“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” by M. R. James

Although dreams can terrify even the most rational and down-to-earth people, they haven’t really featured in ghost stories as much as might have been expected; and when they do feature, the effect, to my mind at least, is often less than satisfactory. This is perhaps because we feel reassured if the author tells us beforehand that what we are reading is but a dream; and if the author only reveals that fact to us afterwards, we feel cheated. The trick, of course, is to blur the distinction between dream and reality, but this is a difficult trick to pull off. And I cannot think of a better instance of an author “pulling it off” than one of M. R. James’ lesser-known stories, the rather prosaically, and, indeed, some may argue, clumsily titled “A Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”.

James made a virtue of the prosaic. The narrative voice is solid and low key, matter-of-fact, eschewing any sense of fantasy or flight of fancy, linguistic or otherwise. A voice belonging to a man whose feet are so firmly planted on the ground that it is inconceivable that he could be taken in by that which is not. Such a narrator may not inspire much affection, but he inspires trust. And he presents a world that is solid, that is very recognisable – perhaps drearily recognisable – as the world that we, the readers, inhabit. Edgar Allan Poe famously started one of his stories with “For the most wild, yet most homely narrative which I am about to pen, I neither expect nor solicit belief”. But James promises us no wildness, and certainly both expects and solicits belief. For some readers, this makes James’ stories somewhat dry; but for aficionados (such as myself), it lures us into a world so solid that when the cracks in reality do appear, they shock. Our sense of equilibrium is all the more disturbed because James has gone to such lengths to establish that sense of equilibrium in the first place.

Take, for instance, the opening paragraph of this particular story:

The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.

The only point which they do not make clear is the identity of the writer. He signs with initials only, and as none of the envelopes of the letters are preserved, the surname of his correspondent—obviously a married brother—is as obscure as his own. No further preliminary explanation is needed, I think. Luckily the first letter supplies all that could be expected.

Yes, a ghost story is promised, but that’s a minor concession since readers are expecting one anyway. As for the rest, it reads like a professional note that might have been written by an accountant or a solicitor.

But if James does not promise us wildness, he promises no homeliness either. Of course, that is in part due to expectations: we all come to an M. R. James story expecting the supernatural, and one can’t unexpect that. Indeed, much of the pleasure lies in noting how insidiously the supernatural makes its presence felt, first glimpsed, in James’ own words, in “the corner of the retina”, but then, increasingly more insistently to the fore. True, he never quite takes us all the way, but then again, he doesn’t need to. For instance, at the climactic point of this story (without giving too much away), a corpse is discovered, and James gives us the following:

[The] body was found, with a sack over the head, the throat horribly mangled. It was a peaked corner of the sack sticking out of the soil that attracted attention. I cannot bring myself to write in greater detail.

I can, of course, speak only for myself, but I cannot imagine even the most explicit description being more unsettling than James’ finely judged reticence.

In any case, it is the journey, not the end, that most menaces the mind. And, to make its full effect, this journey needs to be immaculately paced. And it is in the pacing that James, for me, was in a class of his own. Others may have equalled or even surpassed him in ingenuity of plotting, or intensity of imagination; others have certainly written more memorable prose. But when it comes to pacing out the material for maximum effect, for knowing when precisely to drop hints and when, as it were, to open the gates, James seems to me unsurpassed.

This story, after its terse introductory paragraphs, consists of four letters written by an unnamed writer, and dated from December 22nd to December 26th, 1837. The first letter is almost as terse and as matter-of-fact as the opening paragraphs: it lays out the expository facts as clearly and as succinctly as possible. The writer, unnamed, has come to an unnamed town or village, after his uncle, the rector of the local church, has mysteriously disappeared. The second letter is somewhat longer, and, as well as giving us a bit more expository information, unobtrusively conveys the atmosphere of the grey winter countryside, and of the provincial inn in which the narrator stays, deserted (we assume, since no other guest is mentioned) over Christmas.

It is in the third and fourth letters that the elements of supernatural terror, only hinted at earlier, start making their presence felt ever more insistently. The third letter is mostly taken up with the description of a nightmare the narrator has on Christmas Eve, and I can think of nothing I have read, wither within or without genre literature, that more vividly captures the unreal and disembodied ambience of a dream. The narrator finds himself watching a traditional Punch and Judy Show, but the setting isn’t described – not because the narrator hasn’t noticed it, but because it isn’t there: there is no setting.

It began with what I can only describe as a pulling aside of curtains: and I found myself seated in a place—I don’t know whether in doors or out. There were people—only a few—on either side of me, but I did not recognize them, or indeed think much about them. They never spoke, but, so far as I remember, were all grave and pale-faced and looked fixedly before them. Facing me there was a Punch and Judy Show, perhaps rather larger than the ordinary ones, painted with black figures on a reddish-yellow ground. Behind it and on each side was only darkness…

As the puppet show proceeds, it becomes increasingly violent. Of course, Punch and Judy Shows were (as far as I am aware) violent anyway, but the violence here, far from being slapstick, or in the mode of black comedy, begins to seem all too real:

The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.

Once again, I can speak only for myself, but I find these lines as unsettling as anything I have read in supernatural literature. That detail of the victims “quivering and kicking” seems all the more horrible given the narrator’s matter-of-fact tone. Whatever else this may be, this is no mere puppet show, and nor is this merely a dream.

Soon, we seem not to be in a dream at all, but in real life. The partition between the oneiric and the real, never too solid to begin with, seems all of a sudden to disappear. Once again, I cannot claim to speak for any other reader: all I can say is that I, as a reader, find this whole passage uniquely disturbing.

If the dream sequence in the third letter tells of a dream that seems to slip into the real, in the fourth and final letter, the narrator witnesses a real puppet show that seems to slip into the regions of dream. Or, more accurately, into nightmare. But it would be unfair to reveal more: I fear I have revealed too much as it is.

There is much in this story that, in terms of plot, isn’t clear. But it doesn’t need to be. The interest is not in the mechanics of plot: James was little concerned with that. It is not a story that yields much to the reasoning mind: it is, quite deliberately, enigmatic to a degree that is unusual even in James’ output. But what I think it does convey is a sense of creeping dread, a sense of the presence of something too hideous to be apprehended, too horrific to be articulated, that is just beyond our field of vision.

This is not one of James’ better-known stories, but it is one that perhaps haunts my mind more than most others. While others convey what James himself termed a “pleasing terror” – and I am not averse to pleasing terrors at all: far from it – this one, in particular, seems to convey something else, something that I find genuinely unsettling.

Or maybe it’s just me.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Great post! This title sounds so familiar that I must have read this story at one time, but I don’t remember it (maybe I’ve just seen it in the table of contents of an M.R. James collection I own). Back in July I revisited a few other MRJ stories in the collection (The Haunted Doll’s House, The Residence at Whitminster, and A View From a Hill – all great and remindful to me that I need to put him back into my reading rotation!

    Reply

    • I remember reading the entire collection once over Christmas and New Year. Not all the stories are of the same high standard, admittedly, but it’s worth it, as there are some real hidden gems in there among the lesser known stories. The three you mention are all top notch, I think.

      Reply

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