Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James
Patrick J. Murphy
Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James
Patrick J. Murphy
“Any Jamesian will be surprised at how much new light Murphy casts on these eerie tales of revenants and demons.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
In Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James, Patrick J. Murphy argues that these twin careers are inextricably linked. James’s research not only informed his fiction but also reflected his anxieties about the nature of academic life and explored the delicate divide between professional, university men and erratic hobbyists or antiquaries. Murphy shows how detailed attention to the scholarly inspirations behind James’s fiction provides considerable insight into a formative moment in medieval studies, as well as into James’s methods as a master stylist of understated horror.
During his life, James often claimed that his stories were mere entertainments—pleasing distractions from a life largely defined by academic discipline and restraint—and readers over the years have been content to take him at his word. This intriguing volume, however, convincingly proves otherwise.
“Any Jamesian will be surprised at how much new light Murphy casts on these eerie tales of revenants and demons.”
“Demonstrates a kind of scholarly curiosity that one hopes M. R. James himself would have approved.”
“Murphy's interesting book shows that perhaps M.R. James’ stories were more than just idle pieces of entertainment.”
“For anyone interested in James, the scholar, this book is an essential read; it presents much that is new, is fascinating throughout, and offers perceptive analysis of James’s unparalleled wisdom in the field.”
“This book is a pleasure to read: beautifully written and presented. It is never less than thoroughly eloquent.”
“In this thorough, eloquent, and convincing study, Patrick Murphy sheds important new light on one of the most renowned medievalists of the early twentieth century and on the means by which the Middle Ages continue to remake, and be remade by, popular culture.”
“This book goes further than any other in making sense of M. R. James’s dual identity as a medieval scholar and a ghost-story writer. In elucidating some of the hidden meanings in James’s classic ghost stories, Patrick Murphy makes ingenious connections between antiquarian fiction and the emergence of medieval studies in the early twentieth century.”
“The very best part of this book is the way in which both authors—Patrick Murphy and M. R. James—unravel puzzles that others have avoided or perhaps not even recognized as significant. Readers will admire the scholarship behind the solving of these puzzles and will also take great pleasure in following Murphy’s line of reasoning, which reveals what the subtle scholar-storyteller James is after. Reading this book is like following the adventures of those on a quest, or the unraveling of clues in a really good mystery novel.”
“There are some seminal studies that have shed light on the genesis and development of medieval studies: Ulrich Wyss’s work on Jacob Grimm, Tom Shippey’s on J. R. R. Tolkien, and Michelle Warren’s on Joseph Bédier. Patrick Murphy’s book completes these other studies by telling the story of M. R. James, a fascinating medievalist forefather working at the exact moment of transition from English antiquarianism and extra-academic medievalist enthusiasms to a medieval studies almost entirely exclusive of writers, artists, and musicians. Murphy’s meticulously researched narrative provides ample proof that both enterprises, the creative and the scholarly reception of medieval culture, should not be viewed as mutually exclusive but richly symbiotic.”
“Patrick Murphy’s deeply researched and wittily written book puts James’s work in the context of the development of medieval studies and, more broadly, an academic culture in transition and the great loss and unimaginable changes wrought by the Great War. By delineating the entanglement of various competing timelines—antiquarian, professional, and institutional, for example—in James’s endeavors, Murphy compellingly illuminates a profound disquiet haunting this liminal figure and his famous ghostly tales.”
Patrick J. Murphy is Associate Professor of English at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio) and the author of Unriddling the Exeter Riddles, also published by Penn State University Press.
List of Illustrations
Chapter 1: Terror and Error
Chapter 2: Recasting the Antiquary
Chapter 3: Ex Cathedra
Chapter 4: A Desideratum of Wings
Chapter 5: To the Curious
Afterword: Professions of Reticence
Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936) is the author of some of the most highly regarded ghost stories of all time, thrilling fictions that have never passed out of print or lost their popular appeal. In a 2012 article in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane notes James’s “talent—modestly offered, but as yet unsurpassed—for applying the very highest calibre of jolt.” But James was also the provost of King’s College and vice-chancellor of Cambridge University (as well as provost of Eton, later in life) and a celebrated and influential scholar, whose name is still well known among academics indebted to his pioneering and wide-ranging research. James’s biographers characterize him as “essentially a medievalist,” though his interests extended to a number of related periods and fields, including the study of premodern religious texts—hagiography and biblical aprocrypha in particular—where his contributions continue to be deemed exemplary. James was passionate about church architecture and decoration, and published both popular and scholarly works on the subject. His research in general often bridged disciplinary divides between art history and textual studies, especially in his study of book illustration and illumination. In fact, it is the broader and systematic study of medieval manuscripts—their form, production, and history—that constitutes James’s most enduring scholarly legacy. Most notably, his series of descriptive catalogues, painstakingly produced between the 1890s and 1930s, helped set a new standard in his field and laid a central foundation for a subsequent century and more of ongoing scholarly effort.
In the same year that James published his first descriptive catalogue (1895), his first ghost story also appeared in print: “A Curious Book,” later retitled “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book,” a tale of haunted biblioclasty that recoils at the dismantling of medieval manuscripts—even as it plunders James’s dearest scholarly interests as a rich vein of imaginative material. The protagonist, Dennistoun, is a “Cambridge man,” serious in his pursuit of recreational archaeology at the medieval cathedral of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, while his less inquisitive friends relax in nearby Toulouse. It is thus the first of many autobiographical fictions, paralleling a trip James took in 1892 with friends to the same spot, and yet it is also somewhat parodic in its evocation of prefabricated Gothic chills—to which the protagonist is comically immune, at least at first, as his local guide cringes and winces about the nave. This haunted sacristan is keeping an eye on him, the young man suspects, lest he make off with the cathedral’s treasures, including, colorfully, a “dusty stuffed crocodile” (a local terror slain by Saint Bertrand, or else a souvenir of the Crusades) that adorns the stone wall above the baptismal font and that is still in place today to be glimpsed by Jamesian pilgrims. Dennistoun’s suspicions are misplaced, though, for, on the contrary, the verger is looking not to safeguard antiquities but rather to unload a dangerous treasure: a “scrap-book” of excised manuscript fragments and ransacked illuminations, the priceless but shameful handiwork of “the unprincipled Canon Alberic,” a seventeenth-century cleric who has “doubtless plundered the Chapter library of St. Bertrand” some two hundred years back. A certain scrap in particular catches Dennistoun’s eye, a terrifyingly vivid sketch of the devil executed by Alberic himself: “One remark is universally made by those to whom I have shown the picture: ‘It was drawn from the life!’” Nevertheless, Dennistoun scruples only slightly to relieve the verger of this burden at a steep discount, and later that night pays a frightful price as he takes stock of his spoils.
In the story, we can already see many of the most characteristic features of James’s fiction: the protagonist obsessed with the past; the dry, donnish tone and wry sense of humor; the distancing devices and ingenious narrative frames; the casual layers of arcane allusion; the historical pastiche and eye dialect; and, most of all, the silent creep of growing unease crowned by the characteristic “Jamesian wallop,” a jack-in-the-box shock of terror as the narrative suddenly lurches into the supernatural. In this instance, the jump arrives as Dennistoun leafs through the album and becomes aware of something just at the periphery of his vision: “A penwiper? No, no such thing in the house. A rat? No, too black. A large spider? I trust to goodness not—no. Good God! a hand like the hand in that picture!”
