Sunday, October 31, 2021

Ye Beastie Dyde It: More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James (1911)

the 1955 Pan paperback edition

I wasn't surprised to find that medievalist scholar and Cambridge provost Montague Rhodes James, who wrote supernatural horror fiction under the name M. R. James, was a reader of detective fiction by Agatha Christie (and presumably other authors).  The milieus of his stories--villages, country houses, universities--are so often what you find in Golden Age detective fiction.  

But more than that, James' tales often concern investigations into past mysteries, conducted by learned, even eccentric, gentlemen of means.  Even if the resolutions typically are not so tidy as those in a detective story, we are still trying, as in the detective story, to get to the bottom of decidedly queer enigmas.  (Some authors of that time explicitly merged the genres with the employment of "occult detectives.")

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911)--originally simply entitled, I believe, More Ghost Stories--was the follow-up to M. R. James' Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), a cornerstone of supernatural horror fiction.  I don't believe that the second volume measures up to the first, although it has some fine tales in it.  

The leadoff frightener, "A School Story," is by far the shortest of the bunch and the least substantial, a simple tale of revenge from beyond the grave taken upon a schoolmaster, which makes similar creepy use of a well to the Japanese horror film Ringu and its American remake The Ring.  

"The Rose Garden" details what happens when Mr. and Mrs. Astruther (the latter a most imposing matron), decide to lay out a rose garden at a secluded corner of their newly acquired country house.  It's an entertaining enough story, but I thought the scariest thing in it was the intolerably bossy Mrs. Anstruther.

"The Tractate Middoth" and "Casting the Runes" (great titles both) concern scholars in desperate search of mysterious objects.  In the former, there's even a hunt for a lost will, like something out of Agatha Christie.  (Indeed, the Queen of Crime has an Hercule Poirot short story about a missing will.)   

On rereading these stories I found neither as frightening as I had recalled, but "Casting the Runes," I must add, has a simply smashing setup, which was brilliantly adapted in the 1957 horror suspense film Night of the Demon, one of my all-time favorite movies.  

"Runes" is about an amateur scholar and, well, rather nasty demonologist named Karswell who gets a wee bit, um, wrathful when his academic article is turned down for publication.  Coming from an academic background myself, I didn't find this part such a stretch!  

It all results in a sort of supernatural duel to the death, revolving around a slip of enchanted runes, between Karswell and Dunning, the outside reader responsible for Karswell's article getting rejected. Among the things for which the article is condemned, by the by, is its having had split infinitives, which made me sympathize a bit with that poor devil Karswell, I must admit!

Holden (Dana Andrews), aka Dunning from "Casting the Runes,"
senses the presence of unearthly menace in Night of the Demon

Although the "Runes" is not nearly as terrifying and thrilling to my mind as the film (I really could have done without all the stage Cockney dialogue, for example), it has some very neat elements.  The line "However, Mr. Karswell was an astute man" has stuck with me for decades.  It's deliciously chilling in context.  

Moreover, there's an episode, described at second hand, where Karswell "entertains" village children with a "magic lantern" slideshow which is genuinely horrific.  This was only very loosely drawn on in the film, but it surely inspired the slideshow sequence in the latest film version of Stephen King's horror novel It.  (See below.)  Was this is King's novel as well? I'm guessing it was meant as an homage to James.  I thought it was the scariest thing in the film!

My favorite stories in James' second collection, however, are the last three: "The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral," "Martin's Close" and "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance."  "Stalls," set in the early nineteenth century and told largely in diary form, concerns the strange demise of John Benwell Haynes, the late Archdeacon of Sowerbridge.  Essentially this is an inverted crime story with monsters.  It's very creepy!

Martin's Close is a true tour-de-force, told largely in trial record form, about the murder of a homely common woman, Ann Clark, by the aristocrat who was emotionally toying with her and his subsequent trial before Baron Jeffries, the infamous real-life seventeenth-century English "hanging judge." 

It's a brilliant variant on the "spectral bride" legend, about which I want to say more when I get to posting about Joseph Shearing.  It should have been titled, "Madam, Will You Walk?," however.   Along with Mrs. Anstruther and a garden maze expert named Lady Wardrop (see below), Ann Clark is the only notable female character in this collection of short stories.

Speaking of Lady Wardop, there is, finally, "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance," which tells of the sinister supernatural goings-on at the hedge maze at Wilsthorpe Hall.  Mazes have been great settings for scares since the time of Theseus, as anyone who read mythology and seen the film version of Stephen King's The Shining or read J. J. Connington's detective novel Murder in the Maze will know.  (Is the maze in King's novel?  Is this another homage?)

M. R. James really delivers the goods here, in a story that's rather more ambiguous than the others.  And, after all, surely that's the ultimate horror to a Golden Age mystery fan: having a resolution which fails fully to resolve the mystery!  We are all afraid of the unknown and even more so of the unknowable.


  1. I think you're right about this volume. It's not quite as strong as the first, but it does contain some of James' best stories, especially "Casting the Ruins," "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral," and "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance," which I would probably pick if forced to choose my favorite of his stories. ("The Tractate Middoth" is another favorite, especially as it always reminds me of a mystery, but I can't quite say it ranks with his finest.)

    As relates to the un-resolution of "Mr. Humphreys," I've seen something like four different translations of the Latin phrase near the end, all of them mutually incompatible! I almost wonder if it was deliberate, given that James most assuredly knew his Latin. Aside from the wonderful atmosphere evoked by the maze, the thing that impresses me the most about the story is the pastiche of 17th century religious writing. Everything from the style to the italicization is spot on! It's certainly a story where you get as much pleasure thinking about it afterwards as you do when reading it.

    1. My favorite thing about Tractate Middoth is the title--now that sounds Lovecraftian! It just roles off the tongue so menacingly.

      I think ambiguity can be such a powerful tool from the supernatural horror vault. I hated the final episode of The Haunting of Hill House TV series because it made the fatal mistake of trying to explain everything and fully visualize that world. It paled before Shirley Jackson's ending, which left so much unresolved.

      I honestly had forgotten most of these stories, Runes aside, and was really struck by how effective the last three really were. I don't know that you could get me a hedge maze! And, yes, James awfully knew his stuff, a brilliant scholar.

    2. Garbled that reply a bit, but you get the idea! ;)

    3. That is a great title, certainly one of his best. The part of the story that's always stayed with me is the image of the parson with his head shrouded with cobwebs. It's such a vivid episode.

      That's a good point about how important ambiguity is to horror. As I recall, James wrote an essay on ghost stories where he talked about how essential ambiguity and reticence is to their effect. His argument was exactly the same as yours, that blatantly explaining everything, rather than leave it to the reader's imagination, robs the story of its power. (Interestingly, in his essay, he also gives his opinions on other writers of horror and ghost stories. I've found some now obscure writers of whom I never would have otherwise heard.)

  2. A big thank you for your wonderful blog! I often feel more at home in the "golden age" mystery world, so thanks too, for bringing back to our attention many of the classic writers of that era.

    1. I love it too. The Thirties is my favorite decade for mystery fiction, but I stay pretty interested up through about 1970 or even beyond to about 1990 if we are talking Rendell, James, Lovesey, etc.

    2. Oh, and thanks so much, it's much appreciated.

  3. This one of those occasions when I find myself agreeing with pretty much everything you've said, from the awesomeness of NIGHT OF THE DEMON to the terrifying potential of mazes. And The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral is a story that really worked for me.

    I intensely dislike having everything in a ghost story explained at the end. Why do modern writers do that? Do they really despise their audience that much?

  4. May there be many more such occasions of agreement!

    Ambiguity does seem to be a fading art.