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