Over the next few decades James would write more than thirty such “antiquarian” tales of terror, most of them first performed for friends at King’s College as Christmastime entertainments. Among enthusiasts of ghost stories, they have earned for James the reputation as a matchless practitioner of the art. In the present-day opinion of Mark Gatiss, he is the “undisputed master of the form,” while H. P. Lovecraft praised him in 1927 as “a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank.” In general, this consensus view of James as one of the greatest writers of ghost stories, among the living and the dead, is an enduring and commonplace assessment by those most heavily invested in the genre. Nevertheless, James’s work has typically been valued primarily for its stylistic mastery and affective power rather than for any thematic interest it might hold. Two excellent and otherwise very thorough biographies of James, both of which focus on his scholarly and institutional achievements, offer discouragement to those who would attempt to find meaningful patterns in his fiction. Michael Cox maintains that James’s imaginative writings, while “amongst the very best things of their kind,” would not hold up under “a weight of critical analysis,” while Richard W. Pfaff declares that there is “no evidence” that the stories had significance beyond delivering a feeling of pleasing unease. Glen Cavaliero, one of James’s least sympathetic critics, sees his tales as illustrating the limited value of the ghost story when pursued only as an empty, formal exercise. James’s own avowals on this score tend to reinforce the point. He never seems to have deviated from the stance taken in the preface to his first collected volume: “The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.”
Yet it would be curious indeed if such self-deprecations held researchers permanently in check. And although the present volume represents the first monograph on the subject, there have appeared over the decades a good many important and insightful investigations into James’s fiction, studies to which my own is much indebted. Many of the critics who have engaged most thoroughly with his stories, however, have naturally tended to approach the subject primarily from the perspective of the rich critical traditions that trace the development of ghostly, horror, and gothic writings in English. James, of course, cannot be understood apart from these traditions—he was, in particular, an ardent fan of Dickens and an enthusiastic editor of Sheridan Le Fanu—and yet what nettles Cavaliero most is that James quite self-consciously distanced his work from that of other contemporary writers of supernatural fiction, tales he found infected by a lurid, tasteless excess (those who crossed a line of “legitimate horridness”). This aloofness is best explained not simply as elitism, though class is undeniably a factor. It seems likely that James would have felt the incongruity of “a man in his position” (to paraphrase James’s stuffy academic Professor Parkins) to be writing amateur ghost stories, however reticent or restrained. Such anxiety is centered around a sense of academic professionalism, and it is the mixing of professional scholarship with sensational thrills and chills that is arguably the most striking thing about James’s fiction.
For this reason, the study of his tales cannot remain separate from his scholarly work, either in particulars or in thematic concerns. To be sure, there have been many individual, not to say scattershot, attempts to clarify allusions in the ghost stories and even to identify isolated links between James’s two intertwined achievements. The heroic efforts of the editor Rosemary Pardoe and the other contributors to her long-running journal Ghosts & Scholars must be credited for laying the groundwork of any attempt to make sense of James’s stories. Some of the finest work from that publication and others appears in a volume Pardoe co-edited, Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M. R. James. Crucial contributions to the study of the stories have come also from James’s many devoted and expert editors, including Michael Cox, S. T. Joshi, Christopher and Barbara Roden, and, most recently, Darryl Jones. For all this activity, though, it would be fair to say that most critical evaluations of James’s work have tended to keep his imaginative writings largely chained off from his academic fields—and vice versa. An important volume dedicated to his academic legacy barely mentions his ghost stories, while James’s scholarly biographers, especially Pfaff, give relatively scant attention to his creative work.
And yet, once we begin to look for connections to James’s scholarly interests, they are not found wanting. It is clear, for instance, that Canon Alberic’s demon inhabits a scene from the Testament of Solomon, an early apocryphal text that recounts how the titular biblical king attained (and eventually lost) the power to command demons, forcing them to act as servants in the construction of the Temple. But there is reason to suspect that the creature’s particular codical framing—as a crouching devil vividly “drawn from the life” within a scrapbook of medieval illuminations—draws inspiration also from the Codex Gigas in the National Library of Sweden, a book famous not only for its prodigious size (it is often cited as the world’s largest surviving medieval manuscript) but also for its garish full-page portrait of a squatting devil. So unusual and arresting is this image that legends have arisen to account for it, typically involving a condemned monk who calls in desperation upon the devil to aid him in the production of this enormous copy of the Bible within the span of a single night. The demon obliges, but leaves behind a ghastly, sinewy, heavily taloned self-portrait, which has given the “Devil’s Bible” its alternative name and may well have helped inspire Canon Alberic’s bogey. As James notes in his book The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts, the Codex Gigas is often associated with another renowned manuscript, the Codex Argenteus, which—like the Devil’s Bible—arrived in Sweden as war plunder. The man who brought it there was “Count Magnus” Gabriel De la Gardie (1622–1686), a rather prosaic historical figure mainly notable today for having been portrayed in James’s fiction as an outlandishly monstrous feudal tyrant. These observations only begin to scratch the surface, but it is telling that so many such connections have gone undiscussed in the otherwise rich commentary James’s tales have received. It was possible recently for a very well informed commentator to remark on the discovery of “a surprisingly rare link between [James’s] ghost stories and his other career as one who by the mid-1890s ‘in knowledge of MSS [was] already third or fourth in Europe.’” The points of contact are not few, however, once we go looking for them.
Nor are they trivial. For instance, the rare link to which the medievalist A. S. G. Edwards refers is that Dennistoun’s name is borrowed from the real-life figure James Dennistoun (1803–1855), the compiler of a noted album of cuttings and illuminations sliced from medieval manuscripts. James thus quietly but unmistakably implies a parallel between what the fictional Dennistoun does and the way the biblioclast Canon Alberic has dispossessed texts and illuminations of their proper place within medieval originals. By removing the book from Saint-Bertrand—as the Codex Gigas was plundered from Prague—does Dennistoun visit upon it a deracination as destructive as Alberic’s mutilations? Are there other ways in which the modern scholar dismantles, rather than recovers, the past? Dennistoun, no doubt, would deny these implications; he finds Alberic’s actions “unprincipled,” while his own ethical qualms seem eased by the centering gravity of his institutional affiliations. After all, the scrapbook will come to rest at Cambridge in the “Wentworth Collection” (alias the Fitzwilliam Museum, of which James was the director from 1893 to 1908): “his mind was made up; that book must return to Cambridge with him.” But notice how the effect of this phrasing is to attribute to the book the scholar’s return: Canon Alberic’s scrapbook has never been to Cambridge; it cannot “return” there. Admittedly, the usage here is idiomatic, and hardly intended by James as significant, and yet it does encapsulate an unspoken feature of much medievalist culture: the hope that academic study and curation have the power to redeem the past by reclaiming it professionally from scattered provincial homes.
