Nowhere are Joshi’s faults more manifest than in his interpretation of the work of M.R. James. His failure to fully appreciate James’s achievement has been extensively rebutted in the collection of essays, Warnings to the Curious (which Joshi himself graciously edited), but despite the instructive title of that volume, none deal with what I perceive as a dominant theme in James’s stories, one that is problematic for Joshi’s analysis on two fronts.
Joshi’s criteria for what makes successful weird fiction proceeds from the contention that “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions… All the authors… evolved distinctive world views, and it was those world views that led them to write the sort of literature they did…each writer’s entire output is a philosophical unity.” I think this assertion at least is uncontroversial. The force of the work of masters such as Blackwood, Machen, Aickman, Lovecraft and Ligotti undoubtedly derives from the fact that their fiction is not merely an exercise in form or a collection of signifiers, but the expression of irreducible philosophical convictions. It is essentially propaganda, a vehicle by which to communicate their own unique metaphysical systems.
However, Joshi pointedly excludes M.R. James from this select group on the grounds that “It is simply not possible to derive a general philosophy out of James’s stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view. The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposely avoids drawing broader implications.” Nor is Joshi alone in this assessment. In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan writes “James’s fiction is self-enclosed in that it rarely refers to any system of ideas or values outside the confines of the plot… If there is any theological ‘premise’ in James, it is never developed and it is certainly not clear”; whilst Julia Briggs, in her unsurpassed study Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, opines “James maintained an attitude of critical detachment which seems to have been the exception rather than the rule… It is as if the implications of what he wrote never disturbed him, and he enjoyed writing them purely as a literary exercise”.
However, in these judgements I believe that Joshi and the others are mistaken, for whilst James might be less didactic than some of the other names mentioned here, even a cursory study of his canon reveals a distinct philosophy which profoundly influences the thrust of his narratives. Of course, my argument is not helped by James himself, whose own rare pronouncements on the significance of his ghost stories are distinctly deflationary. In the preface to Ghosts and Marvels, he writes “Often I have been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories… Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated”, a stance later reiterated in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories where he remarks, “Questioners ask if I have any theories as to the writing of ghost stories. None that are worthy of the name or need be repeated here”.
Yet given James’s acclaimed restraint in his fiction, it is hardly surprising that he should exhibit similar reticence in his public statements. Such coyness suggests an admirable desire to conceal the mechanics of his creative process from his audience lest the impact be diminished (if only more artists were familiar with such discretion today). Moreover, it is not the case that James even needed to be consciously aware of the philosophical underpinnings of his work. It is impossible to imagine that the world view of an artist will not always reveal itself in their output. Having said this, I do believe that James was fully cognisant of the attitudes which informed his tales and his refusal to engage with any questions regarding their foundation primarily represents an ongoing effort to avoid didacticism and allow the stories to speak for themselves.
It is therefore my contention that James’s fiction, much like that of Machen and Blackwood, embodies an assault against materialist and positivist philosophies and especially their insidious creep into the realm of academic scholarship. In this regard the title of his story “A Warning to the Curious” might be regarded as an epigram for his entire corpus. This is not to say that James was opposed to the spirit of academic inquiry – quite the opposite, he was after all a devoted antiquarian himself – but that such study must maintain a healthy respect for the sanctity of its objects. He seeks to portray the sort of doctrinaire scepticism characteristic of positivism as an irrational impulse, which in ignoring any fact that does not agree with its aggressively reductive outlook is in serious danger of ignoring, maybe even destroying, the things that make a symbol significant in the first place.
Time and time again in James’s stories we see intellectually arrogant protagonists, over-confident in their own superior rationality, blunder into an act of desecration which brings dire consequences down upon them. This is often despite receiving warnings as to the potential consequences of their actions which they proceed to blithely ignore. Professor Parkins in Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad is the archetypal character in this respect, declaring “I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position… cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects… I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all the I hold most sacred.” This is not scientific scepticism, the suspension of judgement awaiting further evidence, exemplified by James’s own attitude towards the possibility of the supernatural (“I am prepared to consider the evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”). Rather, Parkins exhibits that rigid certainty in the tenets of materialism which is ultimately as much a matter of faith as any theological conviction.
