“Dr. [Montague Rhodes] James has become by slow degrees a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank. [He]…has developed a distinctive style and method likely to serve as models for an enduring line of disciples.”
– H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, 1927
‘Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but to my mind it is inconceivable that anyone who has read the ghost stories of M.R. James can be anything but influenced or inspired when trying to write his own supernatural tales. So powerful is James’s technique that it remains engraved on the reader’s mind, as strong as the malevolent spirits that haunt James’s fictional world.
James did not openly admit a belief in ghosts, but reserved the right to reconsider should any tangible evidence be revealed. Even so, the situations and events in his stories are so convincingly related that the reader becomes totally involved. The feeling that such could happen any moment is shiveringly real.
The way M.R. James achieved this was simple. Unlike the melodrama of Gothic horror, James underplayed everything. He never went out of his way to shock, merely unnerve. His spirits had to be evil in intent, but never would he break the spell by describing them in detail. Only a few hints are necessary, and the reader’s imagination does the rest.
James used three basic rules:
- First and foremost was that the spirits had to be malevolent. There was no point in having a pitiful ghost since he believed the purpose of a ghost story was to frighten. Amiable ghosts were for legends, he maintained.
- His second rule was that the events had to be convincing, and this could be achieved not just by the writing but also by the setting: the more commonplace the surroundings the better.
- Finally the story had to be easily understood and not overloaded with occult jargon as if it were a thesis rather than fiction.
One of the most frequently quoted examples of James’s methods is that beautiful phrase from “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, when the phantom is described as having a “face of crumpled linen”, but I feel a better, and longer, example comes from his less well known tale, “There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard”:
“Then he went to the window and looked out into the churchyard. Have you ever seen an old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud? It is bunched together at the top of the head in a curious way. Something like that was sticking up out of the earth in a spot of the churchyard which John Poole knew very well. He darted into his bed and lay there very still indeed.
“Presently something made a very faint rattling at the casement. With a dreadful reluctance John Poole turned his eyes that way. Alas! Between him and the moonlight was the black outline of the curious bunched head…”
James was a renowned antiquarian and used this impressive knowledge to excellent effect in most of his stories, and it is only natural therefore that a number of his best known imitators were adept antiquarians in their own right. Many are associated with Cambridge University, especially King’s College. It was here that James would read his stories, written purely for his own amusement, to his friends at Christmas. James later became Provost of King’s in 1905 and subsequently Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge and, from 1918, Provost of Eton.
It is this group of imitators that I intend to cover here, rather than the far larger throng whose work shows the undeniable influence of the James technique. My friend, the redoubtable anthologist Hugh Lamb, has compiled an ever-growing list of some forty of these writers such as J. Cecil Maby, Dermot Chesson Spence and Christopher Woodforde. However, I always step warily in the field of detecting fictional influence. Remember James was writing during a Golden Age which also witnessed the growing talents of Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, Vernon Lee and scores more, and do not forget that James was himself directly inspired by J. Sheridan Le Fanu whose work was also accessible to those wishing to look.
These writers influenced budding new talents. The earliest to appear in print was Edmund Gill Swain, who used the setting of the real-life village of Stanground on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Peterborough for his stories published as The Stoneground Ghost Tales in 1912. Swain had been the chaplain of King’s College at the time M.R. James gave his first memorable reading in 1893.
Richard Malden became acquainted with James whilst studying at King’s. He went on to become Dean of Wells, and in 1943 published his volume Nine Ghosts. Frederick Cowles served for a while as the librarian at Trinity College, Cambridge. He was a tireless traveller and published many books about Britain. Two published collections were The Horror of Abbot’s Grange (1936) and The Night Wind Howls (1938), whilst a third remains unpublished.
A.N.L. Munby also studied at King’s College, and later served as its librarian. His stories, written whilst a prisoner-of-war from 1943-45, appeared as The Alabaster Hand (1949).
Utilising their specialist knowledge in their own individual ways were M.P. Dare and L.T.C. Rolt (photo above, right). Dare was a noted local historian in the Nottingham and Leicester areas, and his stories were published in 1947 in Unholy Relics. L. T. C. (or “Tom)Rolt had a formidable knowledge of the byways, waterways, and railways of Britain which made his 1948 collection of supernatural stories, Sleep No More (photo above, left), a most unique volume.