The anxious line between legitimate and illegitimate engagements with historical materials is James’s theme from the beginning, and many of his most famous fictions hazard uncomfortable connections between errant scholarly impulses of the past and practices authorized by an emergent academic profession. James’s era has often been identified as a defining moment in the formation of what is now generally known as medieval studies, the early practitioners of which “increasingly cordoned themselves off as exclusive of any self-reflexive, subjective, emphatic or playfully non-scientific discussion of medieval culture,” in the words of Richard Utz, charting the way in which supposedly undisciplined and rashly imaginative engagements with the Middle Ages came to be identified by and dismissed under the catchall term “medievalism.” James’s own double legacy is a dramatic example of the distinction: his descriptive catalogues are considered an important contribution to medieval manuscript studies, while his ghost stories are eclectic, even somewhat eccentric, medievalizing fictions. Nor did James always keep these enterprises strictly separated, even in performance. In one lecture, for instance, we find him following up a scholarly discussion of medieval sources of magical belief with a reading of one of his supernatural tales:
And now I really think you must have had enough of dark fables for one night. Still, I cannot avoid adding for it will probably be brought to my notice if I do not volunteer the statement, that I undertake if necessary in addition to the paper I had small hopes of writing, to read an effort in fiction which I concocted for last Christmas Eve. . . . I honestly think you might be let off with what you have had: if you agree with me I do trust you will say so. The alternative is that you will have to resign yourselves for a further period of I think rather over half an hour of listening.
Given these close contacts between James’s scholarly and imaginative writings, as well as his stature as a revered academic medievalist, it is rather surprising that his tales have received relatively little attention from those scholars who have in recent decades remade “medievalism” as its own special subject of inquiry, defined by the field’s recognized founder, Leslie Workman, as “the study not of the Middle Ages themselves but of the scholars, artists, and writers who . . . constructed the idea of the Middle Ages that we inherited.”
Lately, though, there has been an increased willingness among many medievalists to soften or even collapse the distinction between the categories of medieval studies and medievalism, with the recognition that even the most restrained engagements with the past inevitably bear the vivid imprint of the scholar’s present. It is possible to speak of “academic medievalism,” after all, and to detect powerful and pressing interests in the most disinterested of scholarly performances. James’s work is no exception, though his academic writings tend to be as studiously cautious and restrained as they come. They are in fact profoundly reticent, in keeping with scholarly currents of the time as well as his own academic style, tastes, and research ideals. Those looking for heterodox statements, overt romantic fantasies, or extended theoretical speculation on the purpose or promise of historical or antiquarian research will be largely disappointed. Nor have James’s methods, though often self-taught, aged poorly or done anything but enhance our knowledge of the past—with the possible exception of his recommended use of chemical reagent for the resuscitation of illegible texts, a now-shunned practice at which “modern scholars will shudder.” James’s abhorrence of the destructive restorations of the Gothic Revival (a theme examined in detail in chapter 3) is much more representative of his conservative approach to scholarship. We might conclude, then, that James’s medieval studies have not disintegrated into mere medievalisms in the eyes of present-day academics. But that is not to say that his scholarship escapes all criticism; despite expressing great admiration, the editor of The Legacy of M. R. James feels bound to address the question, “Were aspects of [his] erudition misplaced?” The issue had been raised of James’s errant dabblings even during his boyhood at Eton, where his masters perennially worried about the “streak of slight perversity” behind James’s “peripheral scholarly interests.” The concern never fully dissipated and is, arguably, what fuels much of the fright in his ghostly tales.
This, then, is the chief method of the present volume: to trace the potential significance of James’s many intricate medievalisms, with the related aim of illuminating the way they may reflect aspects of what it meant to be a scholar in his era, a remarkable “middle” period in the history of the humanities often understood today in terms of an undisciplined amateurism yielding to enduring institutions established by university professionals. James himself is a fascinatingly liminal figure in this narrative, and not only on account of his shadow career writing ghost stories. For although most horror fans (present and past) have assumed James’s scholarly stature to be beyond reproach, his position in academic fields has always been more complicated, his reputation and legacy as a researcher more open to question. In particular, the paradoxical sense that James was both the quintessential professional and yet also something of an amateur has had a long afterlife, so that the four-volume history of Cambridge University characterizes him as a “scholar and dilettante . . . literary, whimsical, unpractical, yet in his own way a great technician with medieval manuscripts.” A great technician and a dilettante? The blurred line between a professional’s work and a hobbyist’s dabbling—the “avocational nature of the knowledge industry”—is one of the key elements that, as Shane McCorristine has recently (and convincingly) argued, “produces the ambient basis for the supernatural situation” in James’s work. Yet that fairly select set of critics who have profitably connected his two careers often neglect this tension. Martin Hughes, for example, rightly argues that James’s fiction reflects his meditating “seriously about both the usefulness and the dangers . . . of his absorption in the past,” but detects a fairly distinct line in James’s fiction between “shallow enthusiasm” and “the restraint and balance of mind which comes from genuine scholarship.” Much of the best recent work on James has begun to trouble that enthusiast-professional divide, perhaps most notably in the writings of the distinguished medievalist Carolyn Dinshaw, who remarks that “in his amateur fiction . . . James reflected deeply and critically on his own professional preoccupations as manuscript scholar, philologist, archaeologist.” This dynamic that Dinshaw identifies, with all its attendant questions and complexities, forms the curious matter of my book.
The Antiquary and His Ghost Stories
Despite the titles of his collections, the ghosts of James’s “ghost stories” do not tend to be of the sheer and sheeted variety. The distinctive Jamesian haunt, Lovecraft remarked, is “lean, dwarfish, and hairy—a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man—and usually touched before it is seen.” The demon of Dennistoun’s scrapbook is of this type, matching the Gigas-like drawing of Canon Alberic: “Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by this appalling effigy.” But even this figure of exotic revulsion leads us nowhere so much as back to James’s own late nineteenth-century Cambridge and its heady atmosphere of professional self-invention, for our reaction to the image is filtered through the gaze of a “lecturer on morphology” who is horrified when shown the drawing. As Michael Cox has observed, the terrified morphologist is likely a fictionalized Arthur Shipley (1861–1927), a specialist in biological morphology and one of James’s two companions on his 1892 trip to Saint-Bertrand. Just months before James first read “Canon Alberic” for the Chitchat Society (a weekly gathering of Cambridge undergraduates and young academics), Shipley had published a successful textbook, Zoology of the Invertebrata, whose section on arachnid variety opens with a description of spiders who do not weave webs but rather dig burrows and “sit at the entrance of these holes waiting for their prey, which, in the case of the gigantic South American Mygale avicularia, often takes the form of small birds.” We may be tempted to imagine James, a well-known arachnophobe, blanching as he glances over his friend’s new book. Perhaps he read no further!
Yet an intertextual trifle like this reminds us that James’s earliest stories were largely produced for and read within close-knit college circles, spaces in which professional identities might be safely rehearsed and performed—and disciplinary misgivings aired. Present at the Chitchat Society that evening were men like Charles Waldstein (1856–1927), James’s predecessor at the Fitzwilliam and Cambridge’s first reader in the fledgling field of classical archaeology, and Walter Headlam (1866–1908), a young scholar whose emphasis on establishing a linguistic corpus to contextualize Greek texts set him in opposition to the “gentlemanly compositional classics” of past generations. Shipley was equally a young pioneer in morphology, while James was an up-and-comer in his own inchoate fields. Whether Shipley was actually present in the room for this ribbing, James seems gently jocular in describing “a person of, I was going to say, abnormally sane and unimaginative habits of mind.” But he is also opening an implicit conversation between his own disciplines and Shipley’s, a safely systematic one that successfully avoids conjuring its specimens from the imagination or straying from the strict limits of the morphologist’s area of specialty.
