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Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M. R. James (2007) submits “the first volume on James to be devoted entirely to his ghostly fiction,” but even with the sparse critical pickings to hand, the “sheaf” ends up excluding two of the most significant accounts of James’ ghost stories: those found within Jack Sullivan’s Elegant Nightmares (1978) and S.T. Joshi’s The Weird Tale (1990). It is worth digressing at length to consider these two readings because they provide neatly antithetical approaches to James’ fiction, and they together open a debate in which an analysis of James’ writing serves to more widely define the nature and purpose of the short story itself.

For Jack Sullivan, the tradition of ghostly fiction furthers the specifically modernist “fascination with darkness and irrationality, the focus on unorthodox states of consciousness and perception, the projection of apocalypse and chaos, and above all the preoccupation with timeless “moments” and “visions.”” The ghost story thus provides a rather sensational variation upon themes which are already at large in the fiction of writers such as Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf, and the disruptions and antics of the portrayed ghosts affirm, albeit in caricature, the modernists’ “fundamentally disordered universe.”

It seems very fine to locate, as Sullivan does, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’sSchalken the Painter” (1839) at the head of this tradition – as this tale conveys something of the coarse frontier grit needed to found a household, and it is certainly written with more power than the ranks of more thoughtful and well behaved stories which one may assume it seeded. Le Fanu cannot be said to have straightforwardly launched a tradition of ghostly fiction, however, because by the twentieth century the ghost of his name had faded almost to transparency. Yet whilst Le Fanu’s Carmilla would walk again – resurrected as Bram Stoker’s Dracula – his mission as a ghost writer would end up in the hands of M.R. James. Sullivan describes James’ “Count Magnus” (1904) as “haunted…by the ghost of Sheridan Le Fanu” and even “more in the Le Fanu manner than Le Fanu.” Sullivan almost likens James to a headmaster presiding over a school of Le Fanu’s fiction, and he argues that James both popularised Le Fanu’s art and practised it with “a new urbanity, suaveness, and economy.”

S.T. Joshi’s chapter on James in The Weird Tale, on the other hand, is subtitled “The Limitations of the Ghost Story,” and when Joshi claims that James “perfected the ghost story,” this is not entirely intended as a compliment. For Joshi, the ghost story is too small and neat a literary product, amounting to a “very restricted field.” Joshi finds that in James’ tales “the reader must frequently expend so much energy simply following the obliquely narrated plot that there is no room for the “imaginative” faculty to come into play.” He expresses exasperation at James’ repeated “tit-for-tat vengeance motif,” but his criticisms do not end there:

…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 purposefully avoids drawing broader implications. It is not even especially fruitful to trace themes through his work, for both the vengeance motif and the ghost-as-savage theme remain virtually unchanged throughout his corpus.

Sullivan had described the same corpus as “minor fiction to be sure, but fiction which nevertheless succeeds in creating a universe of its own which can be apprehended only through careful, thoughtful reading.” Between them the dismissive Joshi and the more appreciative Sullivan have bequeathed to scholars the question of whether James’ stories are “simply stories” or something with “broader implications.” Yet oddly enough, it is not Sullivan but the jobbing academic Joshi who ends up editing Warnings to the Curious (along with Rosemary Pardoe). In his introduction, Joshi cites Peter Penzoldt’s assertion that James‘ stories “are straightforward tales of terror and the supernatural, utterly devoid of deeper meaning,” without mentioning his own attempts to aggressively elaborate upon this criticism. Indeed, Joshi is now singing quite a different tune:

…the scholarship on the ghost stories of M.R. James is only beginning. Admirable work has been done by scholars and critics of the past seven decades or more, but that work must now be built upon, augmented, and perhaps surpassed… What now needs to be addressed is how James drew upon his own life, the history and topography of his native land, and the work of his predecessors in ghostly fiction to produce tales that, in contrast to Peter Penzoldt’s judgment, reveal greater depths than even multiple readings will reveal.

The “tit-for-tat vengeance motif” which had got on the erstwhile Joshi’s goat is now the object of earnest investigations by Michael A. Mason, John Alfred Taylor, and Scott Connors. “There is something appealing in the image of a great man turning occasionally from events of pith and moment to toss off a cultured and clever tale,” Ron Weighell reflects, before adding that “I cannot square this view with the evidence,” which for Weighell comprises of the deeply purposeful allusions to occult magic which litter James’ stories. Brian Cowlishaw is wearing even stronger spectacles and he can see that James’ tales “reveal… a particularly Victorian set of assumptions about history, historical records, evolution, and human civilisation that closely resembles Sigmund Freud’s…” Steven J. Mariconda warns us not to “smirk” at “the vision of the sedate traditionalist James in the company of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso.” Steve Duffy’s essay on “M.R. James and Sylvan Dread” – which is so badly written that it would have probably incapacitated such an exquisite stylist as James if ever he could have read it – places James in the company of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Angela Carter, and Kate Bush.