Montague Summers could arguably be included in the list even though he wrote only one piece of fiction, “The Grimoire” (1936). Summers spent his life collecting anything factual or fictional associated with the supernatural and compiling a number of worthy anthologies.
I’ve never been too sure whether J. Meade Falkner could be classed as a disciple of James. His background was not dissimilar to that of James, and living from 1858 to 1932 he actually pre-dates James. He was also a devoted antiquarian, living within the precincts of Durham Cathedral where he served as a librarian. His powerful novel of demonic possession, The Lost Stradivarius, was published in 1895, possibly as a result of hearing James’s stories, although I’m inclined to believe the similarity in style owes more to the common background of both men.
It is known that E.F. Benson was present at James’s first reading. He was then just becoming accustomed to the success being accorded to his novel Dodo. Benson clearly uses many of James’s elements in his stories, but adds equally as many of his own, and I would not immediately equate E.F. Benson and M.R. James. On the other hand, Benson’s brothers, especially A.C. Benson, do have a closer affinity. A.C. Benson, the author of the famous words to Elgar’s “Land of Hope and Glory”, was a very close friend of M.R. James. He was resident housemaster at Cambridge from 1903 in which year his first collection, The Hill of Dreams, appeared.
Of this handful of imitators, Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives. Let me hasten to add that I have yet to discover one imitator who manages to improve upon James. The majority fall foul in overdoing his methods, and this is most irritating when it comes to failing to describe the evil phantoms. James knew just what to leave in and leave out, but his imitators fumble.
Malden’s Nine Ghosts is a neat, slim book with a brief introduction that acknowledges the debt to James – “They are in some sort a tribute to his memory, if not comparable with his work.” A number of the stories are too obvious and contrived, with the ending being apparent from the start, and the story becoming nothing more than a pleasant narrative. Unlike James, Malden allows too much space to supplying background details. Thus in “The Dining-room Fireplace” he succeeds in creating a fine chill with one brief episode only to spoil it with several pages of boring research. Nevertheless the following shows what Malden can do:
“…next moment we were even more startled by seeing the fire beginning to disappear. I remembered a story which I had once read – by H.G. Wells, I think. In it the lights in a haunted room go out one by one and as the occupant rushes to the fire to rekindle them that too dies away into absolute blackness.
“But we soon saw that our fire was not going out like that. It was being obscured by some large dark object which was rising from the ground between ourselves and it. It was as if the hearthrug were slowly humping itself into the form of an animal of some kind. It rose and rose without a sound. Soon it was larger than any dog and its movement had somehow an uncanny suggestion of deliberate and malign purpose. Its bulk and outline, so far as we could make them out, suggested a bear more than anything else. But the head was not shaped like that of a bear. There was something more than half-human about the outline which made it peculiarly horrible…”
Malden then breaks this spectral spell by having the phantasm vanish up the chimney, but it serves to show his capabilities. No points for identifying the Wells story referred to – “The Red Room” – which had appeared in The Idler in March 1896 with the purpose of deliberately spoofing the 1890s trend to haunted houses.
To my mind Malden’s best story in the James vein is “The Sundial”, which includes a most chilling scene wherein the protagonist sets out to chase a ghost around a hedge only to realise that he has suddenly become the pursued, and the ‘creature’ is rapidly closing.
A.N.L. Munby (interesting how all these writers are known by their initials) dutifully dedicated his book to M.R. James in Latin. Some of his stories are most un-Jamesian, merely relating episodes of non-supernatural terror. When he does turn to phantoms, he does so masterfully; though, as the following extract from “The Tudor Chimney” shows, he goes much further in his description than would have James:
“As I sat there, holding my breath, I was aware that I was not alone in the room. Something else was present, immediately behind me. How I detected this I do not know, but I was none the less certain of it. With an effort of will power I slowly turned my head, for I was intensely curious. I wish to God now that I had not given way to my curiosity. For what I saw still haunts me. Just on the outer edge of the lamplight a figure was standing – and I hope I never see anything again so monstrous and so repellent. It was a man, but it had the aspect of no living man. Its form was covered with the charred remains of clothing, the bare legs were horribly thin; they were nothing but burnt skin and blackened bone. But it was the head that made my very blood run cold: it was hairless and scorched, and the face was nothing more than a featureless, seared, leathery mask. It was the face of a man long dead, but the eyes were alive. They glowed behind the mask with a baleful, infernal light that radiated malevolence.”
