Adam Scovell

The Lonely Ghost of M.R. James

January 23, 2019

It was while filming some super-8 footage of the Suffolk coastline, after being dropped off in the early morning on the shingle beach of Aldeburgh, that the mist gave the slightest hint it would rise. Walking the shoreline in order to film a brief ode to M.R. James—and notably to his ghost story, “A Warning To The Curious”—meant spectres were very much on my mind. The haze slowly lifted with the sun, so I remember, and when I found myself outside the Sluice Cottage—the abandoned building that had seemingly crept into James’ tale as the previous home of its reclusive, unforgiving ghost—the path, now seen from the bank, crossed the marsh beyond with far more confidence than I had mustered.  
As so often happens on walks into literary works, new realisations were made manifest: in this case, that it wasn’t just that James had known how to tap into the eeriness of place, but that the compass of his stories was a radically solitary one. Being alone in that landscape, wandering along the empty shingle beaches and the marshes that appeared to exhale light from their muddy foundations, showed me how essential solitude had been to James and to the characters who, for sundry reasons of naivety, arrogance or greed, traipsed into dangers to be faced alone, as in a nightmare.

Because of this, James’ strange, unsettled stories have a melancholy pall. An untimely Victorian caught in the turmoil of the Edwardian age, he seemed consistent, if anomalous, in turning away from modernity’s crawl and his own dawning horror towards it. Following an almost perfect academic trajectory that took him from Eton to Cambridge as a student, to Provost at King’s College and then finally to Provost of Eton itself before his death, James was a writer who demurred from the world around him. But though his academic achievements were outstanding and in some ways remain unsurpassed, he is best known for his ghost stories, which arguably defined their English variant as a form unto itself. 
Imbued with a rare depth of antiquarian detail, James’ prose mixed a scent for the archaic with a modern dexterity at eliciting palpable fear and moments of distilled monstrosity. Yet beneath them all lies a perceptible sadness, the grim smile on display masking a more sincere loneliness. James structured his stories not only around the imagery of timeworn texts he had enshrined himself in, but around the very real frustration of the isolated life that, as an academic, had reduced him to making the most out of pleasures long past.  
He would present his haunted curios to the Chit-Chat Society of King’s College when the winter arrived. Their success eventually sparked James to publish, writing more and more in order to be read than for the entertainment of his colleagues during Christmas period. And though in hindsight the choice of reading them aloud to a group renowned for not being too concerned with anything bar trivialities seems odd; there was something in this act of telling, and in the stories themselves—moving, as they did, from social performance to written shorts—that insinuated the true scope of James’ separateness.  
It was pervasive. In his stories, even when there’s more than just one character involved in the scenario leading to a haunting, the protagonist is usually, or will eventually end up, alone when met with retribution. Solitude is both the lock and key to hauntedness. James’ protagonists—academics, cosmopolitans, meddlers—all walk as one into this solitude, the company of their fellows fading gradually from memory, as if the surrounding action had become too rarefied to share. If the eerie is derived from others glimpsing something from afar; ghosts are the burden of loners.  
In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book” (1894), James’ first true ghost story, it’s as if characters were chasing after time as much as knowledge, archaeological or otherwise. Our protagonist, “a Cambridge man”, specifically leaves his colleagues in Toulouse to visit the churches of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges. These friends were, after all, “less keen archaeologists than himself,” and he goes on ahead, such is his desire to see the historic artefacts and architecture of the town. Beneath this simple haze of minor detail, though, there is something more telling: the Cambridge man’s character. He’s not merely on holiday for pleasure, but driven by needs that even people in his field cannot replicate. Such is the quiet beginning of every loneliness.

McBryde, James. Illustration for M.R. James’ “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book”. 1895 @ The National Review

These Jamesian loners are tasked with sifting through the tides of history and pulling out the occasional object from the slip-stream; things that suggest a receding past that others, presumably now over the horizon, are still unnervingly considering. Theirs is a thankless, solitary task: Professor Parkin of “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” (1904) avoids golf in lieu of lonely walks along the coast in search of the graves of Knights Templar; Wraxall, on his single ambles past the tomb of “Count Magnus” (1904), yearns to see him till his hopes become horrifically fulfilled; in “A Warning To The Curious” (1925), Paxton, the amateur on the same Suffolk coastline that I walked, finds a crown with a ghostly protector attached.  

It is said that James’ characters must be autobiographical, since many of their traits are clearly derived from his persona: the fustiness, the academic nature, a fear of the unknown, even the man’s own holiday habits, doubling up as pleasurable research trips to note architecture, historical interests and, sometimes, the landscape. But within them is also that leaning towards solitude; the recognition that, for whatever reason—often read as James’ own part as a non-practising homosexual in a time of legal persecution—the country path was only ever wide enough for one, and maybe his shadows. 