What was indeed unique about the new university specialists was not simply their minute knowledge of narrow fields but rather, as James Turner stresses, the sense that a single professional researcher could no longer be free to wander from one demarcated discipline to another. Disciplinary specialization implied isolated realms of expertise into which one could not cross without a “strenuous feat of reacculturation.” The “pitiable exhibition” of the amateur Karswell in “Casting the Runes” is condemned at least partly on account of its omnivorous scholarship: “there was nothing that man didn’t swallow.” Yet the manuscript studies that most interested James (and his alter ego Dennistoun) also tended to encourage forays into a number of increasingly self-enclosed fields as well as to consider subjects not tamely residing in any one domain. Investigations into “the wanderings and homes of manuscripts” tended indeed to soften hardening boundaries separating the study of literature, biblical studies, historical linguistics, and art history (as well as requiring great skill in ancillary arts such as paleography and codicology). Beyond this, there was the material fact of the medieval manuscript itself. James was fascinated by books in every dimension—their place in time, their space on the shelf, the way the sheepskin codex engages senses other than sight.
Personal relationships and local loyalties grounded such potentially dubious interests. The most noteworthy exception to the Jamesian ghost of hair and flesh is the sheeted specter of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” and it is significant that its victim, ambitious in the fatuous (and fictional) field of “ontography,” sniffs at anything so mundane as material evidence. But for all his professional polish, Parkins is a social failure, as incapable of closeness with colleagues as he is of fully translating the Latin inscriptions on the haunted whistle: quis est iste qui ueni (who is this who is coming?). James revisits the motif in “A School Story,” a much simpler tale he spun for the boys of the King’s College Choir School, in which a schoolmaster receives threats from beyond the grave through the Latin exercises of unwitting pupils: Si tu non veneris ad me, ego veniam ad te (If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you). The chiasmus of the conditional locks the fate of its victim in a tight embrace, and indeed the schoolmaster and his tormenter end up at the bottom of an abandoned well, their bodies suggestively intertwined. But what would it mean for men to come together under proper conditions? James signals to his audience of young choristers that schoolboy rites of initiation—particularly the mastering of Latin constructions—are the correct path to an intimacy that outlasts knowledge of the Future More Vivid itself.
That story more or less explicitly concerns institutions. As the narrator notes, “boys seldom allow that their schools possess any tolerable features,” and James’s tale is careful to inculcate in the choristers the full weight of their importance. James himself spent nearly the whole of his life within the walls of elite educational foundations. Born in 1862, the youngest child of an Anglican clergyman (and the grandson of a Jamaican slaveholder), James was raised in Great Livermere near Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk before entering private school at the age of eleven at Temple Grove, just outside London (the model setting for “A School Story”). From there it was on to Eton, where he stayed until the ripe age of twenty, becoming, as Tim Card notes, possibly “the oldest boy ever in the school.” After James returned to Eton in his sixties, Lytton Strachey was to remark tartly, “It’s odd that the Provost of Eton should still be aged sixteen. A life without a jolt.” The strange sense that James was at once preternaturally advanced in his studies and yet arrested in his development was from the beginning tied to his precocious antiquarian interests. As a heartsick boy at Temple Grove, he wrote his father, “I desire above all things to make an archaeological search into the antiquities of Suffolk to get everything I can for my museum, and last but not by any means least, to get home.” School was to become his home, but fascination with the past endured. As H. E. Luxmoore, his beloved tutor at Eton and a later fixture at James’s ghost-story sessions, wrote in an 1879 progress report, “The only other thing I note is to repeat the old warning . . . against prematurely transplanting medieval studies into a time when the grounding ought to be ensured which will make them all the better afterwards.”
After Eton, King’s College in Cambridge was the next step, and there James was to stay on for nearly forty years, until finally leaving to become provost of Eton around the close of the Great War: “The bitter drops in the cup will make themselves felt in due time: but of course it is easier to contemplate quitting this place while it is empty than it would be in normal times.” The exception of this trauma notwithstanding, many—including James himself—have been struck by the long, almost abnormal uneventfulness of his scholarly existence and unattached lifestyle. During his own boyhood, age-old statutes mandating celibacy for college fellows had been lifted, allowing for the first time married men (not yet, of course, women) to make lifelong academic careers at Oxford and Cambridge. James himself was encouraged by friends to marry, but he preferred to remain a confirmed bachelor, thereby conforming to a rather outdated type of isolated and indolent “donnishness”—traditionally associated, not incidentally, with “antiquarian history or eccentric hobbies.” As Paul R. Deslandes has argued, married or unmarried, the permanent Oxbridge scholar was perceived by many in this era as a kind of immature relic, “a particular type of weakened or tarnished manhood.” That is not to deny that innumerable undergraduates respected James deeply as a mentor and as a man, but the course of his career did seem to run with a notably unmomentous flatness from undergraduate to fellow, from provost to vice-chancellor—all the while “without a jolt” up until the great exception of the war and his apparent retrogression, thereafter, to Eton. The many statements we read from contemporaries concerning James’s “childishness” may be at least partly understood through this lens. Even James’s most recent editor characterizes him as “a curiously incomplete man.”
The related question of James’s sexuality has occasioned much speculation, especially in regard to his feelings for James McBryde (b. 1874), the friend whose illustrations for the first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary became its pretext for publication. James had agreed to publish the collection on the condition that the younger man illustrate it, but before the artwork was completed, McBryde underwent an emergency appendectomy, dying the day after. James writes in the book’s preface, “Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work; others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred.” In this commemorative context, the circumscription of James’s affection for McBryde within a sphere of mutual friendship feels appropriate, but private correspondence hints at a deeper intimacy: “I think you know how much I value you, my dear thing,” James writes to McBryde in a rare surviving letter, “and that anything that affects you is of very great interest to me.” James was the young man’s close friend and beloved mentor, a role that (in the pedagogical tradition with which James identified) could at times involve a sense of intimacy verging on the erotic. There is no concrete evidence, however, that this relationship—or any that James ever shared with another man—had a sexual dimension. On the other hand, it should be said, we can have no definitive evidence to the contrary. Even Jones’s cautious remark, “Whatever sexuality [James] did have was very probably unrecognized and certainly never articulated,” seems to exceed what we can safely affirm. There are many unanswerable questions here that lie largely outside the scope of this book.
What can be stated with more confidence is that several members of James’s first audience, the inner circle that gathered to listen to his tales, were quietly open with each other on this subject. The extensive diaries of A. C. Benson (1862–1925) make this clear. For instance, two of the younger men in the group, Percy Lubbock (b. 1879) and Oliffe Legh Richmond (b. 1881), seem to have had obvious sexual interest in men, including each other; Benson witnessed Lubbock receiving a “long and loverlike kiss” from Howard Sturgis (who shared a house in Windsor with A. C. Ainger, another ghost-session regular), while Richmond “sat regarding Howard with looks of love.” These men were all intimate friends and students of James’s and members of his original enthusiastic audience. In fact, it is a passage from Richmond’s own unpublished reminiscences that serves as our most important source for what James’s ghost-story sessions were like (cited below). Toward the end of this document, Richmond reflects on James’s withdrawal to Eton: “As Provost of Eton he swam into peaceful waters. . . . He sat, studying what he willed, in a room surrounded by the admirable portraits, by the best artists, of the boys of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, whose leaving gifts they were. Were they all as handsome as that at eighteen years of age? They throw some light on Shakespeare’s seeming-passionate admiration for a youth of that age in the century before.” This “seeming-passionate admiration” is, of course, not directly attributed to James, and at most the passage probably reflects only speculation on what a former mentor might find pleasing (at one point during the war years, Benson records Richmond and another man deliberating over “the mysterious love-life of Monty James”). Nevertheless, the point remains that same-sex desire was a personal question for a number of the bachelors who regularly gathered in James’s rooms to hear him read (and afterward to play “animal grab,” a game of groping at which Monty was famously adept: one listener recalls lying “writhing on the floor with Monty James’s long fingers grasping at his vitals”). Though committed to celibacy, Benson in his diaries frequently confesses romantic interest in the youthful members of his acquaintance (“God knows how tremulously I try to interest these young Apollos,” he writes in reference to Richmond and Stephen Gaselee, a young scholar who would one day pen James’s obituary in the Proceedings of the British Academy). In another passage, Benson writes of being in love as an adolescent with an older boy: “I adored him at a distance. . . . But I never spoke to him till the blissful day when I had gone to Henley, and tired of heat and noise, made my way to the station to return. He got into the same carriage and told me ghost stories.”
The sense that supernatural tales might provide an almost erotic thrill is certainly evident in James’s own fiction. The suggestive bed-clothed specter and beckoning title of “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is only the most obvious example (on the December night in 1903 when this tale was first performed, two other ghost stories were also read to the group, one by Benson and one by Percy Lubbock. Yet another sexual confidant of Benson’s, Hugh Walpole, would purchase the manuscript of “Oh, Whistle” when it went on sale at Sotheby’s in 1936). Other instances are easy to adduce. “The Residence at Whitminster” opens with an “abominable” act between two boys witnessed by an outraged guardian, and whatever necromantic secret the youths share includes an element of sinister tenderness felt in the guilty moment: “he very gently laid his hand on Frank’s head.” Black magic in James is often associated with such temptations. The pagan dabblings of two men in “An Evening’s Entertainment” are made all the more illicit by their cohabitation off the beaten path:
And one day he came back from market, and brought a young man with him; and this young man and he lived together for some long time, and went about together, and whether he just did the work of the house for Mr. Davis, or whether Mr. Davis was his teacher in some way, nobody seemed to know. . . . Well, now, what did those two men do with themselves? Of course I can’t tell you half the foolish things that the people got into their heads, and we know, don’t we, that you mustn’t speak evil when you aren’t sure it’s true, even when people are dead and gone. But as I said, those two were always about together, late and early, up on the downland and below in the woods; and there was one walk in particular that they’d take regularly once a month, to the place where you’ve seen that old figure cut out in the hillside.
The landmark the two men frequent is probably the Cerne Abbas Giant, a possibly ancient and certainly eye-catchingly priapic figure sprawled on a chalky slope in Dorset. More unmistakable still, once we investigate his sources, is the way James interweaves the horrors of “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” with the personal history of the antiquary John Poynter, a man who was expelled from Oxford in 1732 for “sodomitical practises.”
As I detail in chapter 4, James’s knowledge of Poynter can be traced to the writings of Thomas Hearne, an eighteenth-century medievalist of “black-letter” notoriety, whose scholarly efforts were a forerunner of James’s own. James’s fascination with such antiquarian precursors is probably partly to be explained by his own rather liminal position within shifting academic institutions, identities, and fields. In this regard the term “antiquary”—which James of course uses to describe himself in his first two volumes of fiction—takes on particular interest, for by 1904 the word had a very distinct history and complex relationship to professional medieval studies as it was developing. As Philippa Levine and others have detailed, the study of the material and textual past was an enormously popular avocation in Victorian England; societies and printing clubs flourished, while amateur scholars shared manuscripts and compared field notes through robust networks of antiquarian learning. Although typically genteel and university-educated, the traditional antiquary had little formal training for his hobby, and no consistent methodology guided his researches. In fact, many contemporaries understood that what primarily distinguished this species of scholar was his refusal to specialize, often taken as a point of pride: “The true antiquary,” Charles Roach Smith wrote in 1844, “does not confine his researches to one single branch . . . but in a comprehensive view surveys every fact.” Yet it was frequently charged that such scholarship failed to synthesize these broadly personal interests into a unified, detached vision of the past. With an insatiable enthusiasm for all things old, the antiquary was rather known for scattered eclecticism. Roaming researchers could draw on the evidence of ancient artifacts as freely as they could textual records; their interests might encompass prehistoric, classical, and medieval art, history, literature, and languages, as well as architecture and other, less monumental, material remains of the past. Often, in fact, the scholar’s “field” was defined not by subject matter, time period, or methodology so much as by the quite literal local fields and archives to which he had access; the antiquary is thus a figure associated with a kind of scrapbooking provincialism, local fragments and unbalanced enthusiasms pasted in and over everything else.
With the popularity of such pursuits came also an entrenched tradition of satire and scorn directed at perceived antiquarian excess, enervation, and eccentricity, a long-standing and widespread sense that the antiquary’s undiscriminating scholarly appetites were misguided, his energies misapplied, his trivial objects of study unworthy of such devotion. The Dryasdust, it was thought, lavished attention on rare but worthless texts, prized trivial artifacts, eagerly consumed and regurgitated the detritus of history’s dustbin. At best, this very curious kind of person was considered the handmaiden to the more masculine work of historical synthesis. At worst, he was deemed to be suffering from a kind of temporal disease, a theme that merges with the antiquary’s common association with deviant or underdeveloped sexualities. The received narrative of James’s “life without a jolt”—the antiquarian vita constructed by his many fans and critics, as well as by James himself—could easily be seen to echo these themes. The narrative is only partly redeemed, perhaps, by the prestigious if “anachronistic” academic institutions that lent James’s life a sense of place and purpose. In a 1901 diary entry, A. C. Benson expressed his frustrations: “The whole place [King’s College] seems to me deplorably empty of men of weight, purpose and vigour . . . M. R. J[ames] absorbed in antiquarian things, sociable, amusing—it all seems to me rather feeble.”
In his fiction, James himself seems acutely aware of such dangers for antiquarian hobbyists. One of his haunted men is even named “Mr Dillet,” a dilettante collector of dollhouses who witnesses within a miniature “Strawberry Hill Gothic” mansion the scaled-down revival of a grisly crime. (One reductive reading would be that amateurs play with dolls at their own risk.) “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” in fact, was actually transcribed by James into a tiny tome to sit on the library shelves of Queen Mary’s Dolls’ House, a royal display piece viewed by more than a million visitors to the British Empire Exhibition of 1924–25. This story is in some respects a slighter “replica” of James’s better-known tale “The Mezzotint,” in which a museum curator observes a manor house by way of a haunted mezzotint (that is, a kind of print made by scraping and polishing copperplate). Across the moonlit lawn, in terrifying stages, we witness a cadaverous and vengeful spirit carry off a cruel aristocrat’s only heir, the “spes ultima gentis.” A notable thing about this earlier version, though, is the way it resists the obvious plot twist of identifying the curator as a long-lost representative of the demon-shadowed line. Instead, the engraved specter stays put within the mezzotint, and the professional antiquary remains a sterile bystander.
As these and many other examples attest, James was keenly interested in his profession’s uneasy relationship to other scholarly, occupational, and hobbyist modes of engaging with the past. In many ways, indeed, the dilettantish “antiquary” might seem a ready-made figure against which the university specialist might define his work. The relationship, though, could be more complicated than simple opposition. As a new generation of academics worked to define their fields, it was not antiquarianism alone they sought to repudiate but any and all “unscientific” approaches to the past. Quite in contrast to dry antiquarianism, popular, journalistic, or belletristic writings would arrive at loose, premature conclusions, indulging in seductive storytelling calculated to appeal to a commercial and nonspecialist audience. A sharp rhetorical contrast was increasingly drawn between such writings and specialist history as “a science, no less and no more,” in the words of J. B. Bury, speaking at Cambridge in 1903. The exquisitely patient examination of primary sources was the professional’s proper task, and many felt that restrained preliminary work was all the more urgent for a field still finding its footing. Yet for those opposed to the ascendancy of this highly dry style of scholarship, it too was haunted by the specter of academic errancy, “threaten[ing] to degenerate from a broad survey of great periods and movements of human societies into vast and countless accumulations of insignificant facts, sterile knowledge, and frivolous antiquarianism.” Was professional rigor nothing more than a recrudescence of the antiquarian impulse?
Such observations may begin to help clarify the shadowy valence of what it would mean for James, in 1904, to publish a book of fiction under the title Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. James’s unimpeachable institutional standing as a member of the Cambridge establishment no doubt made it easier to adopt a pose that was at once self-effacing and yet associated with privileged aristocratic leisure. The inherent self-deprecation also provided cover for the eccentricity of a professional medievalist publishing “a book of very gruesome grues,” in the words of Oxford undergraduate Dorothy Sayers, writing to her parents in 1913. And of course James did not just write weird fiction; he published tales that drew explicitly and intricately on the very subject matter of his academic expertise. A contemporary advertisement for the stories registered the curiosity of such an enterprise, and associated it with James’s reputation for scattershot scholarly pursuits: “Those who know the extensive and miscellaneous character of Dr. James’s researches in various fields of learning will not be surprised to find him appearing as the author of a volume of ‘Ghost Stories.’” It is perhaps safe to say, at the least, that “antiquarian” in 1904 was a potentially anxious, if somewhat accurate, description of James’s wide-ranging research interests and an apt description of amateur fictions that both plunder scholarly materials and invoke as their central theme this increasingly anachronistic identity.
For such an antiquary, moreover, King’s College offered a rare patch of vanishing habitat. Cambridge in the prime of James’s career was undergoing a rather shiftless, shambling process of reform (a “transitional phase when new roles and old expectations often failed to mesh,” in the words of Christopher Stray). Reorganization to bring England’s medieval institutions more in line with other contemporary universities faced resistance from many—including James—and took several decades, and more than one royal commission, to unfold. The intricate story has been well told elsewhere, but the general trend was—haltingly—toward the development of a more centralized and formal organization of teaching and governance, with more emphasis on specialized training in an expanded range of distinct fields, and, generally, the promotion of a more ambitious national, educational, and research mission for a university that had formerly functioned as a quasi-monastic way station for future clergy and idle gentlemen. Kingsmen a generation before James had sauntered to their degrees without examination. James, however, was one of the first to undergo a Tripos exam expanded to included specialized subjects; he studied archaeology under Waldstein and William Ridgeway, both specifically hired as readers in these fields, a new rank within an increasingly stratified academic hierarchy. At the green age of thirty-one, James would successfully supplicate for a doctorate in letters, a degree that (at the time) was viewed more as an honorific for lifetime achievement than as a basic qualification for academic posts. He never did, though, join the slowly developing professoriate, which had previously enjoyed slender influence in the university. Nor did he do much formal teaching in the course of his career; “his College once appointed him Lecturer in Paleography,” J. H. Clapham writes, “—but to carry on his Fellowship, not to make him lecture.” The many college and academic positions James occupied—fellow, director, dean, tutor, provost—tended to be administrative and ceremonial, his relationships with students fostered through informal guidance and mentoring rather than by way of systematic training and instruction.
In these various roles, James often stood in opposition to reform efforts, including those that would have opened Cambridge and its degrees to women (his opposition is discussed in chapter 4). In other matters, too, he dragged his feet. It was only following the crisis of the Great War that a sluggish process of professionalization accelerated at Cambridge, and James himself was a reluctant member of the Asquith Commission (1919–22), which reconstituted Cambridge government, reorganized the faculty system, and adopted measures to open the university system to a greater social range of students. By this time, however, James had left his residence at King’s, a move that probably had as much to do with wartime upheaval as with the changing face of Cambridge. The provostship at Eton offered a quieter life. After all, he had acceded to the vice-chancellorship of Cambridge in 1913, so that his years in that office were characterized by unprecedented crisis. Aside from administrative duties, James’s long-standing role as undergraduate mentor was rendered immeasurably more difficult and painful, and it was often his somber responsibility to comfort the living with wartime sermons and words of commemoration. “No-one of his time,” Anthony C. Deane recalls, “could match his felicity in composing a ceremonial address or an inscription for a memorial.” Following the war, in fact, James became a principal organizer, author, and designer of war memorials at Eton. His rank and eloquence led him to these roles, but his status as an eminent medievalist may have—in the minds of many—made him a man particularly well suited to the work. An authority on the past is thought to be positioned to contextualize such events, to incorporate them within larger frameworks of historical meaning, though James of course was not a historian in the common sense of the word. As I discuss particularly in chapter 5, these wartime experiences complicate the meaning of his antiquarianism as it finds expression in his later fiction. In fact, as he writes in his 1926 memoir, James himself would come to characterize the ghost story as an old-fashioned, and specifically prewar, genre:
And then, perhaps, a game of cards: then possibly an adjournment of a few of the company, and a ghost story composed at fever heat, but not always able to ward off sleep from some listener’s eye (this rankles a little still): and so to bed with what appetites we might.
All very pedestrian and Anglican and Victorian and everything else that it ought not to be: but I should like well enough to have it over again.
