Posts Tagged ‘ghost stories’

“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.

A New Year resolution for September

It doesn’t have to be New Year to make a resolution, does it? After all, every day is the start of a new year, and there’s no particular reason why the particular date January 1st should be fetishised in this manner. At any rate, I have formed a New Year resolution that I mean to stick to.

But no – this is not where I should be starting. It is always difficult finding a suitable starting point for a post – a way in, as it were: pick the wrong starting point, and you find yourself reaching a dead end after only a few sentences; but pick the right one, and the whole thing flows like billy-o. And that’s the blooper I made above: I started at the wrong point, and ground to an abrupt halt after only a couple of sentences. And it isn’t even where I’d meant to start. I’d meant to start with finding in a second-hand bookshop a couple of childhood favourites, long out of print, and with the veritable flood of memories these books brought back.

These are the beauties:

ghosts
It is hard to describe the sheer joy I felt on finding these books. One was a bit water-damaged, but no matter: I do not expect second-hand books to be in pristine condition anyway, and, unless it is so filthy that one cannot bear even to touch it, a few signs of age and of wear rather add to the charm of the thing.

I was eleven when I first encountered these books. It was in the school library. We had moved to Bishopbriggs (just outside Glasgow) earlier in the year, and, after summer, I found myself a pupil in Bishopbriggs High School. And I made around that time two major literary discoveries: in the children’s section of Bishopbriggs public library, I discovered The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles; and in the school library, I discovered creepy ghost stories, through these two estimable anthologies edited by Alan C. Jenkins – Ghosts! and Thin Air. Till then, my favourite reading was mainly adventure stories and swashbucklers, but my new discoveries now drove everything else out to the fringes.

Who knows how many hours I spent in my room reading and re-reading these books, while my parents happily thought I was reading some improving literature, or doing my homework like the model schoolboy they imagined me to be. Or how many hours I spent reading those ghost stories in bed last thing at night, and scaring myself silly. Then I would switch off the light, and lie awake in bed in the dark, terrified of every accidental creak of the floorboards, every ominous gurgle in the water pipes.

On the Sherlock Holmes front, having exhausted what Bishopbriggs Public Library had to offer, I requested from the library the other three Sherlock Holmes novels, and the other forty-four short stories – all of which I gobbled up faster than you could say “Have you done your homework yet?” And on the ghost story front, I went from strength to strength, greedily lapping up every anthology I could get my hands on. And thus, I came to know, amongst others, the great M. R. James, the undisputed master of the genre. Thin Air contained the M. R. James story “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”, while a book my parents had on their shelves – a Reader’s Digest anthology called Great British Short Stories – contained “The Mezzotint”. I am not sure now which one I read first, but these two stories were my introduction to a writer who has remained a firm favourite over the decades, and whose works are now a permanent fixture on my bedside table.

(That Reader’s Digest anthology contained some other fine ghost stories also – “Running Wolf” by Algernon Blackwood, “The Ghost” by Richard Hughes, the ubiquitous “The Monkey’s Paw” by W. W. Jacobs, and the deeply unsettling “August Heat” by W. F. Harvey.)

Now, as regular visitors to this blog may have noticed, the frequency of my postings has fallen dramatically since my illness late last year; and, even given this reduced number of posts, those that are book-related have really become quite sparse. This is because I am not reading anywhere near as much as I used to. (And even before, I was never the fastest of readers.) I usually read on the commuter train, and at bedtime, but nowadays, when I take the commuter train back home at the end of the day, I am usually too tired to read; and at bedtime, all I can think of is sleep. Not even the accidental creaking of the floorboards nor the ominous gargling of the water pipes can keep me awake. I recently finished re-reading Middlemarch: it’s a fairly long book, I know, but it is nonetheless frankly embarrassing to think how long it took me to get through it. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, and not that I didn’t want to read it a bit faster, but the flesh proved weaker than the spirit, unrealistically willing as ever, had anticipated.

But, since finding these two fondly remembered ghost story anthologies, I have again taken up reading in bed, last thing at night. Next to a magic time machine that could transport me back some forty-five years, this is really the next best thing. (Although I have to imagine these days the somewhat disapproving looks of my parents, who did not deem such stories sufficiently improving, or sufficiently wholesome, for young impressionable minds.) And these stories have resurrected once again the joy of reading. And, especially, the joy of reading creepy ghost stories.

