Fright Nights

By Lane, Anthony | The New Yorker, February 13, 2012 | Go to article overview

Fright Nights


Lane, Anthony, The New Yorker


The name of Montague Rhodes James is not widely recognized in America, and there will be little fellow-feeling for the world he chose to inhabit. Indeed, it seems as remote as a cold, unvisitable planet, viewed from afar. James was born in southeast England in 1862. His father, Herbert, was a curate; he had attended Eton, followed by King's College, Cambridge, and the dutiful son repeated the process. Monty, as he was known, won a scholarship to Eton, and then another to King's, where he took a double first in classics, plus a sheaf of significant prizes. In 1887, he was made a fellow of King's, becoming first junior dean, then tutor, and finally provost--the head of the college--in 1905. He returned to Eton in 1918, to take up the same position, and died a tranquil death in 1936, though not before being awarded the Order of Merit, the most exclusive of British garlands. His demeanor was kindly and convivial, and his mind, according to his friend A. C. Benson, was "the mind of a nice child--he hates and fears all problems, all speculation." Lytton Strachey, having read James's memoirs, remarked, "It's odd that the Provost of Eton should still be aged sixteen. A life without a jolt."

That is true enough, and many will share Strachey's scorn, yet in one respect he could not have been more wrong. If M. R. James is remembered now, and honored beyond the bounds of his school and university, it is not because of his scholarly deeds but precisely because of his talent--modestly offered, but as yet unsurpassed--for applying the very highest calibre of jolt. On quiet evenings, preferably in the dimness of the winter months, he would summon a cluster of acquaintances to his rooms at King's, settle himself down, under low illumination, and then, whether just for fun or for reasons that he himself may never fully have grasped, read aloud something like this:

Then there was the man who heard a noise in the passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was besides, let me think--Yes! the room where a man was found dead in bed with a horseshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why. Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed curtains say, "Now we're shut in for the night."

We find ourselves, at once, in the presence of a writer who bows, as much by instinct as by training, to the governing rule of his genre: that a heavy horror is most amply conveyed by a lightness of touch. What stays with us is the offhand shrug of "let me think" and "I don't know why," as if ghastliness, far from branding the soul, were liable to slip one's mind. Even better is the word "thin," in the final sentence. It bears a trace of the sickly, the infantile, and the faraway, but also of osmosis; surely it must be the bed curtains that are thin, yet that sense of insubstantial gauziness seeps into the utterance of whoever, or whatever, lurks among them. Not for the first time, James suggests that there is something scary about fabric, of all things--taking the threadbare theme of a ghost in a white sheet and subjecting it to endless, crumpled variations.

The paragraph on horseshoes and other oddities comes from "A School Story," which was first read aloud on December 28, 1906. It was written for the boys of King's College Choir School. None would have been older than thirteen, and one wonders how they were affected, in the short or lifelong run, by hearing a middle-aged man, high in authority, fill the dark night with talk of eyeballs. They probably loved it. The tale was published in "More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary" (1911), a sequel, of sorts, to "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary," which had come out seven years earlier. Still to appear were "A Thin Ghost and Others" (1919)--note the adjective--and "A Warning to the Curious" (1925), whose title, designed to fend off but destined to lure onward, is as clear a crystallizing of James's intent as you will find. …

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