In “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” a scholar finds a bronze whistle among the buried fragments of a Templar church; it bears a legend in Latin, “Quis est iste qui venit?,” “Who is this who is coming?” What comes is an indistinct figure, a dim presentiment of human form, with a “face of rumpled linen.” One character in these macabre proceedings remarks, at the end of the short story, that they “served to confirm his opinion of the Church of Rome.” The scholar himself “cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved.” The author of this story, M. R. James, is acknowledged to be the pre-eminent master of English ghost fiction; in this particular tale, many of his characteristic themes and devices are to be found.

His “heroes,” or rather those to whom the ghostly visitants are drawn, tend to be of scholarly or antiquarian temper. His first volume was entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. M. R. James was himself a noted scholar and palaeographer, who made a particular study of the apocrypha of the New Testament. He had a thoroughly English mind, steeped in bibliography and iconography. Yet the apparatus of his remarkable historical knowledge is presented in his stories as a “faintly ironical, at times almost self-mocking image of himself as a scholar and an antiquary.” 1 This ironic diffidence, so much part of the native imagination, permeates his fictions.

There are other characteristic touches. In that parody of learning which seems endemic among the English learned, James manufactures references to British Museum manuscripts and alludes in one particularly nasty haunting to “the publications of the Swedish Historical Manuscripts Commission.” Many of the stories are concerned with libraries and with the ancient volumes buried therein. The antiquarian and the hunter after ghosts is, therefore, a twin being intent upon gathering the living presence of the past. The English tradition may itself then be glimpsed as a revenant, reaching out to the living with uplifted arms. That is why the ghost story is recognised to be a quintessentially English form. It has been calculated that “the vast majority of ghost stories (around 98 per cent) are in English and roughly 70 per cent are written by English men and women.”2

The genre or medium of the ghost story emerged in the 1820s, but of course the island has always been filled with ghosts. The legionaries of the Roman Empire reported that this remote place was inhabited by spirits; England was once characterised as a land of dreams and visions. There are ghosts in Dickens and in Chaucer, in Shakespeare and in Emily Brontë, in Webster and in Wells. They may be said to haunt the English sensibility. English translations of continental romances typically added elements of magic and of supernature; the appetite for violence was equalled only by that for the mysterious and the grotesque. The English tone has been described as one of “romantic strangeness.”3

M. R. James wrote that certain places had been “prolific in suggestion”; he was particularly enamoured of the ancient landscapes of East Anglia. In “A Neighbour’s Landmark” the landscape itself seems haunted with “stretches of green and yellow country . . . and blue hills far off, veiled with rain. Up above was a very restless and hopeless movement of low clouds travelling north-west.” Like Sherlock Holmes in The Valley of Fear, James was “a believer in the genius loci.” It is the sudden silence in a wood, or the sound of footsteps in an empty street; it is the English sense of being haunted by place and by a specific history associated with it. A country so preoccupied with its past, and with the traditions of that past, cannot help but be haunted by time itself. As Rudyard Kipling said of the countryside around his house “Batemans,” in Burwash, it harboured a “long overgrown slag-heap of a most ancient forge, supposed to have been worked by the Phoenicians and Romans and, since then, uninterruptedly till the middle of the eighteenth century. . . . Every foot of that little corner was alive with ghosts and shadows.” Kipling was an expert writer of ghost stories and, in Puck of Pook’s Hill, he re-creates “an earth spirit, and, for Kipling, specifically that of the English earth.”4

There are sites in the natural world which also become sites of the imagination. In English ghost stories these include ancient churches, abandoned churchyards and ruined monasteries. In “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” the ghost or shape is specifically associated with a Catholic past. This is in fact a central motif in the work of M. R. James. In “Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book” an Englishman or “North Briton” of Presbyterian faith inadvertently raises the spectre of a Catholic canon. In “Number 13” a spectral chamber and its occupant are intimately related “to the last days of Roman Catholicism” in Jutland. In “Casting the Runes” an evil protagonist is described, in a cancelled passage, as “formerly a Roman [Catholic].” In “Count Magnus” another spectre is reported to be “a Roman priest in a cassock.” The presence of the great medieval cathedrals is acutely felt in the ghost stories, as if the stripping of the Catholic altars and the weight of all that rejected knowledge had somehow created a flaw in time through which spectral visitors could still move. As a child M. R. James had studied Church history, and in particular “the martyrdom of the saints,”so he was not untouched by intimations of the Catholic past. In many of his stories a Latin inscription is revealed, in words which amount to a curse.