And this is where I came in. I made a resolution: now that the nights are beginning visibly to draw in, I shall, between now and spring next year (say, the end of March or so), read a ghost story every night*. Quite apart from these two recently purchased volumes, I have a great many collections of ghost stories, so I don’t think there’s much danger of my running out. And every night, I am going to scare myself silly, just as I used to do all those years ago.

*Except those nights when I am too tired or too drunk.

It’s nearly Christmas – where’s my Dickens?

The older I get, the less the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come seems to matter. Or, indeed, the Ghost of Christmas Present: the shops have been done up in tawdry decorations since even before the autumn leaves had started to fall, and it is frankly all rather tiresome. But the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Past remains stronger than ever.  I do not know what there can be about what is, after all, a fairly arbitrary time of the year – borrowed, as our modern atheists never tire of reminding us, from some pagan festival or other – that allows me to relive with such vividness those days which, at the time, I had no idea would end up becoming so precious.

And of course, as sure as the Salvation Army brass band playing Christmas carols in the shopping centres, as sure as re-runs on television of the old Morecambe and Wise Shows, one inevitably reaches at this time of year for the Dickens. Possibly, this too is a tribute to the Ghost of Christmas Past than to anything else: reading Dickens has become by now a time-honoured Christmas tradition.

Over the last three Christmases, I have, more by accident than by design, been writing about one or other of the five Christmas Books (see here, here, and here); I suppose I can continue this series by reading this Christmas The Cricket on the Hearth. But after that, the series must stop:  not even the compulsive completest in me could force me to revisit the remaining Christmas Book – The Battle of Life, surely the Christmas turkey of the set.

This year, for a change, I reached for the two-volume edition of Christmas Stories, a collection of the various bits and pieces Dickens had written over the years specially for Christmas.  (Tom, of Amateur Reader fame, had, it seems, a similar idea: see here, and the posts that follow.) The Christmas stories I read were variable: some, such as “The Poor Relation’s Story”, were very good indeed; others were middling. These are scraps dropped from the great man’s table, and, while some of these scraps are obviously very fine, not all are of the same standard; and it may well be the case that there is the odd piece there that is as tiresome as The Battle of Life. Well, we’ll see. But this is hardly an anthology to be read from cover to cover: it’s one for dipping into. And, having read some quarter of it so far, I think I’ve dipped into it as much as I care to for now.

The piece I enjoyed most was “A Christmas Tree”, a nostalgic retrospect of Christmas Past, written in that characteristically rich and opulent plum-pudding prose that readers, depending on their taste, find either tiresome or irresistible. As regular readers of this blog will know, I belong firmly to the latter camp. Just finding my way through those endlessly long, labyrinthine sentences, which, thanks to Dickens’ unequalled ear for the rhythms of prose, never run out of breath nor lose their way; or sounding in my inner ear the sheer luxuriousness of the sounds  made by the words; is, for me at any rate, an unmitigated delight. Those who favour nouvelle cuisine should look elsewhere; this is a full Christmas turkey dinner with all the trimmings, followed by the sweetest and heaviest of Christmas puddings.

How strange, though, that Dickens should look back so nostalgically on his childhood! As we all know, his childhood was not, after all, of the happiest. But perhaps it is in the very nature of nostalgia to look back not on reality, but on reality shaped by the imagination into an ideal form. Occasionally – as in The Battle of Life – that imagination of Dickens’ is tired, and goes merely through the motions; but at other times, as here in “A Christmas Tree”, the sheer exuberance of that imagination is intoxicating, and seems to me to have no peer.

It is difficult, especially given my own nostalgic temperament, not similarly to look back on my own Christmases Past. And no, I never did believe in Santa Claus. My parents, having emigrated from India in the mid-60s just a few months before Christmas, and generally unused to these funny Western ways, found the whole idea of Santa Claus pretty damn silly. If you buy presents for your children, God damn it, your children should at least know who’s buying them! Looking back, I sympathise. But when I told the other children in school that there was no Santa, they all laughed at me. And my teachers seriously assured me that Santa was, indeed, very real. I was confused. Was I to believe my parents, whom I trusted, or my teachers, whom my trusted parents had instructed me to trust?

