The Original Master of Ghost Stories

Lost keys, a snagged button, a wine glass upset—you spilled it, didn’t you, the wine didn’t spill itself? “The Complete Ghost Stories,” by M. R. James, first published between 1904 and 1935—and reprinted this year by Macmillan, in a hardbound pocket edition, perfect for reading in a stalled subway car—incorporate what the author, the master of the modern ghost story, called “the malice of inanimate objects.” Might that razor, so benign every other morning, know something? Does ill will ferret out, precisely, where we live? The stories start quietly. A young man inherits a country house from an unknown uncle; a print collector finds himself drawn to an oddly undistinguished engraving; a provincial hotel doesn’t—or does it?—have a room numbered thirteen. The humdrum, muffled tone of these stories transmits an atmosphere of almost superannuated ordinariness—fusty antiquarians, old books, the slightly dampish vistas of university life, train platforms in out-of-the-way stations—places and people that mimic the life of the author himself, until they don’t.

Montague Rhodes James was born in Dover, in Kent, in 1862. His father, Herbert, was an evangelical Anglican clergyman. James was the youngest of three sons, and known as “Monty.” The religious strain was strong—his brother Sydney became an archdeacon. When Monty was three, the family moved to the Rectory in Great Livermere, in Suffolk. The village records date to 907 and predate the Domesday Book. An 1880 census counts less than a hundred and fifty people living in the village; five of them were the James family. The watery landscape is moody, and the region produced rushes for thatch. Even today, some local residents believe that ghosts are attracted to the village by the vapors of the mere; there are numerous contemporary sightings of a small man or boy wearing a jester’s cap. James later set a number of his ghost stories in the village, including “The Ash Tree” (“What is it that runs up and down the stem of that ash?” Sir Matthew asks. “It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.”) His last story, “A Vignette,” takes place on the grounds of what seems to be the Livermere Rectory, where a spectral face appears in a hole in the gate. Scholarly efforts have been made to unearth the early trauma that would account for James’s succession of wraiths, screeches, hairy faces, and skeletal hands creeping out from under the pillow. He reported his own childhood as happy.

James never married. He spent his life in one incarnation or another of the schoolroom, first at Eton, and then at King’s College, Cambridge, where he earned a double first in classics, ensconced himself, and rose to the level of vice-chancellor. From 1883 to 1908, he served as the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, at Cambridge, where he catalogued the museum’s archives and expanded the collection of paintings and manuscripts—activities that absorb the tweedy protagonists of his stories—and then returned to Eton, where he was the provost until his death, in 1936. Although he objected fiercely to over-intellectualism (one Cambridge anecdote, perhaps embellished, has James reprimanding two undergraduates dissecting a philosophical question with the order, “No thinking, please, gentlemen!”), his particular scholarly interests included the haunted world of the Apocrypha and early-medieval manuscripts. And among his many academic publications is a meticulous introduction to Thomas of Monmouth’s “The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich,” written in 1173, in which James refuted the widely held idea that William, a twelve-year-old boy, had been killed in 1144 by Jews as part of a ritual sacrifice. (William’s murder was the first such recorded medieval accusation.) At Eton and at Cambridge, he liked telling his scary stories to boys and undergraduates around the fire in a dimly lit room, and presenting a new story to friends at Christmas. He was happy to know that his tales had given “a certain pleasure” to many readers. Besides “thinking,” James’s objections included sex in contemporary supernatural stories, writing, “They drag in sex, which is a fatal mistake. Sex is tiresome enough in the novels, but in a ghost story, or as a backbone to a ghost story, I have no patience with it.” He rode his bicycle everywhere and went to bed early.

“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” was the favorite of the novelist Penelope Fitzgerald, whose own work often touches with grave economy on the penumbra left behind, like a thumbprint on glass, when someone simply vanishes. In my own two favorite stories by James, it is as though the object itself is dreaming: a print of an unidentified house changes over the course of many hours, as a shadowy figure appears and then leaves with a child in his arms; in “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” a doll house complete to the last detail—hats, walking sticks, wallpaper, copper pans—comes to life to replay a suspicious death. A last entry in James’s book has the endearing title—endearing, at least, to those who have tried to concoct any kind of tale: “Stories I Have Tried To Write.” These are simply ideas, in which nothing happens, or, at least, nothing much. A man travelling in France sits by chance in a railway carriage with a woman he has not seen before; he is reading a novel set in a fictional provincial French town; when she gets off the train, he sees that her luggage is marked with that address. In another unfinished story, the true tale of two sixteenth-century Cambridge undergraduates who were expelled for “magical practices” is rounded out with a nighttime visit to a witch in Fenstanton, a few miles away, where they arrive to find her newly dug grave.

One of the odd things about these stories is that, without fail, at about a third of the way through, I found myself a little bored. The narrative comes to a snag. It’s as if James himself, getting sleepy, had left the room. When this happened again and again, I began to wonder whether the stop was in the story, or in myself; was it engineered by the author to provide a little pause before the plunge into the unknown, a moment in which one might decide, after all, not to go ahead with it? Last year, at a screening in Harlem of the movie “Get Out,” right before the actor Daniel Kaluuya opens the door of the basement, the audience, knowing what was coming, yelled, “Don’t go there!” The world can probably be divided into those who open the door and those who do not. James builds that frisson into his stories before drawing the reader into his spiderweb.

And another odd thing: over the week or two that I made my way through these pages, the book kept disappearing. I put it down on the kitchen table, and when I looked for it, it had vanished. Then it would appear, its thin gold ribbon marking my place, tucked between pillows on the sofa, or on the piano. One evening, I found it on the stairs. On a morning after I had neglected it for a few days, evil thoughts seemed to alight one after another, like harpies, on my shoulder. I not once but three times spilled my coffee, and a potted plant upset itself on the windowsill, though there was no wind. At the close of “Stories I Have Tried to Write,” James records, “Late on Monday night a toad came into my study: and, though nothing has so far seemed to link itself with this appearance, I feel that it may not be quite prudent to brood over topics which may open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants. Enough said.”

One of the earliest recorded ghost sightings is in the Book of Samuel, when the witch of Endor tells Saul that she has divined the ghost of Samuel; in the Odyssey, Homer meets the ghosts of Achilles and Tiresias among the company of the dead. A few weeks ago, at BAM, the German theatre company Schaubühne Berlin ended its eviscerating German-language production of “Richard III” with a ghost story. Face smeared white, almost naked, Richard, the mad, sad king, lies in his bed, a lit microphone swaying like a noose above him, while the ghosts of those he has murdered hover around him. (In this production, the young princes in the Tower of London were depicted by full-sized jointed puppets, which made their fate both more and less unbearable.) A scary play for scary times. “The Devil doesn’t wear Prada,” the actor Lars Eidinger, who played Richard, said in one of his asides in English to the on-edge audience, which responded with nervous laughter. How do we dream up what haunts us? What does the bogeyman wear, this season of weird weather, as he lays in wait, the sound of manic laughter twittering from the bonfire piles of autumn leaves?

Cynthia Zarin has been a regular contributor to The New Yorker.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *