‘The sound must mean mischief’ : M R James and the Age of Uncertainty


J Atkinson Grimshaw, ‘Shipping on the Clyde’

Is it still possible to write ghost stories or are they mere period curiosities?

Let me start by saying that the period and the milieu from which MR James’s stories spring has a strong attraction for me. Things Edwardian afflict me with acute nostalgia (nostalgia, as its name suggests, is a painful yearning). I have a predilection for libraries, whether in universities or country houses, and nothing would please me better than to pursue leisurely researches of an antiquarian nature at home or abroad, especially on my bicycle (a Sunbeam, for preference, or better still, a Lea & Francis); I could fancy myself, Newbolt-like, in some ancient college hall

‘… the dark wainscot and timbered roof,

The long tables, and the faces merry and keen;

The College Eight and their trainer dining aloof,

The Dons on the dais serene.’

So undoubtedly much of the pleasure of reading MR James for me is that it conjures a world to which I am strongly predisposed, one I would happily inhabit in my imagination, if not in reality. But is there more to it than that?

When James observes that

‘some degree of actuality is the charm of the best ghost stories; not a very insistent actuality, but one strong enough to allow the reader to identify himself with the patient’

we must not imagine that we can ‘identify with the patient’ as James’s primary audience could: for them, his characters were people much like themselves or their acquaintances, moving in a world with which they were personally familiar; for us they are arcadians, unwitting inhabitants of an age of innocence. Even the most contemporary of James’s stories are set about a century ago, in a world that has now vanished, and in vanishing has acquired a special sort of allure it can never have had for those who lived in it.

That allure, however, is an historical accident: we should not make the mistake of supposing that being set in Edwardian England is a necessary adjunct of a ghost story. (One of the most curious instances of this is Susan Hill’s justly-celebrated The Woman in Black. It is a fine ghost story and Nigel Kneale’s TV adaptation did it justice, though the recent film version is quite the worst adaptation of a book I have seen*.


‘Wharfedale’ by John Atkinson Grimshaw

Hill’s story has a strong period flavour throughout, both in style and detail. It opens on Christmas Eve, but in what year?

‘It was wretched weather, never seeming to come fully light, and raw, too. There had been no pleasure in walking, the visibility was too poor for any shooting and the dogs were permanently morose and muddy. Inside the house, the lamps were lit throughout the day and the walls of larder, outhouse and cellar oozed damp and smelled sour, the fires sputtered and smoked, burning dismally low.’

As pipe-smoking (step-)paterfamilias settles himself in his armchair by the fire, with the Christmas tree ‘candlelit and bedecked’, surrounded by his large family, including Isobel, ‘the most sensible, responsible of daughters’

‘only twenty-four years old but already the mother of three young sons, and set fair to produce more. She had the plump, settled air of a matron’

and the two boys, Oliver Ainley and his brother Will,

‘sober young men at heart, but for the time being they still enjoyed all the exuberance of young puppies, and indeed it seemed to me that Oliver showed rather too few signs of maturity for a young man in his first year at Cambridge and destined, if my advice prevailed with him, for a career at the bar’

you could be forgiven for thinking that you were (even at this, the latest point in the story) some time in the reign of Victoria or Edward.

You might be surprised to find a wireless in the house, and utterly shocked if you turned it on to hear Noddy Holder bawling ‘Merry Christmas!’ or the strains of ABBA singing ‘SuperTrouper’ or Pink Floyd’s ‘Brick in the Wall’ – and yet we might, for this is some time between 1973 and 1982, according to the internal evidence of the text**)

That is something of a digression, though it illustrates the influence exerted by the accidental ‘period charm’ of James’s ghost stories – it is a bit like the enthusiasm for ‘retro’ packaging which sees goods presented in containers that recall another age for which (a largely artificial) nostalgia has developed. But this error – mistaking the contingent for the necessary – exists on different levels.

At its least, it is no more than ‘imitating the externals’;  supposing that a ghost story must have an Edwardian setting ‘because all the best ones do’ is no worse than thinking Shakespeare’s plays would be more authentic performed in Elizabethan or Jacobean dress. That, to borrow a term from catholic teaching, is only a venial sin.