Indeed, framing each one of James’s stories, whether or not it was actually performed at prewar King’s, is the shadow of the Antiquary himself. James dedicated his first volume of stories to “all those who at various times have listened to them,” and the image of the formidable Oxbridge don casting narrative spells over an awed gathering has informed the way these tales have been received ever since publication: “The discomfort of a nightmare was well worth the pleasure of knowing that a ghost story could still produce one,” writes one reader in a letter to James, “but I doubt whether there are any ghost stories beyond those of an Antiquary which could still do so.” The antiquarian aura remains even for those who have never watched Christopher Lee channel James on the BBC, or attended one of Robert Lloyd Parry’s performances impersonating an affable and engaging antiquary in his darkened study. The shadow of Monty the erudite entertainer has served as a hospitable paratext for many a reader, and it is not altogether an inaccurate one. By all accounts, James himself was a gifted performer, having acted in many amateur productions as a Cambridge undergraduate (including a starring role in an Attic Greek-language production of Aristophanes’s The Birds), and the comic provincial voices of his fiction would likely have been enlivened by his knack for impersonation. No doubt, too, his talent for the spoken word would electrify in performance the “nicely managed crescendo” he so valued in ghostly tales; S. G. Lubbock notes that his delivery was “entirely untheatrical and immensely effective.” Richmond’s account of these evenings gives a sense of James’s talent for understated execution: “Monty disappeared into his bedroom. We sat and waited in the candlelight. Perhaps someone played a few bars on 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, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light. It was the ghost story of the year, begun that morning.” Later paraphrases paint his audience as nervous, awestruck, and hesitant, awaiting James, who finally arrives to read, “his clear, confident voice cutting through the dim, flickering light of candle and fire.”
No doubt some such atmosphere was playfully cultivated, but the retrospective amplification of his charismatic presence may tend to obscure the collegial and familiar nature of these gatherings. The core of James’s first audiences consisted of some of his closest friends, men who offered a comfortable sounding board for new work. The earliest reading, after all, took place at a meeting of the Chitchat Society, where compositions were read and afterward discussed and critiqued among close associates with “engaging frankness.” By 1893, James was a senior member of the club and only two years away from receiving his doctorate. But even as a schoolboy at Temple Grove he had already begun dabbling in the genre, and by Eton days we find him plying friends with such entertainments: “I must depart for awhile as I am engaged for a ‘dark séance’ i.e. a telling of ghost stories in which capacity I am rather popular just now. Some one will soon come to fetch me.” The transition from such schoolboy activities was apparently seamless. In fact, the tradition as it developed at King’s was very much an Etonian affair, so that nearly all the “regular ingredients” (as James once put it) were former students or current masters of the elite school. Few of James’s guests, though, were his age. His listeners tended to be either former masters of his own (H. E. Luxmoore [b. 1841], A. C. Ainger [b. 1841], Walter Durnford [b. 1847]) or younger graduates of Eton he had befriended and mentored at Cambridge (Owen H. Smith [b. 1869], A. B. Ramsay [b. 1872], S. G. Lubbock [b. 1873], Percy Lubbock [b. 1879], Oliffe Richmond [b. 1881]). This generational dynamic may have suited the role James was to play on these evenings as the boyish-donnish focus of a “charmed and charming circle,” his performances punctuated by rough horseplay within the stately rooms of the Gibbs Building: “chaff & extravagant fancy & mimicry & camaraderie & groups that gather and dissolve in this room and then that like the midges that dance their rings in the sunshine,” in the breathless words of his indulgent and admiring tutor.
Traces of these occasions remain in the stories, perhaps in ways that go beyond tone and the occasional allusion to an inattentive attendee. In this regard, it is important to remember that the men who gathered in James’s rooms were in the festive habit of entertaining one another with other kinds of creative productions for the holidays as well. For Christmas 1895 and 1896, respectively, James wrote the plays The Dismal Tragedy of Henry Blew Beard, Esq. and Alex Barber, the latter a parody of the tale of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” which he performed with a cast of the same men who were to become the audience for his ghost-story sessions. Within a year or two of these performances, the ghost tradition seems to have edged out other creative efforts, but the association of the holidays with such parodies and spoofs may offer insight into the methods of invention that James employed in many of his supernatural tales. For example, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (the only story actually set at Christmastime) is centered around a nightmarish transformation of the popular Punch and Judy play, the comic slapstick replaced by the sickening crack of actual skulls being crushed. Although the Punch tradition dates back to the sixteenth century, this story might be considered less “antiquarian” than those repurposing aspects of James’s scholarly culture. Still, as the readings of this book suggest, James often took such a “parodic” approach to horror, and many of his transformations were reworkings of medieval texts, subjects, and genres—all grist for his mill of antiquarian terror.
It is common, especially among readers in awe of the institutions he represented, to imagine that James’s learned associates might have followed along easily to such patterns, meeting each winking reference with knowing nods. A high level of Latinity might be taken for granted, yes, but much of the appropriateness of James’s many allusions—and their potent resonance—was likely lost on his first listeners. James was a tastemaker among his friends and inspired a good many of them to write supernatural stories of their own, often with a derivative and superficially “antiquarian” air. These men were not professed medievalists, however, though a few did have an amateur interest. F. E. Hutchinson (a literary scholar) was to publish a book on medieval glass in 1949. Ramsay, who probably witnessed more of James’s readings than anyone else, had many casual antiquarian interests and once read to the Chitchat Society a paper on English mystery plays, an important inspiration—as we shall see in chapter 3—behind James’s story “An Episode of Cathedral History.” But for the most part these listeners would have looked to their host as the genial expert on such matters. Among fans of his fiction to this day, in fact, James’s uncanny knowledge of specialist subjects is a source of the stories’ power and pleasure. The author was indeed, as Peter Ackroyd puts it, a “miniaturist in horror,” and tracing the coherence and significance of James’s antiquarian style is one of the chief aims of this book. But the highly reticent patterns we find in his tales are probably better explained in terms of James’s own inner sense of suitability, rather than as in-jokes among knowing peers. Authenticity would matter for one performing a version of his professional self, even (or especially) among colleagues in other fields. The very eccentricity of this medievalizing diversion may have entailed a certain self-applied pressure to get the details right, or at least to establish patterns that come very close, if not all the way, to adding up.
This near coherence, in fact, comes rather close to James’s own aesthetic, as he once wrote: “The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who, when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery. We do not want to see the bones of their theory about the supernatural.” Most famously, James declared his allegiance to the principle of “reticence” in ghost stories, which “may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories.” It is not only paranormal matters, however, that are darkly patterned within his stories. As this book endeavors to show, James’s medievalizing goes well beyond “antiquarian window-dressing,” and its significance can transcend what James chose to acknowledge: “As for the fragments of ostensible erudition which are scattered about my pages, hardly anything in them is not pure invention.” As I hope to show, this statement requires qualification. James’s inventiveness with his materials is affectively brilliant, but other implications are also worth considering.