The motif of protagonists punished for their intellectual vanity recurs in several of James’s most characteristic stories including Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester and of course, A Warning to the Curious. As Simon MacCulloch recognises in his essay The Toad In the Study, “James’s protagonists tend to be cultivated, intelligent representatives of an ordered, fatally limited world view, a brittle civilisation based on rationalism and distinctive human value.” The source of terror in James’s stories comes not only from the implacable malignance of the revenants, but often the impact they have on the belief systems of the characters and it is implied that the irruption of these embodiments of chaos is the inevitable consequence of an inflexible, mechanistic understanding of the universe which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the unknown. It is very telling that S.T. Joshi prefers to believe that “these hints are vague and, in the end, harmlessly jocular”, for reasons we will come to later.
It is clear that James was especially troubled by the implications of unyielding rationalism for concepts of sanctity and faith, the very kernel of which is a healthy appreciation of Mystery. The idea that faith is synonymous with certainty is a fallacy, erected as a straw man by the New Atheists and sustained by debased models of religious thought such as fundamentalism and evangelism. Rather, uncertainty and an apprehension of the unknown are fundamental conditions of faith and the areas it designates as “sacred” or “holy” are symbols of this acceptance of all that is beyond our comprehension and provide us with an ongoing connection to this awareness. To deny the significance of such symbols, or to undermine them by regarding them purely in terms of their material components, is to deny an essential aspect of the human condition. When the blinkered rationalism of James’s protagonists causes them to violate some sacred object or place, it represents a transgression against the human community which invested them with meaning in the first place. As a result they must be chastised by a confrontation with the full weight of the unknown forces which they so glibly refused to acknowledge and which other, wiser men recognised the irreducibility of.
In his essay A Warning to the Curious: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M.R. James’s Ghosts Stories, Brian Cowlishaw argues, “James indicates that digging into the past/unconscious is a mistake… To dig into the past is to transport oneself back in time to a more superstitious, savage state of humanity and to uncover terrible things better left buried. If James’s antiquarians would only let sleeping ruins lie, they would remain safe.” However, I think this is rather disingenuous and would be a strange attitude for James to exhibit. He was after all an antiquarian himself and certainly had no intention of “letting sleeping ruins lie”. His concern was more to show that the past was not merely a dead thing, the remains of which could be trampled over in a rush to loot its secrets. It’s wisdom and remembrances should be treated with appropriate respect or else we will be suddenly and forcefully reacquainted with knowledge the modern world cannot integrate.
You also have to wonder if James might have been taking aim at his own impulses, the ghost stories serving as a necessary counterweight to his own scholarly activities, maybe even an exorcism so to speak. His protagonists invariably echo his own passions as a medievalist, and James was no doubt conscious of the dangers of such pursuits if followed to extremes. As Julia Briggs observes, “Curiosity has its academic and obsessive aspects; perhaps James’s experience of the former gave him some insight into the latter.” Such obsession threatens to turn innocent scholarship into an endeavour to assimilate all knowledge of a subject so thoroughly that the integrity of the object of study itself is forgotten or ignored.
In his quest to document the religious sentiment of the medievals, James must often have found himself, like his characters, disturbing papers, artefacts and sites which were once treated with reverence. It has often been said that it is impossible to reconstruct fully the cosmology of the pre-modern mind and perhaps as he picked through their relics with that critical detachment integral to the academic project, James wondered just to what extent they might have perceived his actions as sacrilege or blasphemy. His stories certainly suggest that he was troubled by the question of whether an antiquarian is really all that much better than a grave-robber. After all, the notion that intellectual enrichment is somehow a nobler motive than financial reward is largely an arbitrary judgement.