The mortal sin, which should concern anyone who aspires to write ghost stories or to adapt James’s, lies in compounding the mistake by drawing a false inference from it, namely that ghost stories must be set in the period when they were written because in those days it was still possible to believe in ghosts. The corollary is that we can’t do that now, and if you want to modernise the setting, you must also modernise the ghost, to the extent of substituting ‘something we can believe nowadays.’

The prime example of this is the recent ‘adaptation’ of  ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad ’, starring John Hurt, the subject of a vigorous discussion on The MR James Appreciation Society Facebook page  The writer in this case has evidently baulked at presenting a supernatural manifestation and has substituted a ‘psychological’ one instead, with an elaborate backstory to explain it, which takes this version so far from James’s original that it is hard to say they have anything in common at all. Where James’s confirmed bachelor Professor Parkins belongs with Messrs Wraxall (Count Magnus) and Paxton (A Warning…) in the category of the unwisely curious (though Parkins at least escapes with his life intact, if not his rational beliefs) Hurt’s Professor Parkin is the victim of personal grief, having lost his wife not to death, but to Alzheimer’s – she is, as I have said elsewhere, the inverse of a ghost – a living person who is effectively dead. The root of Parkin’s malady (which ultimately kills him) is evidently excess of grief and guilt at his inability to care for his wife and the fact that he has had to put her in a home.

There is a rather forced ingenuity in the way that James’s story has been ‘brought up to date’ and  ‘made relevant’ by linking it to contemporary concerns about senile dementia, the increase in the aged population and the growing need for institutional care; but were the concerns of James’s original really so inaccessible to a modern audience?

I think ‘modernisations’ of this sort stem from an erroneous supposition. James did not live in ‘the olden days’ when the sea of faith (as Arnold has it) was at its full: it was no easier to believe in ghosts in his day than it is now; James is as much a child of the modern age as we are ourselves, and it is for that very reason that his ghost stories have something that still resonates with us, something quite other than the accidental allure of their setting.

That James belongs in the modern age is easily demonstrated. As anyone will know who has read his only children’s book, The Five Jars, (published 1922) he invented the iPad:

Albrect Durer Knight Death & Devil

‘It was just like a small looking-glass in a frame, and the frame had one or two buttons or little knobs on it. Wag put it into my hand and then got behind me and put his chin on my shoulder’ ‘That’s where I’d got to,’ he said; ‘he’s just going out through the forest.’ I thought at the first glance that I was looking at a very good copy of a picture. It was a knight on horseback, in plate-armour, and the armour looked as if it had really seen service. The horse was a massive white beast, rather of the cart-horse type, but not so ‘hairy in the hoof’; the background was a wood, chiefly of oak-trees; but the undergrowth was wonderfully painted. I felt that if I looked into it I should see every blade of grass and every bramble-leaf. ‘Ready?’ said Wag, and reached over and moved one of the knobs. The knight shook his rein, and the horse began to move at a foot-pace. ‘Well, but he can’t hear anything, Wag,’ said his father. ‘I thought you wanted to be quiet,’ said Wag, ‘but we’ll have it aloud if you like.’ He slid aside another knob, and I began to hear the tread of the horse and the creaking of the saddle and the chink of the armour, as well as a rising breeze which now came sighing through the wood. Like a cinema, you will say, of course. Well, it was; but there was colour and sound, and you could hold it in your hand, and it wasn’t a photograph, but the live thing which you could stop at pleasure, and look into every detail of it.’

Frivolity aside, James’s engagement with the trappings of modernity is well examined in a fine essay entitled ‘Ghosts, trains and trams: the technologies of transport in the ghost stories of M. R. James’  by Ralph Harrington (apt name for a James scholar). However, it is something more than engagement with technology that characterises him as modern.

The Age of Uncertainty is the title of a book and TV series by the economist JK Galbraith. Although the title alludes to the ‘contrast between the great certainty in 19th century economic thought with the much less assured views in modern times’ it could be argued that the Age of Uncertainty truly begins with the twin revolutions of agriculture and industry that shaped the modern world in the century between 1750 and 1850 and had as profound an effect on the collective psyche as on British society:

‘Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’

(Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

What Marx describes in general terms was experienced acutely on a personal level by the Scots poet Edwin Muir, a younger contemporary of James. He was born in 1887 and grew up in Orkney, an island virtually untouched by the revolutions that had transformed Britain; when he was 14, he moved to teeming industrial Glasgow, where his father, two brothers and his mother died in quick succession, an experience that marked him profoundly for the rest of his days:

‘I was really born in 1737, and till I was fourteen no time-accidents happened to me. Then in 1751 I set out from Orkney for Glasgow. When I arrived I found that it was not 1751, but 1901, and that a hundred and fifty years had been burned up in my two days’ journey.’