Trauma is embedded in the very core of James’ ghost stories. Though it sometimes sets the narrative in motion, it is more frequently the function of a violent recurrence or it puts a grammatical end to the meddling. The trauma itself need not be violent or even result in death, though it more often than not does, especially if it is anticipatory of the narrative and central to the land’s accursed share. In “The Ash-tree” (1904), for instance, a woman is burned for witchcraft. The evidence provided by Sir Matthew Fell of Castringham—a relative of the later protagonist, Sir Richard Fell—condemns her to certain death, but not before she curses him and the ash-tree that’s outside his bedroom window. The trauma is already interred within the East Anglian land, the witch’s body later found under the tree after much demonic turmoil has unfolded. Trauma is cyclic for James. In “Lost Hearts” (1895), the ghosts—two children murdered by an alchemist seeking eternal life—are representative of past trauma and warnings of impending danger for the young protagonist, whose heart will complete the alchemist’s bloody rite in search of immortality.  

If the trauma isn’t already ingrained, then it looms ominously on the traveller’s horizon. He will seek it in a spirit of curiosity, but soon find his feet retreating on the pebbly beaches and the empty country paths, before becoming consciously aware of the unearthly terror he has come to face. In “Oh Whistle” this is apparent, but not violent. The character’s trauma is one of a loss of faith in the rational, and his views of the surrounding world are dramatically altered by his fearful encounter with the ruffling bed sheets. “There is really nothing more to tell, but,” so James writes, “as you may imagine, the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear-cut than they used to be.” Though the change is compelling, it does not necessarily lead down a deathly cul-de-sac. James’ most melancholy stories do, however and, especially in his later writing, the trauma related of a supernatural encounter is often lethal. 

This is none more evident than in “A Warning To The Curious, the structure of which somewhat resembles “Oh, Whistle”, albeit with a markedly more tragic tone. It’s impossible not to shake off the feeling that, writing after seeing so many of his peers and students broken by the First World War, James’ more devouring grief was draped over his writing, darkening its hues and removing all its early fireside warmth. The scenario in “A Warning…” is familiar: a lonely wanderer searches for a valuable, missing object—the lost crown of Anglia—only to find it guarded by a malevolent protector. Yet, unlike with Parkin in “Oh, Whistle…”, Paxton isn’t given but an instant of consideration. His trespass, even when undone by having the crown apologetically replaced into the soft soil, cannot be forgiven.  

Paxton’s death is among James’ most truculent, and it impresses the narrator, who describes his injuries, including a “mouth […] full of sand and stones, [with] teeth and jaws […] broken to bits,” in stark detail. But the most upsetting aspect of the story may be the dead man’s disappearance. James writes that “Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare”. The character was so isolated, so beyond the help of anyone that, even after the vengeful ghost of William Ager had smashed his face to smithereens, that trauma pales in comparison to the wider tragedy of a man so acutely alone in the world, even in death.  

Still from Jonathan Miller’s adaptation of “Whistle and I’ll Come to You”. 1968 @ BBC Omnibus.

When Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy that ” [he who] increaseth wisdom, increaseth sorrow,” he could have been anticipating James’s stories, maybe James himself. Knowledge is burdened with melancholy, a heightened awareness of the world and a more canny understanding of its fallacies and tragedy. Even when sketching Melencholia I in 1514, Albrecht Dürer made its winged protagonist, surrounded by the instruments of knowledge, a forlorn creature with no more companions than a moribund cherub and a dog whose ribs shine so much through its fur, it may well be dead. The winged woman herself seems almost buried under the weight of a cognisance so numinous it far exceeds the emotional capacity to carry it.

James’ figures fit this model. They are often found rifling for knowledge in paraphernalia, relics, artefacts and objects of all kinds. What they are seeking isn’t always academic, nor is its satisfaction even intellectual. Whether by finding cursed gold, a whistle, a child’s heart or a Saxon crown, they believe that something will be closer to them now, within their reach. In “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”, Somerton can barely hide his greed for the alchemist’s gold behind his crumbling veil of antiquarian interest. Again, as in “A Warning…”, the ghost is unforgiving with him; perhaps as much a comment on the academic arrogance of others as a last-minute addition to James’ first published volume. Be as it may, the drive towards these things is portrayed with genuine curiosity; one that really was James’ more than anybody else’s.  

It was James alone who cycled to the village churches to look at their awnings. It was James who poured alone over old manuscripts and catalogues in Cantabrigian archives. Even when surrounded by his peers and admirers by a crackling hearth at University, it was James alone.

After hours of filming on the marshes and beaches of Aldeburgh, I was grateful for my lift. The feeling of being joined by things unseen faded with the mist as the visiting sun brushed it aside like a cobweb. The feeling never receded for James, though, who was always alone in the land. Considering the company that would eventually arise to break the pale silence of his stories, perhaps that is best.


Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker from Merseyside now based in London. He runs the website Celluloid Wicker Man and his film work has been screened at a variety of festivals and events. In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on an adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway. He has also worked on films alongside Stanley Donwood, Iain Sinclair and BAFTA-nominated director, Paul Wright.

His first book, Folk Horror: Hours Dreadful and Things Strange, was published by Auteur in 2017 and he has just completed his PhD at Goldsmiths University. His next book, Mothlight, was just published by Influx Press. Scovell’s writing has been featured in Little White Lies, Sight & Sound, The Quietus and The Times.

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