When the leaves change color and the wind cools, we find ourselves imagining what could be lurking in the shadows, what could be waiting in closets and under beds and inside dank, dark spaces. It’s a time that, whether through tradition or the influence of pop culture, begins to conjure images of ghosts.
And, if you’re going to talk about ghosts, you should talk about M.R. James.
Montague Rhodes James was a British antiquarian and medieval scholar who taught at Eton and King’s College. While still respected among academics for his scholarly work, it’s his ghost stories that horror fans should be interested in. While James has remained popular in the UK since his first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was published in 1904, somehow his name is unknown among most horror fans in the States.
His unique fiction was a major inspiration for horror icons like HP Lovecraft, Stephen King, and Ramsey Campbell, and was of a style that could only be labeled “weird.” His ghost stories were products of the age in which he lived; an age that rushed toward the future yet struggled to gaze into the past. As such, most of his protagonists were scholars who had gone in search of research materials or had discovered an ancient relic, any of which could bring about an unwanted visitation.
The ghosts he created are not floating around in plain sight, rattling chains and moaning for peace. James envisioned the dead as horrid, incomprehensible beings that could barely be processed by the human mind, let alone described. They come in all sorts of twisted, diseased shapes, their forms driving their witnesses to the edge of madness.
And that’s the ones that can be seen. James made brilliant use of the senses in his stories, his hauntings sometimes manifesting as rustling fabric and scratching across floorboards. If a character was unlucky enough to actually touch one of these things… well, those passages are better read in James than here.
One of my favorite weird ghost stories is “The Haunted Doll’s House.” In it, an antique dealer purchases an old doll house that comes to life every night and reenacts a series of horrific events that seem to have happened in the house it was modeled on. The following passage is but one of the eerie and unsettling things the antique dealer witnesses:
The door was opening again. The seer does not like to dwell upon what he saw entering the room: he says it might be described as a frog – the size of a man – but it had scanty white hair about its head. It was busy about the truckle-beds, but not for long. The sound of cries – faint, as if coming out of a vast distance – but, even so, infinitely appalling, reached the ear.
James’s stories were filled with mystery and he never felt the need to provide all the answers. The facts of the other side are unknown and all the more frightening for it. Take, for instance, the story “The Mezzotint.” In it, a man comes into the possession of a picture of his home, a picture that changes slowly over time. While that basic idea has been recycled a hundred times since James, it has never been as frightening as the original, partly because of the mystery.
The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable – rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.
What this thing is, or why it’s crawling on all fours or has a cross on its back, is never explained. Its explanation is not the point and not knowing what it is takes nothing away from the story. Instead, it adds to the dread and lingers in the back of your mind, waiting for nightfall so that it can creep out into your dreams.
Then there are the horrifying things that reside in “The Ash Tree:”
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another – four – and after that there is quiet again.
And let’s not forget the face of the blind abomination in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad:”
Parkins, who very much dislikes being questioned about it, did once describe something of it in my hearing, and I gathered that what he chiefly remembers about it is a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumbled linen. What expression he read upon it he could not or would not tell, but that the fear of it went nigh to maddening him is certain.
Here’s a clip from the 1968 BBC adaptation:
That clip probably comes the closest of any film to capturing the strange and horrifying otherworldliness of James’s dead. It’s easy to see how he was one of H.P. Lovecraft’s primary influences as Lovecraft’s horrors adopted the sheer maddening quality that James had infused into his ghosts.
Originally written to be read aloud on Christmas Eve (a traditional night for telling ghost stories), James’s short fiction has a conversational tone and an attention to detail that makes the reader feel the story really occurred, that the character relating the events was real. It’s this feeling, along with the nightmarish and incomprehensible quality inherent to the dead, that leaves his fiction as frightening today as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.
James was the unparalleled master of the ghost story and, though many writers have tried, none have surpassed him.
Brad C. Hodson is an author and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. For more of his work, please visit brad-hodson.com, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.