R.H. Malden (1879-1951)

by Roger Johnson

(from Ghosts & Scholars 9: "Writers in the James Tradition Number 6".)

"I saw standing by the opposite wall the figure which I had seen at the corner of the wood. His neck was abnormally long, and so malformed that his head lolled sideways on to his right shoulder in a disgusting and almost inhuman fashion." --- "The Sundial"

Comparisons have sometimes been drawn between the literary followers of, respectively, H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. An interesting difference, it seems to me, is that where most, if not all, of the Lovecraftians have at least begun by closely imitating their master's style as well as his substance, the Jamesians have been content to write each in his (or her) own manner, using their master's techniques where they think best. Certainly the earlier followers of M.R. James did not strive to imitate his writings, but, as far as possible, to emulate them. We may take it that they did not ask themselves, "Am I writing this story in the Jamesian style?", but rather, "Am I writing this story in the most effective way?" Let us consider the case of R.H. Malden.

His first ghost story, "A Collector's Company", was written in 1909, so that he may be considered one of the first two important followers of M.R. James; the other being E.G. Swain whose The Stoneground Ghost Tales was published in 1912. Malden's family was distinguished in a minor way, as his father was Recorder of Thetford and his mother the daughter of a K.C.B.; Richard Henry continued and increased that distinction. Like James, he was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge, where James himself was Provost. Here Malden became acquainted with both the ghost stories and the man himself. In his introduction to Nine Ghosts he says, "It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years". After Cambridge, Malden entered the Church of England, serving first at Swinton (where some years later Frederick Cowles became Borough Librarian), then as Lecturer at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and in the final days of peace as Principal of Leeds Clergy School. To quote his obituary in The Times: "He retained the post until 1919 but for two years during the 1914-18 war was acting Chaplain of H.M.S. Valiant. After the end of hostilities, he was appointed Vicar of Headingley, Leeds, and remained there until 1933. Meanwhile, he had been appointed Chaplain to the King in 1926 and an honorary Canon of Ripon".

One of the appealing features of M.R. James' ghost stories is that we are always conscious of the presence of James the narrator. This is a natural result of the fact that the tales were written to be read aloud. Similarly, in reading Malden's stories we are always aware of the presence of Malden himself. We may be sure that it is Malden and not some fictional persona because of the brief and entertaining, if not always actually necessary, fragments of his own experience that are mentioned. In "The Thirteenth Tree", for instance, we learn of the storm "of 6-7 January, 1839, which seems to have been little less violent than its better-known forerunner of November 1703. It came from the north-west. Inter alia it did considerable damage to Bishop Longley's new Palace at Ripon". The "better-known forerunner" is mentioned more fully in another story, "Stivinghoe Bank". Something like a tropical hurricane, it totally destroyed the Eddystone Lighthouse and demolished fully one third of the Royal Fleet. It also caused the deaths of Richard Kidder, Bishop of Bath and Wells, and his wife, who were killed by the fall of a chimney-stack through the roof of the Palace.

At Wells, R.H. Malden's career reached its peak - or rather, its plateau - for in 1933 he was appointed Dean of Wells Cathedral. He clearly loved both the church and its surroundings. The settings for his stories are principally East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and "the western counties". Probably the most popular of Malden's several books, not excepting Nine Ghosts, was The Story of Wells Cathedral, one of a charming series published in the 1930s by Jarrolds, to which E.G. Swain had already contributed The Story of Peterborough Cathedral. It is an excellent popular history and guide, not only to Wells but to the cathedral system in the English church; in reading it one is conscious of being addressed, if in a slightly more formal manner, by the man who told the tales of Nine Ghosts.

The Times, in its obituary, justly devotes a good deal of space to Malden's books, which, not surprisingly, were mostly of a theological nature, though it quite fails to mention his single venture into fiction. He was not ashamed of it, though: the book is listed among his publications in Who's Who, and deservedly. Nine Ghosts is a slim volume, but full of pleasures. The title is both accurate and misleading, for although there are indeed nine stories the number of ghosts varies from one to the next. In some cases the word 'ghost' may not be quite accurate.