There is evidence, for example, that James’s ghosts are often “medieval” in the sense of conforming to narrative patterns and conceptions of the supernatural dating back to the Middle Ages. As Jacqueline Simpson has richly demonstrated, James often draws on traditional materials to, as he once put it, “make my ghosts act in ways not inconsistent with the rules of folklore.” “The Rose Garden,” for instance, is centered around a stake haunted by ominous whisperings: “Pull, pull. I’ll push, you pull” (uttered by some foul thing eager to be freed). These distinctive details are widespread in Danish folklore, a subject familiar to James through sources such as the compilations of Evald Tang Kristensen (1843–1929), who documents many variations of the story of the “ghost-post,” in which a spirit is pinned in place to prevent it from walking: Ryk, så skal jeg trykk (Pull, and I’ll push), a voice invites those who stumble upon the not-to-be-removed stake. Other tales rooted in traditional motifs include “A Neighbor’s Landmark,” wherein we encounter a spirit who knows not “why it walks or why it cries.” The reader, if not the walker, is to learn the reason. The ghost is being punished for the fraudulent appropriation of prime pastureland, and Simpson has convincingly shown that James probably modeled his shrieking wanderer on the “boundary ghosts” of Danish folklore, who traditionally suffer for similar transgressions. We reach the highest pitch of horror as the narrator crosses through Betton Wood: “And just then into my left ear—close as if lips had been put within an inch of my head, the frightful scream came thrilling again.” James himself notes, in an academic article on the fourteenth-century supernatural tales of Byland Abbey, “there are many tales, Danish and other, of persons who answer the shrieking ghost with impertinent words, and the next moment they hear it close to their ear.” (Perhaps in James’s tale, the scholar’s curiosity stands in place of such impertinence?) At any rate, permeable boundaries separate James’s academic publications from his own tales. The article on the Byland hauntings, “Twelve Medieval Ghost-Stories” (published in the English Historical Review), was mistaken by the author of James’s Times obituary for a collection of original fiction.
In fact, James’s article approaches the Byland Abbey stories partly in an academic spirit, partly as one who simply enjoys a good ghost story. “I did not find them disappointing,” he remarks while documenting their codicological context in Royal MS 15. A. xx of the British Museum. Does James’s reputation as a ghost enthusiast precede him, even in this venue? Many of the qualities he stresses here—the tales’ “local colour,” their “picturesque touch[es]” and humorous details—line up with the hallmarks of his own storytelling. Perhaps most striking, though, is the way in which these Byland haunts exemplify the peculiar corporeity of many medieval ghosts, their status as at once both walking corpse and immaterial spiritus, the contradictory product—some have argued—of Augustinian theology draped lightly over underlying Germanic traditions of the draugr, walking cadavers, and other uprisings of the undead. The briefest of the Byland Abbey ghost stories memorably embodies this mixed quality. A woman is witnessed grappling with a ghost: “vidit manus mulieris demergentes in carne spiritus profunde, quasi caro eiusdem spiritus esset putrida et non solida sed fantastica” (he saw the woman’s hands plunging deeply into the ghost’s flesh, as if its flesh were rotten, and not solid but illusory [fantastica]). Similar rotting spirits also populate several of the “courtiers’ trifles” of Walter Map (ca. 1130–ca. 1208), a text James edited and translated. It is tempting to suspect that, in general, James’s lasting influence on the genre may have played a role in resurrecting a rather medieval style of ghost for modern readers. As I have noted above, James’s ghosts certainly share this emphasis on physical yet illusory flesh: “In that moment the door opened, and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long gray hair upon it.” This extremity, from James’s “Number 13,” is the more tangible extension of a ghost we see elsewhere only as a shadow projected on a wall, viewed from across the street by the reddish light of a room adjacent to that of our unfortunate antiquary. It remains a shadowy idea of a demonic spirit for most of the story—dimly recalling Plato’s allegory of the cave—until reaching forth to claw at us a bit in the climax.
It would be possible to multiply such examples, but the present study is not particularly focused on the question of how James’s hauntings may conform to medieval patterns of apparitions, demonology, or black magic. In fact, many of James’s most interesting “medievalisms”—the term can also refer to a particular instance of a modern author imaginatively appropriating or repurposing an element of medieval culture—are much more unexpected. As I have suggested, James often engages with and remakes medieval texts, modes, and genres not commonly or primarily associated with supernatural fear: manuscript textuality; biblical drama, liturgy, and church architecture; pastoral, enigmatic, and heroic poetry, to name just a few. Moreover, many of the most striking medievalisms in James’s tales seem to have been borrowed from fields only obliquely related or adjacent to the main lines of his professional research. To take one example, examined in more detail in later chapters, the well-known Old English poems Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood are important sources of inspiration for two of his more well known stories. James was not a published authority on Anglo-Saxon poetry, though his chapter on Latin writings in the first volume of the Cambridge History of English Literature (1907) appears immediately following three sections on contemporaneous vernacular texts by medievalist colleagues, including substantial explications of both of these poems and a long discussion of medieval runes, another source of creative medievalizing for James. There can be no question, needless to say, that James was deeply knowledgeable in a wide range of such related areas. Yet while there are notable exceptions, discussed in the following chapters, in general one might observe that James tends to keep the central subjects of his scholarly publications separate from the materials reworked into ghost stories, an inclination that might be interpreted as drawing a line between frivolous fictions and serious research. And yet the two professions are inextricably linked, as the chapters of this book seek to show.
The first of these chapters is focused on scholarly errors, highly meaningful mistakes that mark not only the climactic moment of terror in two of James’s earliest and most celebrated stories, but also their thematic preoccupation with scholarly errancy, disciplinarity, and specialization. Emending an erratum at the center of James’s most famous haunted object—the whistle of the Templar preceptory—allows us to perceive how scholarly and companionate commitments are intertwined for James. The keeping of one is linked to the other, while fears of sexual wandering are associated with going astray academically. Misgivings of amateurism yield to darker pleasures of professionalism in the second chapter, however, where we find James recasting runological and pastoral traditions to great effect. The resonant medievalisms of the stories studied here tend to expose, by contrast, a freshly constricted academic culture, its emergent institutions of anonymous review and professional restraint. Something of a sanctuary from these anxieties, however, is arguably offered by James’s “cathedraly” tales, the focus of chapter 3. Here, haunted Gothic structures shelter not only shadows of barren revival but an expansive sense of how present energies—creative and scholarly, local and unattached, sacred and secular—might engage with a multivalent past. From these cathedral episodes, I turn in chapter 4 to other kinds of time, and in particular to a consideration of how James’s own signature scholarly contribution, his extensive cataloguing of medieval manuscripts, is figured in his fiction. What we might characterize as an “antiquarian temporality” tends to be the implicit menace of these stories, their central source of dread, but it is also entangled with other timelines—of both professional advance and institutional retreat. A fraying of these ties might be expected wherever medieval institutions fail, however, and that is also perhaps part of what we find in James’s late tale, “A Warning to the Curious.” An investigation into this story—and its relationship to James’s roles memorializing and medievalizing loss in the Great War—concludes my study.
As this short summary suggests, I have attempted to structure this book both thematically and chronologically, so that we begin with some of James’s earliest tales, laying a thematic foundation on which subsequent chapters build, concluding with James’s postwar masterpiece. No attempt, however, has been made to give equal weight to every story, and for obvious reasons I focus most attention on those tales that I perceive as having particular ties to James’s professional interest in medieval studies. As it so happens, this includes many of James’s most celebrated works, but my focus on his medievalisms is determined by, as much as anything else, my own academic interests and background. Needless to say, I must leave many dimensions of James’s fiction to the explorations of future researchers, but I do hope that this book is able to advance and enrich an ongoing conversation. To paraphrase James’s preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, the present study does not make any very exalted claim. If I succeed in drawing the attention of readers and critics to certain understudied aspects of his fiction—and in encouraging other medievalists and students of medievalism to investigate these tales—my purpose in writing will have been attained.
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