(Ever after, he equated Orkney with Eden and industrial Glasgow with Hell)

The alienation felt by Muir in an extreme form must have been felt to some degree, more or less consciously, by James and his contemporaries – it is, after all, the theme of the twentieth century – a growing anxiety and disillusion with progress and modern civilisation well expressed in Eliot’s The Waste Land. It remains with us today, after a hiatus in my childhood when the existential dread was that we would destroy the world with nuclear weapons; now, it has reverted to the fear that we will destroy it by our very way of life.

Screenshot 2014-04-04 09.57.54
The Britain of James’s day had grounds for complacency: she was an imperial power unmatched in history, one that reckoned the appropriate strength of her navy in terms of matching the combined strength of any two powers it was likely to combat; she was the workshop to the world, exporting finished goods all over the globe (in 1910-11 my grandfather delivered Mastodon, a Clyde-built dredger,  to Vancouver,  sailing this inshore craft across the Atlantic and through the Strait of Magellan, the additional coal required for the journey piled on deck)


The dredger ‘Mastodon’ in Vancouver

 Meanwhile, the home market was sustained with the abundant produce of a world-wide empire. James himself occupied a bastion of privilege at the heart of the British establishment, as Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, where the gilded youth of Empire went for their education. If you wanted an adjective to describe his own situation, and that of his primary audience, it would be secure.

Yet it is no paradox to find uncertainty in the midst of security; rather, it is human nature. We can sustain hope in the face of adversity and oppression, but security makes us uneasy – not all of us, but certainly the sensitive and the educated: the sensitive fear that things cannot be as good as they seem, that dark things lurk beneath the bright calm surface; the educated have learned that nothing lasts:

Brightness falls from the air;

Queens have died young and fair;

Dust hath closed Helen’s eye

(in Time of Pestilence, Thomas Nashe )

James’s primary audience – his younger contemporaries – were both sensitive and educated. Their enjoyment of their privileged position must have been attended, at some level, by an awareness of its fragility. This awareness could best be termed disquiet, the fear that your trust may be misplaced, that your sense of being unassailable may be ill-founded, the suspicion that what you rely on as most firm and solid may be fragile and illusory. If you wanted to characterise James’s stories in a single word it would be disquieting. A moment from Casting the Runes embodies it:

‘He was in bed and the light was out. He was wondering if the charwoman would come early enough to give him hot water next morning, when he heard the unmistakable sound of his study door opening. No step followed it on the passage floor, but the sound must mean mischief, for he knew that he had shut the door that evening…’

This passes almost unnoticed – eclipsed by the memorable moment of terror that follows – but it is a key incident: something has got in; the defences have been breached; what was out there is now in here (and that means in Dunning’s head as much as in his house) – the threshold has been crossed.

The term ‘liminality’ originates, I believe, in anthropology, and also has a place in psychology, but its derivation connects it with things more ancient than those fields of study and makes it a potent metaphor in the analysis of ghost stories. ‘Limen’ is Latin for a threshold, and in traditional folklore the threshold is a key defence: evil spirits may not cross it uninvited, which is why folktales abound in malign creatures of various sorts trying to wangle invitations from the unwary householder.

The threshold, as the entrance, stands between two worlds; it is a vulnerable point that must be well guarded, but it is also a metonym for the whole house. The house is a strong protection for its inmates, a place of light, warmth and order in contrast to the wild cold darkness outside; and it in turn is a metaphor for the head, in its fullest sense, as the seat of reason, the dwelling-place of our humanity, the capital of our intellectually-constructed world – a Castle of Bone (the title of a fine children’s book by Penelope Farmer, derived, I think, from an Anglo-Saxon kenning); just as we must be careful whom we invite into our house, we should also be wary of what we allow to ‘get into our head’.

