A Life without a Jolt

Ferdinand Mount

  • Collected Ghost Stories by M.R. James
    Oxford, 468 pp, £14.99, October 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 956884 0

He always comes on his own, this bachelor of antiquarian tastes. Sometimes he is a book dealer, more often an academic. He is a dry, crotchety character, not particularly sympathetic. He is usually on holiday, in East Anglia or an old town in France or Denmark. He is staying in an inn or a hotel, an uncongenial sort of place far from his familiar institutional comforts. In fact he is way out of his comfort zone. And then it begins … the tapping at the window or the rustling or the tangling of the bedsheets.

We know what we are in for, just as surely as we do when we open an Agatha Christie or an Elmore Leonard. The formula is simple, repeated with variations in most of M.R. James’s 33 ghost stories, and still guaranteed to give pleasure today just as it did to those fuddled dons and sleepy schoolboys who first heard James read them by the light of a single candle in the provost’s lodgings at King’s College, Cambridge, or in his last years, as provost of Eton.

It may seem heartless or unsporting to deconstruct these little tales, for the author made no very exalted claim for them. ‘If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.’ The excuse must be that James himself was eager to unpack the formula in the prefaces and occasional articles he wrote on the subject. He was happy to share his own ideas on how a ghost story should be laid out if it was to be effective. ‘The setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day.’ But ‘a slight haze of distance is desirable.’ Unlike the detective story, the ghost story should not be too up-to-date. ‘Thirty years ago’ or ‘Not long before the war’ were proper openings. Close enough in time, therefore, for the reader to think: ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me.’ The ghost ought to be a contemporary of the person who sees it, just as Hamlet’s father and Jacob Marley were.

The important thing was atmosphere. The setting had to be carefully prepared and evoked. James does this particularly well with the coastal landscape of Suffolk around Aldeburgh – Peter Grimes country. Then it is time for the ‘nicely managed crescendo’. And then it is time for bed. No doubt it is partly because of the proximity of bed (it is from his own bedroom that he has emerged with his spidery manuscript and the single candle) and the arrival in the morning of the ominously named ‘bedder’ that the provost is insistent on one thing: there must be no sex. James tells us more than once that sex is a ‘fatal mistake’ in ghost stories. It spoils the whole business. ‘Sex is tiresome enough in the novels … as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.’

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