Back then, everything about Christmas was new to me, and it all enchanted me. Those decorated trees, those carols we used to sing in class, the Nativity Play (in which, inevitably, I was cast as the frankincense-bearing Second King) – even the glitter and the tinsel, which only later in life did I find were metaphors for false and vulgar jollity. In the years to come, my parents made sufficient concessions to the spirit of the new land they had come to by giving me Christmas presents: they did not want me to feel left out and isolated from my school-friends. But admitting the reality of Santa Claus remained for them a step too far. So I never did really get to believe in him, even though I remember staring at the skies on Christmas Eve through my bedroom window, hoping against hope for but the briefest of glimpses of an airborne reindeer-driven sleigh that would prove my parents wrong.

Dickens isn’t the only literary Christmas tradition, of course. Some may consider the story of the Nativity, as told in two of the Gospels, also rather pertinent to this time of year. It is, of course, commonplace to praise the beauty of prose of the King James version, but sometimes, it is worth repeating the commonplace: the prose of the King James version is, indeed, extraordinarily beautiful. Of the two evangelists who tell the story, it is Luke who is the poet. Matthew tells of the wise men, and of the Massacre of the Innocents; but just about everything else we associate with the Christmas story – the annunciation, the Magnificat (“My soul doth magnify the Lord…”), no room at the inn, the child in the manger, the shepherds abiding in the fields – everything that makes this story so poetic, so irresistibly lyrical, even to those who do not profess faith, can be found here. And if Dickens’ prose is of the plum-pudding variety, the prose we get here in the King James version is pure spring water: it is prose of such apparent simplicity and such utter perfection that not a single word can be altered, omitted, or added.  There are those who tell me that they care about religion neither one way nor the other, but who belie that claim almost immediately by refusing to read the Bible: the loss is all theirs.

Less exalted, perhaps, is the tradition of ghost stories. Perhaps it is not surprising that dark winter nights should be seen as a suitable time for scaring the shit out of ourselves. M. R. James, famously, used to read out a new ghost story after dinner every Christmas Eve. Dickens, wedded as ever to all things traditional when it came to Christmas, tried his hand also at the ghost story, but, apart from “The Signalman”, he never quite succeeded: his literary persona was too genial, his temperament too exuberant, and his imagination too expansive, to conjure up with any conviction the air of still emptiness upon which supernatural terror thrives. No – it is to the likes of M. R. James (or his namesake Henry), Algernon Blackwood, E. F. Benson, the two Ediths (Wharton and Nesbit), A. M. Burrage, and the like that one should turn. Recently, I have downloaded on to my iPad a complete reading of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and have been listening for about half an hour or so every night before bed. Those early chapters relating Jonathan Harker’s imprisonment in Castle Dracula retain the power to frighten, even for such hardened addicts of the genre as myself. It’s marvellous stuff, but it’s not perhaps recommended for those of a nervous disposition.

With so many Yuletide literary traditions to keep up with at this time of the year, it’s hard to find time to indulge in a bit of traditional boozing! Well, I suppose there’s nothing to prevent me doing both. So let me reach for the Dickens, settle back in my armchair, and raise my glass to the Ghost of Christmas Past. I can no longer look to the skies hoping to see Santa’s sleigh, but remembering a time when I could is recompense enough. As, indeed, is my taste for whisky, which I certainly lacked in those days: the Ghost of Christmas past, fine though it is, doesn’t have everything going for it!

Here’s to your very good health!

Ghost stories for dark winter nights

There’s a time and a place for reading a ghost story. You can’t, for instance, read a ghost story on a crowded commuter train. Nor can you read it on a sunny afternoon in the garden . No – a ghost story should be read late at night, in the light of a solitary lamp that is casting weird shadows around the room. One may be sitting comfortably in a favourite armchair; or one may be in bed, shortly before putting out the bedside lamp and submitting to the dark. The story is all the more effective if there is a howling wind outside, making eldritch sounds at the window-pane; or, better still, if there is a deathly, still, silence – a silence that one dreads being broken.

Recently, Tom in Wuthering Expectations – not, I believe, a diehard aficionado of the genre – has posted nonetheless very sympathetic accounts of some classic ghost stories. He identified different types of ghost stories, and quite rightly disagreed with my unargued assertion that the purpose of ghost stories is to evoke fear: a ghost story, he argued, could serve any number of functions. This is certainly true enough: but it’s the ones that evoke fear that I love the best. So, before I go on to prescribe, as I fully intend to do, what does and what doesn’t make for a good ghost story – or, at least, what makes for my kind of ghost story – I suppose I should describe the kind of ghost story I am talking about.

