Monday, October 06, 2014

"Things were, alas! worse than I had feared," or, With M. R. James as our guide, we enter October country

{Photo by rocketlass.}

Roger Clarke's A Natural History of Ghosts: 500 Years of Hunting for Proof (2012) isn't quite the book its title would suggest: though the book opens with some accounts (suitably hair-raising) of ghost-hunting, Clarke quickly dives into the past, nimbly running through accounts of famous historical ghosts and hauntings, some quite familiar, others a bit faded by time. That's not a fault, mind you: it's almost exactly what I want in a book about purportedly true hauntings: stories of poltergeists that seem almost certainly to have been the work of mischievous children or ill-treated servants; nine-days' wonders that find that the last few of those nine days require a ghost's activities to be amped up a bit; and wonderfully credulous contemporary accounts, breathlessly related.

Clarke also finds space to discuss antiquarian and ghost story master M. R. James, a subject of which we never tire at I've Been Reading Lately. James's telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve at Kings College is familiar to any fan, but it's nonetheless a pleasure to find a firsthand description of the atmosphere, like this one from Oliffe Richmond:
We sat and waited in the candlelight, perhaps someone played a few bars at the piano, and desisted, for good reason. . . . Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand at last, and blew out all the candles but one. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light.
Was James's delay in entering a tactic for building suspense, or was he writing to and past deadline? I don't remember it coming up in Michael Cox's biography of James, but a New Statesman article from last winter suggests it was the latter. Properly donnish, even when at play.

Clarke follows that scene with an account from James himself of a seemingly supernatural experience in his own childhood that was triggered by reading a story by Sheridan Le Fanu, who would become the most obvious influence on James's own stories:
The words were quite enough to set my own fancy on a bleak track. inevitably I looked and with apprehension, to the Plantation Gate. As was but right it was shut, and nobody was on the path that led to it or from it . . . there was in it a square hole giving access to the fastening; and through that hole I could see--and it struck me like a blow on the diaphragm--something white or partly white. Now this I could not bear, and with an access of something like courage--only it was more like desperation, like determining that I must know the worst--I did steal down and, quite uselessly, of course, taking cover behind bushes as I went, I made progress until I was within range of the gate and hole. things were, alas! worse than I had feared. Through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. it was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows. . . . Do not press me with questions at to how I bore myself when it became necessary to see my family again.
Like all good ghost stories, it leaves you wanting to know more. How did he tear himself away? Did the thing see him as he saw it?

The leaves are turning. Night is drawing in. Time for ghosts.

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