Or, what makes a ghost story frightening
With winter starting to approach, it’s time to start thinking about traditional Yuletide activities. Putting up the tree, sticking tinsel around the mantlepiece, lighting the candles; and settling down in an armchair to read a scary story.
I’m not sure when “reading a ghost story” became one of the traditional Yuletide activities, but it can only have taken a few decades at most, from the invention of the literary ghost story, to them being specifically written to read to friends by the fireside at Christmas or Yule. As early as the 1840s A Christmas Carol tied Christmas and ghosts tightly together, at precisely the time that many of our Yuletide traditions were being newly-minted. Dickens’ other famous ghost story, “The Signal-Man”, isn’t a Christmas story per se but was written for the Christmas 1866 special edition of All The Year Round. Communal Christmas ghost-story-telling is the framing story in The Turn Of The Screw, written in the 1890s by Henry James; however, I suspect that this is just a device, and that The Turn Of The Screw is rather too long to actually read out in an evening.
One of the best known English ghost story writers, however, did write his stories specifically for performance. M R James was an academic who spent virtually his whole life at either Cambridge or Eton, living in the rooms provided by the colleges he served and led. Every year, more or less, so the story goes, he would write a ghost story and perform it to his inner circle of colleagues and acquaintances at Christmas; they were then published in magazines and every few years in collected editions. He must have started doing this in his mid-30s at the latest, as his first collection was published in 1904 when he was in his early 40s and he averaged just under one published story per year from then until his death. It isn’t an enormous output: most of his time was taken up with a very active academic career as a medievalist, curator and art historian, and he also found time to occasionally write guide books for the Great Western Railway too. However, nowadays, unless you’re a medieval manuscript specialist, if you’ve heard of M R James it’s because you’ve heard of his ghost stories: they are considered classics of the genre. Indeed, they’re an entire sub-genre in their own right. The typical Platonic James ghost story can be summed up as follows: a shy, nervous academic somewhat resembling M R James is either carrying out some sort of research, or is on holiday; wherever they are, they discover some sort of antiquarian artefact or, more often, fragment of manuscript. They are then haunted by firstly a sense of terror, and then by some sort of horrific spirit which slowly gains physical form, either a humanoid shape or quite often something vile and spidery. And then, the threat somehow … goes away.
That description makes his stories sound rather anticlimatic. But, that’s because the real reason I’m writing this essay is something I feel I have to whisper to you privately, as if it were a secret unsuitable to tell you out loud. Despite his reputation as a master of the English ghost story, I don’t think very much of the work of M R James.
This isn’t because I object to the narrowness of the world he portrays, the world of late-Victorian and Edwardian academia in which men spend all their time in libraries and cathedrals and women are hardly ever at all visible. That was James’s world; he strongly believed that ghost stories should be set in the normal world of the everyday, so he wrote about what he knew. There are two things, really, that have always stopped me from enjoying James. Firstly, to my modern ear his writing sounds very clunky and awkward, especially for something originally written to be read aloud. This is the opening of “The Tractate Middoth”, published 1911.
Towards the end of an autumn afternoon an elderly man with a thin face and grey Piccadilly weepers pushed open the swing-door leading into the vestibule of a certain famous library, and addressing himself to an attendant, stated that he believed he was entitled to use the library, and inquired if he might take a book out. Yes, if he were on the list of those to whom that privilege was given. He produced his card—Mr John Eldred—and, the register being consulted, a favourable answer was given. ‘Now, another point,’ said he. ‘It is a long time since I was here, and I do not know my way about your building; besides, it is near closing-time, and it is bad for me to hurry up and down stairs. I have here the title of the book I want: is there anyone at liberty who could go and find it for me?’ After a moment’s thought the doorkeeper beckoned to a young man who was passing. ‘Mr Garrett,’ he said, ‘have you a minute to assist this gentleman?’ ‘With pleasure,’ was Mr Garrett’s answer.
More importantly, though, I’ve never found there to be any true terror in James’s writing, however much horror there is. The stories are always resolved, but the resolution comes quickly and without any problems. If there is a villain then he will get his just desserts; often he will be attacked by some sort of supernatural entity, and the coroner will find his heart has inexplicably stopped. In many cases, though, the protagonist is rescued and the threat just goes away.
