My grandfather, my father’s father, attended Eton College before the Second World War, leaving there for Sandhurst when he was seventeen. During his time at school he got to know M. R. James, who was provost until his death in the summer of 1936. Grandfather was among the successive waves of boys that James introduced to the tingly delights of the ghost story, a genre in which the old master excelled, writing some of the best tales in the English language. He learned to love the ghost story from James just as I was later to learn to love the ghost story from him.
Montague Rhodes James, to give him his full name, was actually a specialist in medieval manuscripts and the provost of King’s College, Cambridge as well as Eton. But he is best remembered for his delicious tales of the supernatural, some of the best set in East Anglia, a place of lonely, wind-swept coasts, of unsettled spirits, of hidden Anglo-Saxon crowns and their restless guardians. Who is this who is coming, summoned by a whistle? It might be William Ager, a cat looking to devour those whose curiosity took them too far into a secret past.
I say ghost stories but James really crosses boundaries, resting on less spectral, far more tangible forms of horror. His tales touch on discoveries of things best hidden, of secrets that should never be told, of forces uncovered by antiquarians, forces from which they recoil, unable to close that which has been opened; marvellous stories like A Warning to the Curious and Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to you, My Lad. Even writing the titles brings a tingle of remembrance! Ranging wider there is Lost Hearts, and wider still Count Magnus and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
When I was away at school I took my copy of Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian with me as a night-time companion. I delight in recalling the terrors in reading the stories by torchlight under my duvet after lights out, stopping at every creak and imagined noise! Sir John Betjeman, also a lover of these stories, had a similar early encounter;
In the year 1920 I was a new boy at the Dragon school, Oxford, then called Lynam's, of which the headmaster was C. C. Lynam, known as 'the Skipper'. He dressed and looked like an old Sea Salt, and in his gruff voice would tell us stories by firelight in the boys' room of an evening with all the lights out and his back to the fire. I remember he told the stories as having happened to himself.…they were the best stories I ever heard, and gave me an interest in old churches, and country houses, and Scandinavia that not even the mighty Hans Christian Andersen eclipsed.
Skipper was being wonderfully disingenuous because, as Betjeman later discovered, the stories he was claiming as his own reality were in fact the fictions of James. But I can’t think of a more delightful way of discovering them, adding a verisimilitude that must have amplified one’s sense of terror.
Although some of the stories, Count Magnus being a case in point, are set abroad, Scandinavia being a favoured location, they all have a uniquely English feel to them, as unique and as eccentric as their antiquarian narrators or protagonists, really just dimensions of James himself. Fortunately for him, he never crossed boundaries; unfortunately for them, his scholarly protagonists often did. Curiosity is a marvelous thing, but like all marvelous things there are limits that should never be broken. The tales are bags full of atmosphere, heightened, if anything, by a narrative technique that now seems quaintly old fashioned.
I’m older now; the childish terrors have gone, the seduction of fear has gone, though the memory remains. I could never forget Count Magnus; never forget the terrible pursuit through time and distance of poor scholarly Mister Wraxall, who disturbed those who never should have been disturbed;
People still remember last year at Belchamp St Paul how a strange gentleman came one evening in August years back; and how the next morning but one he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of 'em did, and none of 'em wouldn't speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God; and how the people as kep' the 'ouse moved out that same week, and went away from that part. But they do not, I think, know that any glimmer of light has ever been thrown, or could be thrown, on the mystery. It so happened that last year the little house came into my hands as part of a legacy. It had stood empty since 1863, and there seemed no prospect of letting it; so I had it pulled down, and the papers of which I have given you an abstract were found in a forgotten cupboard under the window in the best bedroom
As I say, there are some things best left alone!
I once took Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black away as part of my holiday reading on a trip to Spain. As a story it’s good enough, meaning scary enough, though not as good or scary as James. But the context simply did not work. Sun-drenched beaches and warm southern nights simply dispel the mood. The imagination simply fails to add the misty shadows that are all part of the experience. The ghost story is for cool, dark English nights, particularly in the depth of winter. Then every creak and unexpected sound is magnified by the senses. One waits in dread for that moment when Count Magnus or William Ager finally opens the door.