By John H. Stevens
I am conflicted about M. R. James’ stories. His English ghost stories are formulaic narratives, tangled with details that seem to dull the progress toward that ineffable, terrifying moment of recognition of the past’s weight and the terrors that lurk in the landscape and in objects of human origin. Any interaction with the terrors, no matter how accidental or incidental, can wrack a poor soul’s body and brain as they confront a fleeting moment of contact with perdition’s prisoners. Arriving at this moment can take some time, as the reader must navigate through a path often overrun with small distractions. Muted irrelevancy seemed to reduce the impact of the encounter with the supernatural.
These moments are brief eruptions in a world that is mostly comfortable and sedate. James’ stories are not action pieces; they are reaction pieces, told after the events have happened. These stories are passed on or uncovered by a narrator who renders these episodes as clearly as possible, with the benefits of historical hindsight and distance. They are presented as found; at least, that is what our narrators claim, as they describe minute details (at length) and the situation of the characters, in both their historical location and in their societal position.
To a man, the subjects of the stories are learned gentlemen, with a solid sense of their place in the world. They are discoverers who find some venerable item of distinction or knowledge; a book, a picture, a whistle, a fragment of dire writing. But in the process they uncover too much; they arouse resting spirits and animate local lore. Their curiosity leads them to dislocate what has been inactive or well-hidden. Their inquisitiveness ends with an unexpected meeting that leaves them existentially disheveled by a brush with the damned. Many of these stories have the same plot structure: seeker arrives at a new place; seeker uncovers or disturbs a mysterious entity; seeker encounters entity and is changed by it. After several iterations of this I was ready to move on from the collection, but I persisted, hoping to discover something unexpectedly mysterious myself.
In some of the stories surprises do await; the title story of the collection builds fascination as it wanders on and off the obvious plot path, creating a more engaging spookiness and discomfort. “The Mezzotint” cleverly creates a different encounter with the uncanny that plays with the usual moment of revelation. “Count Magnus” creates a more palpable sense of dread by giving the antagonist deeper intention. By the end of my reading, I understood that my confliction a result ofI presumptively assigning values to some story elements and devaluing others. Repetition was part of what made the stories work.
James does not create an overlying sense of great dread or shock; the tone and language of the stories create a sense of normalcy that lulls the subject into a complacency with the world. The protagonists are used to rote expectations being met, as if they have forgotten what lurks beneath the surface of their reality. They put something out of place with their unthinking inquiries and they arouse the dormant forces that we forget (or wish to ignore) are all around us. Contact with these forces unravels their complacency and surety of their firm place in the world. They must confront the twin possibilities of death and undeath, and their sureties fragment at the moment of confrontation, because they are based on conjured truths, like those of a “predictable” story,