Regular readers might remember my post recently about Robert Graves, and in it, Graves’s (or rather A E Housman’s) test for a “true poem”: it makes your hair stand on end. That’s because, in Graves’s mind, a “true poem” must invoke terror, because it is about the White Goddess, who is a terrifying character. Regardless of what you think about Robert Graves and his intensely narrow-focused view as to what counts as genuine poetry, it’s fair to say that a ghost story should be able to invoke terror. I first read James’s stories in my teens, buying a cheap reprint,* and I remember being surprised that such famous ghost stories, despite many attempts to invoke horror, didn’t seem terrifying at all. My skin stayed entirely unprickled.
As I’ve grown up, though, I’ve started to feel that the real key to the ghost story isn’t necessarily just terror: the best ghost stories are also filled with emotion and sadness, of a constant sense of loss and longing. To say the obvious, they are about death, which means inevitability, eternity and regret. Ghost stories can be the saddest stories possible, because they reflect on the impossibility of changing the past and of undoing mistakes. In a very real sense, they are about regretting the path not taken. There is nothing like this anywhere in James: his characters are virtually emotionless and seem entirely free of introspection. This, combined with the flat, matter-of-fact style of writing, produces a curiously unaffecting text. I can read it and see, on an intellectual level, what James is trying to do, how he is mechanically advancing the plot; but there is no tension, no emotion, no way to draw me into the story.
I can remember, the first time I read James, that only one story really stood out and stuck in my mind, and it did so for entirely mechanical reasons. It was “A View From A Hill”, in which an antiquarian discovers a pair of binoculars that can apparently see into the past. He then takes them into a church, and they stop working entirely: the view becomes completely black and opaque as if you had left the lens caps on. The story ends with him discovering how they were made. I was fascinated by this story purely because of the artefact, the rules by which it operated, how it was made. It’s simply not a ghost story, though, and has no suspense, drama or action of any kind. A man finds a thing, he breaks the thing, and he is still the same person he always was.
There are, to be fair, good spots and good moments in James’s stories. One of the best is a relatively early one, “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad”. The opening has a waspishly comic touch, with a line almost reused by Monty Python some seventy or so years later:
‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full Term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography
He does reuse the same joke again a few paragraphs down, but we can probably forgive him that. “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad” is one of James’s best stories, let down largely by an unnecessary final paragraph which he seems to have realised himself is superfluous, because it begins with the words “There is really nothing more to tell”. It has also benefited from an excellent and genuinely frightening TV adaptation made in the late 1960s by Jonathan Miller: he changes the character of the protagonist somewhat, but makes the ghost of the piece far more eerie and threatening than James’s writing itself conveys.
The success of Miller’s TV adaptation led to the BBC producing a regular series of Christmas ghost stories, the most famous of which is probably Dickens’s The Signalman with Denholm Elliott in the title role. More recently, in 2013, Mark Gatiss revived the idea by dramatising “The Tractate Middoth”. It needed quite a lot of alteration to turn it into a good enough storyline for modern TV, and to give the characters some sense of emotion and inner being. The female characters in the original story are barely anything more than ciphers, plot devices. As in “O Whistle And I’ll Come To You” the story ends with an extraneous additional paragraph, a single sentence, written almost apologetically to explain that James just doesn’t know how to write about male-female relationships; in the TV adaptation it turns into an entire subplot. Moreover, one of the big flaws of “The Tractate Middoth”, the story, is that in its first act the most significant events happen off the page. The main character, a library assistant, goes off-scene to fetch a book. The next we hear, he’s been taken ill. A scene or two later, we discover he was found unconscious among the stacks; and then he relates a description of the supernatural thing he saw that shocked him into a faint. The whole structure, I feel, doesn’t make sense. Rather, it feels as if James is slowly trying to introduce the sense that something wrong and frightening has happened, but the effect is to lessen, not increase, the fright. With TV, you can fix this: you can show the events as they happen, rather than describing them further down the line.
I realise, in writing this, that I’ve given lots of examples of what I don’t like in James’s writing, without really giving very concrete examples of how to write a good ghost story. That will, to be honest, have to wait for another day, because this essay is already as long as it needs to be. I’m also very aware that above I’ve criticised two of James’s stories for ending with a short additional paragraph that just doesn’t need to be there, so I’m doing my very best to avoid committing the same sin myself. Part of me thinks that, if I do know what makes the perfect ghost story, maybe I should try to write one myself at some point over the Christmas break. Watch this space, and we’ll see if I do.
* It was the Wordsworth Classics edition back when Wordsworth Classics were only £1 each.