From his published writings, it’s hard to imagine that S.T. Joshi would have any such qualms and this is primarily why he cannot perceive any worldview in James’s work. That worldview is so entirely beyond anything Joshi can empathise with that he simply cannot hope to grasp it, and as James does not spell it out like Machen and Blackwood are wont to do means that it eludes him entirely (which is a damning indictment of his skill as a literary critic as much as a philosopher). As can be observed in his critique of Arthur Machen, whilst Joshi may insist that the work of the most successful writers of weird fiction forms “a philosophical unity”, wherever that philosophy diverges substantially for his own, he displays egregious blind spots.
Anybody unsure of the exact composition of Joshi’s own belief system need only read the first lines of his book God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, where he boldly states “Either there is one god, multiple gods or none. Either there is such a thing called the human soul or there isn’t… That the essential doctrines of many of the world’s major religions are matters of truth or falsity is itself a fact around which no amount of sophistry or special pleading can get away from.”
It is clear from this expression of simplistic binary thinking that Joshi is not somebody comfortable with concepts such as ambiguity and uncertainty. To such a mentality, everything in the world can, and indeed must, be broken down into its atomistic components, dissected and catalogued, forced into artificial taxonomies of our own creation until it makes sense to whatever ontology is currently in fashion. The notion that some things should be regarded as sacred and inviolable because they might, just might, embody all that transcends human understanding, must be entirely alien to him.
Nor would it be much use to appeal to Joshi’s respect for the sentiments of the community who originally invested these symbols with meaning, because it is sadly obvious that he has no such respect. His work is shot through with an uncomfortable misanthropy, doubtless informed by his heroes such as H.P. Lovecraft and H.L. Mencken. Just witness a further extract from the introduction to God’s Defenders, in which he asserts “People are stupid. The fundamental fact of human history is that people in the mass are irredeemably ignorant.”
Perhaps if this attitude was confined to his contributions to the self-congratulatory constituency of the New Atheism we could overlook it as a regrettable but trifling self-indulgence. However, when it starts infecting works of criticism that are frequently regarded as definitive – largely because there is little room in the publishing industry for contenders – then it must be exposed as the root of a systematic bias.
In Supernatural Horror In Literature, H.P. Lovecraft states as a self-evident truth that “occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.” However, this is nothing more than dogma on Lovecraft’s part, for there is no evidence to support such a claim. In the classic period of weird fiction, Lovecraft’s materialism was the exception rather than the rule. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Nesbit, Walter de la Mare, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson, May Sinclair, Gustav Meyrink and others were all to some extent believers in what might loosely be termed the supernatural.
If Joshi is correct in saying “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions”, it follows that any constructive critical study of the fiction of such writers must make an effort to engage with those philosophical predispositions, on an imaginative level at least. From the dubious conclusions of his criticism in volumes such as The Weird Tale (with the exception of his chapter on Algernon Blackwood) and the evidence of screeds like God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, I submit that Joshi’s attempts in this direction are negligible.
As his biographer Michael Cox comments, M.R. James “tended to distrust intellectual inquiry that was not rooted in a sensitive respect for tradition and orthodoxy.” This was, of course, partly an expression of James’s instinctive conservatism. However, the evidence of his literary output suggests that it was also the product of a profound awareness of the limitations of human knowledge in the face of higher mysteries, and the sacraments by which past societies assimilated this understanding. The intellectual vanity epitomised by doctrinaire rationalism is accordingly a trespass against both the unknown and the human community. It is an act of hubris which, as every Classicist knows, will surely be followed by nemesis.
This philosophy recurs throughout James’s weird tales and gives lie to S.T. Joshi’s assertion that “they never add up to a world view”. That he fails to recognise James’s philosophical manifesto is scarcely surprising when you consider that the man is a fine example of precisely the attitude James was warning against. You cannot help but think that if Joshi were a character in one of James’s stories he would be Parkins blowing the whistle, Paxton digging up the crown, Wraxall perversely repeating that dread phrase for the third time. And we all know what happened to them.
Anyway, just for fun, here's a run down of my favourite M.R. James stories, in a rough sort of order...