M. R. James was a skilful pasticheur, able effortlessly to reproduce the language and cadence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; like Chatterton’s, it was a gift which he first employed as a schoolboy, and represents once more an instinctive turning towards the past. In his life and in his art he practised restraint and detachment. Horror and malevolence were necessary in ghost stories, he wrote, but “not less necessary . . . is reticence.” One critic has remarked of his stories that they are “strongly impersonal, as if the teller in no way wishes to commit himself to his tale.” 6In particular he was dismayed by any allusion to sexuality—“sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.” Here is the general English embarrassment at sex and, indeed, at physicality itself. Most of James’s spectres are touched before they are seen, and there is such an emphasis upon noisome tactility that his editor has suggested “this repulsive moment of intimacy perhaps exteriorises a fear of sexual contact in James himself.”“I was conscious,” one protagonist remarks, “of a most horrible smell of mould and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own and moving slowly over it.” And another of James’s characters observes of a ghost or apparition “how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip.” These are the limits of frightfulness, fuelled by many different fears. “What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth. With teeth and with hair about it, and, he declared, not the mouth of a human being.” James is a miniaturist in horror; he is alert to the small detail and to the significant fact. He is interested, too, in physical circumstance. On another occasion “wet lips were whispering into my ear with great rapidity and emphasis for some time together.”

Here, once more, we may trace elements of that morbid sensationalism everywhere encountered. The English sense of mystery, beyond the sphere of the practical and the pragmatic, is, however, perhaps best summarised in the following exchange. “Do you believe in ghosts?” “No. But I am afraid of them.”

M. R. James himself remarked that “the recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years,” by which he meant the 1920s and 1930s, “corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.” The assumption of some natural connection is perhaps explicable; the detective story, like the ghost story, was considered to be a characteristic English genre suffused by a native conservatism of form and address. Both share a delight in death, albeit from different perspectives, which has been seen to be an aspect of the English imagination. Both characteristically deal with small communities or groups of people—the inhabitants of a village, or a house—upon which strange forces or unsettling passions descend. But there are perhaps more interesting parallels. The great English fictional detectives—Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Father Brown—are curiously sexless figures, while sex itself is the instigator of crime and iniquity. It is a very native displacement of passion.

If we take one of the classics of the genre, The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie, we may note with surprise that it opens with a dream sequence in which the vicar’s wife wanders “dress’d in a bathing suit.” It is already being suggested that the furtive lusts of the unconscious mind may be dangerous. The dreamer, Mrs. Bantry, had been reading a detective story entitled The Clue of the Broken Match; like some Chaucerian protagonist, in an earlier English setting, the book had provoked the dream. The amateur detective is soon introduced as Miss Marple, a “prim spinster”; her neighbours in St. Mary Mead include an “acidulated spinster,” “a rich and dictatorial widow” and of course a vicar. It is almost as if the pent-up rage of repression in a small space had created the crime, the murder of a blond woman whose body had been left in a library which itself “spoke of long occupation and familiar use and of links with tradition.” It is, in other words, a very English murder.

The mind of Miss Marple is described as one “that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity” and is depicted by the lady herself in no very complimentary terms. “I have a mind like a sink . . . most Victorians have.” The remark is made in the context of a particularly unpleasant child-murder, and we enter that morbid and faintly musty world of perverse passion entirely congenial to the Victorians themselves. “One does see so much evil in a village,” as Miss Marple maintains.

Despite the morbid and manifest “evil” within Agatha Christie’s novel, however, there is little interest in the discovery of emotion or the exploration of character. This is as entirely characteristic as the emphasis upon plot and action. The serpentine line of the story is of the utmost importance, and the principal character is concerned with observation and deduction. The fiction is the purest expression of the practical English imagination, therefore, concerned with the pragmatic solution best achieved by the exercise of uncommon common sense.

Ronald Knox established a Detection Club in 1929 for the sole purpose of excluding “Divine Revelation, Feminine Intuition, Mumbo-Jumbo, Jiggery-Pokery,” an antipathy which represents an index of the English sensibility itself. As a consequence the detective story “stays in line with the basic storytelling requirements of straightforward progression and a proper finale.” 8 It is indeed a curiously linear way of dealing with human desire, as if the “evil” could best be arranged in those two-dimensional patterns employed by English painters and miniaturists. And yet a reading of these stories might suggest that the English imagination sometimes resembles the “mould” upon M. R. James’s spectre, harbouring the living remnants of death itself.

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