The ‘mischief’ that is signified by the sound of the door opening downstairs – in what the listener knows to be an empty house – is no mere burglary: it is the irruption of the irrational, the impossible, the unthinkable – if a door can open without human agency in a house you know to be secure, then anything is possible; none of what you have hitherto trusted unquestioningly holds good. Such epiphanies give the modern ghost story its power: they turn the confident statement ‘that cannot be’ into the doubtful question ‘can such things be?’

Bringing the reader to feel, with the protagonist, that moment of profound self-doubt –  the realisation that the world may not be the realm of enlightened reason that we pretend – is the effect that any modern ghost story must strive for. As James himself remarks, the aim is to

‘put the reader into the position of saying to himself, “If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”’

Casting the Runes is unusual among James’s stories (The Ash Tree is another) in having its protagonist assailed in his own home, though I think that is a good reflection of the malignity of Karswell’s psychic assault. A great many of his stories – a good third – feature inns, and quite a few more are set in large houses where the protagonists are either guests or very recent arrivals; and, for a man who rigorously eschewed any sexual content, there is a remarkable preponderance of bedroom scenes.

That is no accident: inns and other people’s houses are, literally, out of our comfort zone: we do not feel at home there; and as for being in bed, there is no better instance of our outer circumstances coinciding with our inmost self: where else are we more vulnerable, more unguarded, than on the verge of sleep? It is a moment of uncertainty that takes us right back to primeval times, with the wild beasts prowling beyond the cave mouth.

As for religious belief, it plays little part in James’s stories: I can think of only two in which it is used to combat the supernatural, and one of those is an incomplete unpublished fragment. In ‘Canon Alberic’ the presbyterian Dennistoun submits to the popish superstition of wearing the crucifix the sacristan’s daughter gives him for his protection, and it is only when he takes it off that the demon is able to assail him. (The same story has further evidence of James’s sympathy for catholic practice, despite his upbringing and expressedly protestant views – not only is there a beautiful description of the Angelus,

‘A few pulls at the reluctant rope, and the great bell Bertrande, high in the tower, began to speak, and swung her voice up among the pines and down to the valleys, loud with mountain-streams, calling the dwellers on those lonely hills to remember and repeat the salutation of the angel to her whom he called Blessed among women.’

but Dennistoun also arranges ‘saying of Mass and singing of dirges’ for the repose of Alberic’s soul, though he does add  ‘with a touch of the Northern British in his tone, “I had no notion they came so dear.” ‘)

The other story is John Humphreys, an unfinished precursor to Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, in which the eponymous hero combats the demonic assault by recalling a line that transforms the quotation from Job ‘where [there is] the shadow of death, and no order, but everlasting horror dwells’ into the 23rd Psalm ‘though I walk in the shadow of death (no evil shall I fear)’:

‘The only words he could summon were words of fear, that he had read that morning. They droned through his head incessantly, “ubi umbra mortis et nullus ordo sed sempiternus horror inhabitat“. Over and over again they came back and he felt himself being sucked away from the world of men, and indeed he does not see how he could have helped yielding to the strain that was on him, and giving up hope and reason if not life itself, had he not paused on the words umbra mortis. They brought to his mind in a moment the image of some lettering in a brass on a tomb – this is how he puts it – that he had been taken to see years before. “Umbra mortis,” he seemed to say to himself, “to be sure, that was it – etsi ambulavero.” He raised his head and drew breath. “Absurd,” he said again. “Of course that was what I wanted. Dear me. Why couldn’t I think of that before?” The strain was relaxed. He rose to his feet and looked about him: the field was its own familiar self again and the sun bright in the sky. An exaltation of spirit came upon him which he could hardly repress, and he does not know what surprises of laughter and singing he may have inflicted on casual hearers as he went home.’

In two other stories – An Episode of Cathedral History and The Residence at Whitminster, both set in cathedral precincts with a clerical cast – the supernatural threat is accepted as real, but is contained and left alone: the lamia had been safely incarcerated till interference disturbed it (though it is exorcised – successfully, we presume) while Dr Oldys, the Senior Prebendary at Whitminster, frankly admits that the effects of lord Saul are better put safely away in the attic and left undisturbed: discretion and caution, not curiosity, are the proper course, as The Rose Garden also makes clear:  quieta non movere (let sleeping dogs lie). This acceptance and accommodation of the supernatural – basically, acknowledge its power and let it be – does belong to an earlier age: it is the staple of folk tales and ballads, where the devil can be met on the road or may seek entry to your house, but can be guarded against by the proper rituals (as, for instance, outwitting him in a riddle contest, as in The False Knight Upon the Road,

‘I wiss ye were in yon sie,’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and a good bottom under me,’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood

‘And the bottom for to break’

quo’ the fause knicht upon the road

‘and ye to be drowned’

quo’ the wee boy, and still he stood.