Because of his ability to utilise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing. Imagine a cage being winched up from a mine-shaft and, crouching on top of it, something human in shape, “even if it did seem terrible tall and thin, and…a kind of dirty white all over, like summat that’s grown up in the dark and never had no light”, as he details in “The Mine”; or imagine spending a night on a canal boat and witnessing emerging from the dark hole of a canal tunnel “a figure, more shade than substance”.
Grand stuff! Rolt however does not ignore the possibilities of a haunted house, and in “A Visitor at Ashcombe” comes up with his own blend of Jamesian chills. One of the rooms at Ashcombe contains a boarded window which acts as a mirror and reflects more than one would wish to see:
“The form in the mirror did not move, and there dawned upon her with dreadful certainty the conviction that the mirror was no longer a mirror but a window; that the fire which glowed there was not the fire which burned in the room; that the shadow she saw there was not her shadow. The tables were now turned upon her for, while terror held her motionless, the shadow began to move. Though the light was too dim to distinguish detail of form or movement, yet both contrived to convey an intensity of purpose which was horribly confirmed by faint scratchings and pattering sounds, as if nails scratched upon the glass of a window and clawed the putty from the panes.”
It’s a pity that the rest of the story does not live up to expectations as the remainder of the action takes place off-stage, cheating the reader.
Such could never be said of A.C. Benson. Of all the James imitators, he goes full swing for ghoulish descriptions, as in “The Hill of Dreams” with its bodies writhing with worms. In his later stories Benson began to exercise some restraint, and thereby made the impact greater. This is most evident in the long story “The Uttermost Farthing” (1926) which Hugh Lamb recently resurrected for his anthology The Taste of Fear. The following scene takes place in the attic of an old house just after the two lead characters have retrieved a lost box:
“The icy air beat upon us and turning my head I saw, standing behind us, stiff and upright, a corpse, swathed in graveclothes, with pale leaden-coloured hands hanging down; the face was of the same hue, with a fringe of ragged-looking grey hair straggling over the forehead. It had a faint smile, it seemed, on its lips, and its dull eyes, grey like chalcedony, looked fixedly at the opening in the floor; and then a heavy odour of corruption began to spread around us.”
At the other extreme from A.C. Benson is Sir Andrew Caldecott who is frequently grouped in with the James clan. But apart from the occasional similarity of setting, only a few of Caldecott’s stories come within a mile of comparison. This is a deliberate choice by the writer as a quote in the preface to Not Exactly Ghosts (1946) betrays. He shows he merely intends to relate an interesting if bizarre tale and not to chill the reader’s marrow. He thereby breaks James’s first law.
Having said that, several of Caldecott’s stories are good: “Branch Line to Benceston” is classifiably science fiction, as it deals with an alternate time-stream. Yet, ironically, of all the ‘imitators’ it is Caldecott who took up a thread of James’ as suggested by him in the epilogue to his Collected Ghost Stories, “Stories I Have Tried to Write”. It concerns a message in a Christmas cracker which strikes fear into the heart of its reader; and in “Christmas Reunion” Caldecott turns it into an episode of revenge by a man thought dead.
There then are the immediate circle of James’s disciples. To pursue the detection and reveal the James influence in the writings of people like Oliver Onions, W.F. Harvey, H.R. Wakefield, Shane Leslie, R.Thurston Hopkins and Walter de la Mare is something that would fill up the rest of this volume – and more.
Suffice it to say that the James tradition is far from dead, and it is alive and well in one of Britain’s most gifted writers of the supernatural: Ramsey Campbell. You may raise your eyebrows at the mention of this spawn of Lovecraft, but Ramsey has long-since cast away the Lovecraft mantle and there is far more of James in his recent stories such as the award-winning “In the Bag”, and the very excellent “Call First”. It is a quotation from the latter tale with which I shall close, as I feel it cannot be followed. I will reveal none of the plot as I urge you to seek this story out:
“She was only an old woman, her body beneath the long white dress was sure to be thin as her hands, she could only shout when she saw him, she couldn’t stop him leaving…
“As she unbent from stooping to the phone she grasped two uprights of the banisters to support herself. They gave a loud splintering creak and bent together. Ned halted, confused. He was still struggling to react when she turned toward him, and he saw her face. Part of it was still on the bone.”‘
(from “Shadows” by Mike Ashley, Ghost & Scholars, 1979)