It is important, incidentally, to remember that Malden, like James, was writing ghost stories and not horror stories; he aimed to chill the spine, not turn the stomach, and perhaps to leave the reader wondering a little. At his considerable best he is almost as subtle and allusive as the later M.R. James. In "A Collector's Company", for instance, we never discover - though we may guess - precisely what the enigmatic collector's companions are, or indeed why they do what they do; it is enough that their being and doing so brings unease to the reader. Unease, really, is the keynote of these stories. Malden is very good at building up a fabric of convincing normality and then puncturing it with a telling image. There is the portrait in "The Dining-Room Fireplace" of a sitter whose back is to the viewer, with his head turned so that the face can be seen - but the neck is twisted at a subtly impossible angle. Or this, from "The Blank Leaves": "Suddenly from the edge of the darkness what looked like an arm was protruded and very quickly withdrawn. I noticed that it was naked, black, and very thin. There was something else unpleasant about it which I did not take in at the moment. But on thinking it over afterwards I realised what it was. The arm had no hand. It ended in a stump at the wrist".

That brief passage gives a good idea of Malden's style, which is both literate and easy. Not merely facile, please note. The author knows what he wants to say and he says it clearly. This is an aim which many writers would do well to bear in mind. He could also reproduce the natural rhythms of conversational speech and was almost as good as James himself at indicating dialect without resorting to impenetrable phonetics. Like James again, he had a talent for highlighting the unease of his tales with contrasting humour. This is from "The Coxswain of the Lifeboat", referring to a legacy of somewhat dubious value: "And as she were interstit, what they term, and 'adn't no relations, Queen Victoria took it. There was some as thought she did ought to be warned. But I never 'eard that it done 'er no 'arm. You'd ha' thought she had pretty nigh enough already, wouldn't you, Sir? But there, she had a long family to put out, and a widow-woman too".

M.R. James almost always told his tales in the third person. Only "After Dark in the Playing Fields" and "A Night in King's College Chapel", which are hardly serious ghost stories, purport to be experiences of James himself, and of the others just "A School Story", "A Neighbour's Landmark" and "A Warning to the Curious" claim to be verbatim reports of tales told in the first person. Malden's stories are all first-person narratives; five are told as if from his own experience, and the rest quote directly from the experiences of others. In all cases the voice that we hear is unmistakably that of Richard Henry Malden.

A choice from among the nine stories can only be a matter of personal taste. All are good, but for me three stand out. The visual description of Stivinghoe Bank, stretching out into the North Sea, with the sinister ruined chapel at its end, particularly appeals; and the plot, though not especially original, is masterfully handled. But the true masterpieces are "The Sundial" and "Between Sunset and Moonrise". In the former a particularly nasty apparition is engaged by the narrator in a round-the-hedge chase in which, horrifyingly, the pursuer becomes the pursued. The latter tale builds up a superb atmosphere of crumbling reality - aided, perhaps, by the fact that the two Biblical references made are both to books in the Old Testament Apocrypha and therefore, to an extent, suspect - culminating in the tremendously powerful description of a genuinely frightening apparition. This really should be read in the context of the story, so - with considerable restraint - I shall refrain from quoting it. I shall say only that it is one of those rare, awesome and memorable visual images that I usually associate with descriptions of places, as for instance the ruined House on the Borderland, perilously overhanging a chasm of incalculable depth, in William Hope Hodgson's extraordinary novel, or the island and house of Rayba in M.P. Shiel's neglected masterpiece "The House of Sounds".

Few of Malden's stories have been anthologised since Nine Ghosts was published by Arnold's in 1943, but the book seems to have had a fairly large printing in several editions, and copies are not too difficult to obtain. Perhaps some enlightened publisher may issue a new edition some day. [Editor's Note: Ash-Tree Press reprinted Nine Ghosts in 1995. It is now out of print.]

The Very Reverend Richard Henry Malden died in 1951, aged seventy-one years. He was survived by his wife of thirty-three years, Etheldred Theodora, only daughter of Canon H.A. Macnaghten. Malden had retired from Wells Cathedral in the previous year. His successor held the post of Dean for nine years, and his successor in turn was one Christopher Woodforde, author of A Pad in the Straw. But he must wait for another monograph.

Copyright (c) 1987 Roger Johnson

This photograph of R.H. Malden and Mrs Malden, in the drawing room of Wells Deanery, was published in Life, January 24, 1944,
the year after Nine Ghosts first appeared. (Thanks to Allison Lovelock.)

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