(full variant texts here )

or else by answering his riddles, then naming him, as in ‘riddles wisely expounded

‘Hunger is sharper nor a thorn

and shame is louder nor a horn,

the pies are greener nor the grass

and Clootie’s waur nor a woman was!’

As sune as she the fiend did name

Jennifer gentle an’ Rosemaree

He flew awa in a blazing flame

As the doo flies owre the mulberry tree.’

(slightly variant text here,  and beautifully sung by Jean Redpath here )

But the age in which James is writing is not one to let sleeping dogs (or Lamias) lie; it is the age of boundless curiosity and exploration (the age, let us not forget, of Einstein’s Theories of Relativity (1905 & 1915), of Picasso and Stravinsky, of the birth of much that we think of as modern – the motor car, the aeroplane, the horrors of modern warfare). And though James undoubtedly has a yearning for that earlier age of faith (he was, after all, a mediaevalist to trade) he does not allow it to intrude on his stories or save his characters – Mr Wraxall, in his last extremity

‘…is expecting a visit from his pursuers — how or when he knows not — and his constant cry is ‘What has he done?’ and ‘Is there no hope?’ Doctors, he knows, would call him mad, policemen would laugh at him. The parson is away. What can he do but lock his door and cry to God?’

but it avails him naught. What makes James a modern is that his characters have no protection when the fortress of reason crumbles.

* It is even worse than the film version of The Dark is Rising, an excellent book by Susan Cooper, and that is saying something.

**Jennet Humfrye dies 12 years after her son (p.144) and is buried in the same grave (though for some reason the name on the stone is Jennet Drablow) The date of death is 190- (p.105) so her son died, aged 6 (p.143) some 12 years before – 1888 at earliest, 1897 at latest; so he was born between 1882 and 1891. The letters written around the time of his birth date from ‘about sixty years before’ (p.113) the narrator’s visit to Eel Marsh house, putting that event between 1942 and 1951. The death of his wife and son must happen a year or two later – say between 1944 and 1953. When he first sees Monk’s Piece (the name is an allusion to Masefield’s The Box of Delights, the Christmas story par excellence) he has been a widow for 12 years and is 35 (p.11) putting that between 1956 and 1965; ‘some years later’ (p.13) the house comes up for sale and he buys it to live in with his new wife – say 1959 to 1968; at the time the story opens, he has been living there for 14 years (p.14) so it is now somewhere between 1973 and 1982.

2 thoughts on “‘The sound must mean mischief’ : M R James and the Age of Uncertainty

  1. A well-crafted and thorough piece, even down to the generous (and meticulous) cross-referencing. James is curiously in error with his Angelus. The salutation he quotes is not the angel’s but Elizabeth’s. (As a complete digression, but an interesting one, I was assured by a bible scholar the other day that the salutation “blessed art thou among women!” occurs in only one other place in the Bible – it is addressed to Judith after she has charmed her way into Holophernes’ tent, got him drunk and cut his head off, thus rescuing Israel from the Assyrians and achieving what Israel’s warriors could not. Elizabeth and Mary would have been conscious of the resonances of the phrase.)

  2. A fascinating digression: I did not know that. As for James, he is not at fault: the matter is dubious. This from the Catholic New Advent site, which has a parallel text in Greek, English and Latin, the English being Ronnie Knox’s, it would appear: (http://www.newadvent.org/bible/luk001.htm)
    28 Into her presence the angel came, and said, Hail, thou who art full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women.[4]

    the appended footnote reads:[4] ‘Blessed art thou among women’; these words are wanting here in some manuscripts. They are to be found in verse 42, below.
    (verse 42 being Elizabeth’s salutation. It is also in the Latin text provided, but my Greek is not good enough to tell if it is there. It is in the King James version, which James would have used).

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