I am not really interested in ghost stories that are comic, or satirical: comedy may act as relief to lower the tension at appropriate moments, but I remain to be convinced that one may laugh and be frightened at the same time. Neither am I interested in ghost stories that seek to evoke disgust rather than fear – a common failing, I find, with much of modern horror. I like the creepy type of story – the type that evokes in me a sense of supernatural dread. It may be said, with some justification, that it’s a comfortable type of dread: it is easy to feel fear when safely ensconced in a nice, warm bed, especially when that fear is caused by beings one knows to be imaginary. That’s true enough. But, as I was reminded during a recent visit to Hermitage Castle, irrational fear, inexplicable dread, unreasoned terror, are all too real, even if ghosts and vampires aren’t. One may be perfectly rational and not believe in the supernatural, and yet find certain places to be, for want of a better word, spooky, and prefer not to be there after dark. Why we should feel this way, I do not know: but the finest ghost stories – or, to be more precise, the finest ghost stories of the type I like – do, I think, evoke something of just this sort of fear – a fear all the more unnerving because its object remains so shadowy and vague. And that is important: as soon as the objects of fear acquires too distinct a solidity, the fear that its vagueness had occasioned naturally dissipates.

This type of ghost story is, I think, a very conservative genre: its effectiveness usually comes from doing established things well, rather than from innovation. But since, as I have been told, and as I tend to agree, my cultural tastes are conservative anyway, I don’t have a problem with that. The master of the genre is, for me and for many others, M. R. James. What James understood so well is that the irrational is frightening for the very reason that it is irrational: it is precisely because the irrational irrupts into a solid and rational world that it terrifies. This is why I have never enjoyed the short stories of Poe very much: the framework of his stories is so far removed from the everyday, and the pitch is so hysterical to begin with, that when the irrational or the macabre does emerge, it is neither surprising nor incongruous.

And I think this is also why I tend not to enjoy stories in which some sort of rationale is provided for the haunting; or when some alternative plane of existence, perfectly in accordance with the laws of nature were we to be fully acquainted with these laws, is hypothesised to explain the apparition. I am happy to suspend my normal rational frame of mind when the irrational is depicted as irrational, but when that irrational is rationalised by an alternative type of reasoning, I find myself getting bored. I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by over-explaining: what matters is the projection of a sense of terror, and presentation of some parallel fantasy world that explains the apparently inexplicable merely diminishes that sense of terror.

Similarly with over-plotting: it is enough to know that phantoms haunt; we do not generally need to know why they haunt. There is nothing objectionable in suggesting some reason, but, once again, I have read far too many ghost stories that have been spoiled by too great an emphasis on this aspect: mere mechanics of the plot are rarely interesting, and the best ghost stories – once again, of the type I like – do not give us more of this than is absolutely necessary.

M. R. James knew exactly how to do it. In story after story, he got it just right – neither complete bafflement, nor too much explanation that would detract from the terror; the terror glimpsed, as he put it, “in the corner of the retina”; and just the right depiction of solidity to make the supernatural appear incongruous, and hence, shocking. After all, we all expect unspeakable horrors in a Gothic dungeon, but when you are in your own room and you slip your hand under the pillow to retrieve your watch, and … No, sorry, I’d better stop here: I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who has not yet read “Casting the Runes”.

As has often been remarked, the late Victorian and the Edwardian era – the era, in other words, in which M. R. James (and his namesake Henry James, who wrote probably the finest ghost story of them all) flourished – is the golden era for this type of story. Why this should be, I don’t know, although I am sure literary theorists have their own hypotheses on this matter: it’s probably all to do with social and economic changes, or something equally fascinating. But whatever the reason, the majority of the creepy stories I love were written in this period. And the sheer entertainment these stories have provided over the years has been immense.

As I write, we are just a few days away from Halloween, but Halloween was never – in the UK at least – a particularly major event as I was growing up, and it still doesn’t register particularly strongly with me. Traditionally, in Britain, it was Christmas that was the time for ghost stories. There is something about the darkening winter light in these latitudes that particularly lends itself to this sort of thing. But Halloween or Christmas – what matter? Now the time of year is approaching when I can once again enjoy reading these stories on dark nights before switching off the bedside lamp.

And then, the darkness.