Lauded by H.P. Lovecraft as a "veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion," this is also one of James's bleakest tales in which his favourite trope of the supernatural pursuit is explored to a chilling extent. Whilst the protagonist Mr. Wraxall is guilty of "over-inquisitiveness", the relentless persecution he is subsequently subjected to far outweighs his initial calumny. He becomes the most abject victim in the canon.
2. THE MEZZOTINT
Embodying another favourite Jamesian narrative, in which terrible historical events are re-enacted before a powerless and horrified protagonist, The Mezzotint portrays the supernatural on two levels; firstly in the titular print, whose mysterious and unique animation is without explanation or logic; and secondly in the vile, crawling revenant who plays a starring role in the tragedy that unfolds.
3. OH WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU MY LAD
A masterful subversion of the traditional image of the ghost as an incorporeal, shrouded thing bestowed with even greater effect by its manifestation in that place of refuge, the bedroom, ensuring it's never possible to hide beneath the sheets again. Meanwhile, James is clearly in his antiquarian element and ready with lessons on the consequences of doctrinaire scepticism and overweening curiosity.
4. THE ASH TREE
Witches are a familiar motif in British folklore and whilst James piles on the authentic detail, he imbues his own creation, Mrs. Mothersole, with a quite unique and maleficent quality which is sure to send a shudder of revulsion through the reader. It's also once of his most carefully constructed pieces, elliptical without being too obscure, expertly building towards the "nicely managed climax" which he so valued.
5. A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS
A late but archetypal example of the M.R. James ghost story, in which an amateur archaeologist must pay for his blinkered rationalism, scholarly arrogance and personal greed when he disturbs ancient relics better left alone. The antiquarian Saxon milieu and coastal East Anglican landscape are richly evoked, whilst James draws on certain folkloric motifs and traditions which resonate throughout the British Isles.
6. THE DIARY OF MR. POYNTER
This is the story that disturbed me most when I was young and led to several sleepless nights. It features a perfect exemplar of H.P. Lovecraft's observation that "The average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy - a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man - and usually touched before it is seen". There is something about the dead man's hair motif which is particularly grisly indeed.
7. CASTING THE RUNES
The sole example of an M.R. James story in which the victim of supernatural persecution decides to fight back and is actually successful. Meanwhile, the character of Karswell is a formidable antagonist. Like Count Magnus, he is the embodiment of scholarship perverted by desire for a hidden knowledge (an impulse James maybe felt himself and feared) but unlike Magnus, ultimately hoisted by his own petard.
8. THE STORY OF A DISAPPEARANCE AND AN APPEARANCE
A much underrated story which has sometimes been criticised for being too oblique for its own good. However, this opacity makes it a story which actually improves with successive readings, forever revealing more of its horrible implications. You also suspect this was a very personal story for James, invoking the sinister image of the Punch and Judy show which he confessed so terrified him as a young child.
9. CANON ALBERIC'S SCRAPBOOK
The first published of his stories and still in many ways the template for all that would follow. It establishes many of James's characteristic themes. There's a medieval and ecclesiastic backdrop, the greed and intellectual vanity of the protagonist and of course, the monstrous revenant. The demon here is one of the most colourfully described and whilst it lacks the subtlety of his later work, it is still one of the most effective.
10. A VIEW FROM A HILL
Unlike Machen or Blackwood, James was not primarily a landscape writer and whilst he never lacked skill in its description, A View From a Hill is the only instance where he explores what might now be dubbed the "psychogeographical" aspect. In a nice synchronicity, he uses the landscape of Herefordshire, which similarly inspired Alfred Watkins to write The Old Straight Track.
Briggs, Julia (1977) "Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Ghost Story"
Cox, Michael (1986) "M.R. James: An Informal Portrait"
James, M.R. (Ed.) (1927) "Ghosts & Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales"
James, M.R. (1931) "The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James"
Joshi, S.T. (2003) "The Weird Tale"
Joshi, S.T. (2003) "God's Defenders: What They Believe & Why They Are Wrong"
Joshi, S.T. (Ed.) (2007) "Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R. James"
Sullivan, Jack (1981) "Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood"