Warnings to the Curious, A Sheaf of Criticism on M. R. James

By Reggie Oliver

How necessary is literary criticism? Can it really enhance the enjoyment of a writer whose appeal is as seemingly straightforward as that of M. R. James? Well, yes it can, and Warnings to the Curious, the first critical volume dedicated solely to the ghost stories of M. R. James, proves it. Its contents are varied but well organised: one can dip, but it is probably better to read the book in its intended order, beginning with the biographical essays, working through the general surveys to the essays on various Jamesian themes, and finishing with a section on individual stories. One piece only is tainted by academic jargon. This book will be of great use to the student and the scholar, and of equal interest to the general reader.

James the man was a natural conservative; as a writer he could more accurately be called a classicist. The classicist believes in the principle that art lies in the concealment of art, in a pellucid surface with hidden depths. Such writers tend to be enjoyed by "the common reader" before they are fully appreciated by the critic. S. T. Joshi, whose introduction is a survey of the way James was slowly, sometimes grudgingly, recognised as an artist, demonstrates this.

His piece contains many well-chosen quotations, the most penetrating perhaps coming from a Spectator article of 1931: "The first secret is tact. I say tact rather than restraint because he can and does pile on the agony when his sense of the dramatic tells him to. . . . It is tact, a guileless and deadly tact, that gauges so nicely the force of half definitions, adjusting the balance between reticence and the explicit so that our imaginations are ever ready to meet his purpose half-way." (I might quarrel with "guileless".) The above was written by Peter Fleming, who had had been at Eton during James's Provostship, like his brother Ian. I wonder if the creator of James Bond had also learned a trick or two from his Provost. Isn't "Casting the Runes" after all a perfectly executed thriller in miniature, complete with secret messages, a race against time, a monstrous megalomaniac villain, even deadly gadgetry of a kind if, like Arthur C. Clarke, you see scientific technology as a branch of magic, or vice versa? Only the sex is missing.

The biographical section begins with two memoirs of James by fellow Old Etonians, Stephen Gaselee and Shane Leslie. Neither provides any great insights but Gaselee and Leslie do offer an insider's view of the Jamesian world. Their reminiscences breathe the same air as his own memoir Eton and King's: nostalgic, inward looking, perhaps slightly smug. These essays are followed by two more recent offerings by Norman Scarfe and Michael Cox which rightly lay stress on James's Suffolk roots in the formation of his sensibility.

The first piece of the next section is extracted from H. P. Lovecraft's long essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature" written in his characteristic mountebank prose, a combination of bombast and pedantry. To his credit, Lovecraft is able to appreciate James for the very qualities which his own fiction lacks: subtlety, humour, characterisation, convincing detail. Oddly, however, he remarks that James "is an artist in incident and arrangement rather than in atmosphere." As Mary Betts fully demonstrates in the following essay James is a master of atmosphere - think of the exquisitely suggestive description of evening at Aswarby Hall which opens "Lost Hearts" - though he does not lay it on thickly, as Blackwood or Lovecraft might. Lovecraft also features in Simon MacCulloch's "The Toad in the Study: M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and Forbidden Knowledge." I am unconvinced by MacCulloch's central thesis that Lovecraft's atheist metaphysics are a natural progression from James's anecdotal agnosticism, but there are many illuminating observations on James (and Lovecraft) along the way.

It is good to see that in MacCulloch's and other essays due credit is given to James's immensely sophisticated and even innovative narrative techniques. Of the two essays dedicated entirely to this important subject, Steven J. Mariconda's '"As Time Goes On I See a Shadow Coming" M. R. James' Grammar of Terror', is bloated with academic mumbo jumbo: "epistemic architecture", "aspectual constructions", "deontic modality" and the like. He makes some sound points but fails to grasp that most of James's devices - the changes of tense, shifts of perspective, inconclusive or unreliable narrations, dislocating little asides - stem from his stories having been written to be read aloud to friends. They are, to use Mariconda's jargon, "interractive oral fictive modalities." Fortunately the other piece, "Thin Ghosts: Notes toward a Jamesian Rhetoric" by Jim Rockhill is a model of its kind. It is a detailed, lucid and jargon-free analysis of the structure of James's most intricately wrought tale, "The Residence at Whitminster", a story which anticipates in prose many of the narrative techniques of modern film.

There is plenty in this book with which to disagree, but even what I believe to be mistaken is well presented, so the result is stimulating rather than stultifying. For example, "Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M. R. James's Ghost Stories" by Brian Cowlishaw , is intelligent, scholarly, closely argued and, in my view, completely wrong-headed. To summarise, Cowlishaw's contention is that James's stories "reproduce Victorian science's beliefs regarding evolution and human civilization." Oh no, they don't! In the first place, both James's intellectual timidity and his Evangelical upbringing would have made him avoid all thoughts of Darwin. His demons and monsters are not, as Cowlishaw asserts, weird evolutionary throwbacks but creatures of nightmare and legend. They are dragons, not dinosaurs. Cowlishaw also states that "for James, 'civilized' and 'skeptical' are synonyms." Oh no, they aren't! Parkins's scepticism (in "O Whistle...") is shown to be just one sign of his immaturity: to be civilised in James's eyes is to have a respect for the past, its architecture, its literature, its beliefs which have more truth in them than is at first apparent. Parkins is a representative, albeit comparatively harmless, of a new barbarism. Those who vandalise the past in James's stories are always severely punished.

Ron Weighell in an otherwise exemplary essay on James and the occult, "Dark Devotions: M. R. James and the Magical Tradition", repeats the old and discredited idea that Aleister Crowley was a model for Karswell in "Casting the Runes". It derives from the fact that Wakefield's "He Cometh and He Passeth By" (c. 1928) is a version of "Casting the Runes" and that the Karswell figure in that story, Oscar Clinton, is unquestionably modelled on Crowley. Karswell is unlike the Aleister Crowley of 1909-1911 (when "Casting the Runes" was written) in all respects but one, his occultism. Karswell is stout, unprepossessing, a failed scholar, vindictive, resentful and predatory, all qualities which belonged to the one person for whom James expressed active dislike, Oscar Browning, a Catholic who turned Christian Scientist which, I suspect, was occult enough for M.R.J.

On the other hand "Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M. R. James and Others" by Mike Pincombe, despite its provocative title, is admirably balanced. The subject of James's homosexuality has been treated somewhat gingerly, even dismissively at times, but James was homosexual by nature and, as Pincombe makes clear, this did play a significant part in his fiction. James presents what seems to us in the 21st century a bizarre paradox: a man who is both at ease with his sexual nature, and yet represses - or sublimates? - it almost completely. If James had not been at ease with his nature. how could he have indulged in wild physical horseplay with his male colleagues that involved the "grasping" of "vitals", how could he be so frank in Eton & King's, not the most forthright of books, about his feelings for James McBryde, mentioning that his trips to Scandinavia with him were "the most blissful I ever had." If he did not suppress his sexual nature how could he have remained on such good terms with McBryde's widow Gwendolen, how could sex have failed so completely to rear its beautiful head in his stories? The answer to these contradictions lies in the fact that James in many ways never grew up, something to which his friend A. C. Benson, a man frequently racked by homosexual guilt, refers in his diaries with a mixture of envy, resentment and affection. Two ways in which repressed sexuality do generally manifest themselves are cruelty, especially towards children, and a deep fear of physical contact. These elements feature to great effect in his fiction: they did not, as far as we know, intrude significantly into his personal life, apart from the odd tale of bullying at school. It is a pity that Pincombe omits from his study "An Evening's Entertainment", a story which features what looks to us very like a homosexual couple, alienated from society and yet somehow tolerated, a tale moreover told by an elderly woman to her young grandchildren. M. R. James in his stories is playing a weird game of hide and seek with himself.

There are many fine essays in this book, but for me the outstanding one is "A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James" by Martin Hughes. Apart from revealing the hidden depths of a story I had hitherto undervalued, "Mr. Humphreys and his Inheritance", it returns us to the central truth about James: that this most self-conscious of writers was, first and foremost, precisely what he proclaimed himself to be, an antiquary. Scientists experiment, philosophers and theologians must ultimately commit themselves to a faith or a way of thinking, but antiquaries remain detached from the objects of their study. They open the door a chink to peer in at the horrid mysteries of transcendence, then close the door again. However knowledgeable they become - in James's case phenomenally so - they remain dabblers. They are paddlers in the eternal sea who never learn to swim. This seems to be a safe activity, but, as James knew, it has its dangers. The paddler who accidentally strays too far from the shore can be suddenly swept out to sea by a freak tide: hence his "Warnings to the Curious."

I have no space to do more than mention Jacqueline Simpson's masterly "The Rules of Folklore in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James" nor Rosemary Pardoe's sparkling little contributions. This book will have us all referring back to it and arguing about it for years to come. No-one interested in M. R. James or the supernatural in literature should be without "Warnings to the Curious".