost stories. What makes them work?
There are many types of ghost story but people generally agree that the "English" version is the best. It's something we do very well! And M R James is the undisputed master of the form. Many of his stories were written to be read around Christmas to a select group of friends. He understood the dual nature of the season--the cosiness of sitting round the fire, but at the same time the need to banish the dark.
What makes the English ghost story so distinctive? Perhaps it's because of our interest in repression: James is a master of this, of letting fear seep through the cracks. The terror he creates is monstrous but because it's contained within a sort of fusty academic carapace, it feels both authentic and strangely comforting. As the creator of the "antiquarian" ghost story, he insisted on a historical setting--not necessarily hundreds of years old but 30 or 40. It needs to have some distance. A story told to someone told to someone else ...
Do you think the best ghost-story writers, such as James, were psychologically troubled?
Often in James's stories, something from the past creeps forward that eventually ensnares the protagonist through his or her own avarice, clumsiness or stupidity, with terrible consequences. We can see the roots of this trope in James's own life. Born in 1862, he was brought up in parsonages and rectories, educated at Eton and went to King's College, Cambridge as an undergraduate. He was most comfortable in academia, acting as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and returning to his old college as provost in 1905. He stayed there until the last year of the First World War, when he moved back to Eton, again as provost. He was incredibly well-read--he knew the apocrypha of the Bible as well as his own language--but wore it lightly.
James was also a deeply conservative man: he didn't like change and he increasingly feared the future and technology. That must explain why so many of his stories are set within a cosy environment but also in the past, where he felt at home. He actively campaigned to stop women becoming members of his college, for example. Indeed, his fear of women--and particularly of female genitalia--is a recurring theme in his work. His heroes are fusty academics, like him, middle-aged bachelors living a sheltered life, "pent 'mid cloisters dim". Whereas the manifestation of the monster often takes the form of the folklore idea of the vagina dentata--a terrible moment of putting your hand under the pillow and finding something wet and hairy with teeth, say. In "The Diary of Mr Poynter", there is a figure made of hair:
... absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. …