Amongst all of James’ new friends, the figure of Le Fanu looms almost as the spectre at the feast. Jacqueline Simpson refers to James’ “admired forerunners Dickens and Le Fanu,” when there were radical differences in technique and quality between the two authors’ work, whilst Steven J. Mariconda can only see the “divergence” in grammar between Le Fanu and James. Simon MacCulloch appreciates the merit of a “tracing of themes and handling from Le Fanu through James to Lovecraft…” although he only concerns himself with the last two. This general neglect of Le Fanu seems curious because both Joshi’s initial criticisms of James and these latest outpourings of appreciation would often apply much more aptly to Le Fanu than to James. Indeed, Joshi’s criticism of James’ repetition of “motif” itself repeats James’ own criticism of Le Fanu’s “tendency to use over and over again devices in themselves striking.” One cannot help thinking that many of the contributors to Warnings should cut out the middle man.

It will not do to cite Le Fanu as merely an influence or a point of reference for James. Le Fanu’s lasting achievement was to devise a simple formula for writing ghost stories, and James merely followed the same recipe with minor modifications and different ingredients. Martin Hughes paraphrases Sullivan to summarise the essential difference between the two writers: “In Le Fanu, these horrors may befall anyone; in James they befall those who invoke them…,” although this may merely reflect James’ fondness for antiquarian haunts, characters, and props, rather than a significant amendment to the guiding formula.

The Le Fanu method was to imagine something awful and inexplicable and uncanny – either a particular image and/or a scenario – and to then plant it into a conventional Gothic narrative. In “Schalken the Painter,” for example, the commonplace enough motif of the doomed Gothic bride becomes a means to deliver the magnificently eerie description of her betrothed’s physical appearance, the arresting vision of her return, and the creepy dream sequence upon which the tale ends. This is pure sensation fiction, in the Blackwood’s vein, and its effects are simultaneously profound and inconsequential. Like the Kantean aesthetic – in which the Romantic reader’s appreciation of beauty or the sublime leaves their mental faculties in freefall, and affirms the truth of an objective reality – the uncanny moments in Le Fanu’s fiction either “work” or they do not: this is the basic contract between text and reader. If one’s blood runs cold at the description of the bridegroom Vanderhausen, then the purpose of the tale is achieved and little else remains to be said.

James’ own “Stories I Have Tried to Write” – in which he remembers various uncanny “ideas… which refused to blossom in the surroundings I had devised for them” – is essentially a practical demonstration of the Le Fanu method. James relates various creepy scenarios and threads of plot, ending with the famous incident when “a toad came into my study” – an image so powerful that it may “open the interior eye to the presence of more formidable visitants,” were we to regard the toad as more than a mere image and “brood” over it. Here, James is entirely concerned with the force of effect – “the touch on the shoulder that comes when you are walking quickly homewards in the dark hours” – and this serves to affirm that the short story is fundamentally rooted in sensation and impressions, whilst more cerebral matters should be presumably delegated to novelists.

The revelation that ghost stories are written to frighten readers may not constitute a scholarly breakthrough, although it may come as news to some of the contributors to Warnings. The unreformed Joshi was right – the stories are “simply stories” and one cannot derive a “general philosophy” from them. But he was wrong to dismiss them as a “coldly intellectual exercise,” and one deficient in depth and purpose. The Le Fanu method is a savage art, which is abrupt, philistine, and henceforth entirely un-intellectual. Both Le Fanu and James’ tales discourage reflection and even literary criticism – and it seems implausible that James’ tales were, for him, a means of testifying to the historical moment or warning about the human condition. In most of Le Fanu’s and James’ tales, a modern subject is imagined as a lamb to the slaughter, but these scenarios have the childish, inconsequential simplicity of fables or parables, and all of their depth and purpose lies in their effect.

In Sullivan’s reading, the style and content of these ghost stories are largely one and the same – the shocks, surprises, and stunts around which the tales are built, and their tone of accumulating dread, serve to deliver the message that there is no hope, or even sense to our world. Beyond this, Sullivan defines the purpose of such tales as a “tiresome, unanswerable question… That we enjoy them is enough.” “The public, as Dr. Johnson said, are the ultimate judges…” James observed in his preface to Collected Ghost Stories, “if they are pleased, it is well; it not, it is no use to tell them why they ought to be pleased.” This rebuke to potential theoreticians – a warning to the academic – is put more bluntly in a letter to Nico Llewellyn Davies, when James despairs with an anti-intellectualism perhaps surprising in one of the foremost scholars of his day, “What tosh, by the way, critics do write.”

[Rather hypocritically in light of the above, Tychy previously considered James’ “A Neighbour’s Landmark” as an allegory of history writing, and also undertook a reading of Le Fanu’s “The Room in the Dragon Volant.” Ed.]

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