"They've got him!
In the trees!"
M.R. James and Sylvan Dread

by Steve Duffy

(from Ghosts & Scholars 29.)

H'mm - what's that odd smell in here? Possibly, just possibly, it's the stink of Pan; the smell of fear engendered by an incautious foray into the woods. Panic fear is nowadays held to be a contagious, baseless phenomenon, but it has its origins in a quite specific, and usually solitary experience: fear of the great god Pan. It's the sensation we get when we stray from the path and end up in the forest, where there are bears and wolves, and maybe some things that are far, far worse. Thus Liddell and Scott, cited in the Oxford English Dictionary: "Sounds heard by night on mountains and in vallies [sic] were attributed to Pan, and hence he was reputed to be the cause of any sudden and groundless fear." Of course, Pan has his positive aspect (though not the rather boringly wholesome avatar invoked by Kenneth Grahame, who seemed to want to reduce the great priapic one to some sort of cross between Jesus and Smokey the Bear); maybe, then, it's not Pan's trail we're following here after all. Maybe it's something wilder still, all fangs and claws and shadows... something as old as the old gods, only wholly lacking in redeeming features. But let's illustrate our concept. I'll be Dorothy; link arms with me, and let's dance off down the Yellow Brick Road. Which also led into the forest.

To begin with, look in your Collected MRJ (never a bad injunction, that). Remember "Wailing Well"? Unjustly overlooked, this tale, by many readers; its centrepiece is a very peculiar plantation, where lurk - well, "they hadn't much to call faces, but I could seem to see as they had teeth." They live - where? In the well? Maybe, but certainly within that "clump of bent and gnarled Scotch firs" inside the red ring on the Scouts' map. The Scoutmaster, Mr Hope Jones, certainly thinks the firs are significant. Remember, he tries to cut down every tree within the clump, only to return with a badly gashed leg and a broken axe. "On no single tree could he make the least impression."

The erstwhile tenant of Betton Hall had better luck (we've moved on now to "A Neighbour's Landmark"). He managed to stub up the scrub oaks that comprised Betton Wood, of unpleasant memory; still, if he imagined that by doing this he would stop that which walked there from either walking or crying, he seems to have been proved wrong by subsequent events. Of course, Mitchell, the woodman, might have told him as much. His mother used never to go through the wood after dark, if she could help it: "first it's a rustling-like all along in the bushes, coming very quick, either towards me or after me according to the time, and then there comes this scream as appears to pierce right through from the one ear to the other..." That's a taste of the true panic experience. The wood had a bad name all through the countryside: "never a bit of game in it, and never a bird's nest there".

Of course, a certain "Ash-Tree" near Castringham Hall in Suffolk contained something of almost unutterable loathsomeness: a nest of poisonous spidery things, the unearthly get of old Mrs Mothersole the witch. That tree was burned to the ground, and very wisely too.

Then there's "A View from a Hill". Mr Fanshawe looks out over towards Gallows Hill (though admittedly he's using Mr Baxter's peculiar glasses at the time), and sees - what he might be expected to see on a hill with such a name. Later, of course, he makes the trip over there, into the plantation atop the hill. Here he has his moment of true terror, in amongst the trees which seem to snag and grab at him, all the way through to the heart of that "unholy evil sort of graveyard". "Not much poaching in that cover," as the Squire sagely points out - definite echoes of Betton Wood.

Poachers were also well advised to keep clear of the long wood on the hill behind Råbäck. It was Count Magnus' wood, and he was many years dead, but even after the Count was in his mausoleum, one might still "meet with persons walking who should not be walking". By the same token, one would do well to avoid a certain thicket in Ireland, that featured in "A School Story": "memento putei inter quatuor taxos", remember the well among the four yews, and more particularly, what came out of it, looking for vengeance. "An Evening's Entertainment" gives us the long covert with a few big oaks; hanging from one of those, of course, was Mr Davis' young man, and afterwards the area was haunted by that unfortunate suicide. Flies would come at you, in those woods, like no other flies you'd ever seen, and if they stung you, your arm would swell up and go black. Reason enough to stay clear. In "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", there's another hanging-tree - or there was, since its wood was later used to make the unnervingly lively stall-decorations which so upset Archdeacon Haynes. What's that phrase - "the living wood"?

As much as anywhere, the park at Lufford sticks in my mind. Mr Karswell's lantern slides showed "a horrible hopping creature in white, which you first saw dodging about among the trees". Later, John Harrington would be found dead in amongst those very trees: what he saw can only be imagined, though I for one would rather not dwell on the matter. In Night of the Demon, the movie version of "Casting the Runes", Brian Wilde (playing a man driven insane through his unwise association with Mr Karswell) gets to utter the classic line later sampled by Kate Bush: "It's in the trees! It's coming!", and if Kate hadn't beaten me to it, I'd have pinched that for my title. Some of the most effective parts of that film take place in and around the woods that circle Lufford Abbey; rarely has panic been depicted so well on the silver screen.

All this is enough to establish a pattern, I think. James seems certainly to have been aware of the power of the forest, and he used it to great effect in many of his tales (if I were to stretch a point, I might even bring in the wilderness of the disused maze in "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance". And even rose-gardens have box-bushes, whose contents may not always be of the most pleasant. Ask Mrs Anstruther). In doing so, of course, he was working within a long-established tradition. From the earliest times, the woods have been places held to be numinous (that is, worthy of respect, of awe - which is to say, of fear); or better say, certain woods, at certain times. In The Golden Bough there's the sacred grove at Nemi, where the King of the Wood slew his predecessor. Elsewhere in the classical tradition, olive trees are identified with the souls of dead men; and of course the Celts spun a whole mythology round their trees. There's a tradition that the trees on some of the old Viking burial mounds house the spirits of the chieftain's bodyguards, protecting their chief in death as they did in life. On the fiction front, Algernon Blackwood has several fine tales set in the endless forests of North America. Ramsey Campbell has a quite terrifying wood in his brilliant novel Midnight Sun. Robert Aickman's "Into The Wood" is weirdness embodied. Stephen King's Pet Sematary makes good use of the Maine woods and their Native American traditions. I could go on and on; surely everyone will have a favourite chiller with a sylvan setting.

We fear the forest with good reason, it seems. Thus Angela Carter, in "The Company Of Wolves": "You are always in danger in the forest, where no people are. Step between the portals of the great pines where the shaggy branches tangle about you, trapping the unwary traveller in nets as if the vegetation itself were in a plot with the wolves who live there, as if the wicked trees go fishing on behalf of their friends - step between the gateposts of the forest with the greatest trepidation and infinite precautions, for if you stray from the path for one instant, the wolves will eat you."

Here we see, in Ms Carter's usual lapidary prose, both the proximate cause of the original panic fear - the predators, the loneliness - and the weirder, more diffuse trepidation that's involved. Because after a certain point, it wasn't just the wolves that scared people, it was the woods themselves. Whether this was merely a case of bad logic and the transfer of affect (the forest has wolves, wolves are scary, ergo, forests are scary per se), or whether the fear has deeper roots, you're free to decide for yourselves. Still, we're left with the concept of the forest as a place reeking with danger; a great loneliness, waiting to be filled with - what? With our fears, it would seem. Perhaps even when we've stopped believing in the old tutelary deities, once we've ceased to derive any comfort from the animist certainties of more primitive times, we can still sense something vital in a forest, and respond to it.

Sometimes it's hard to separate the notions of aliveness and sentience. If a thing is alive, the suspicion that it's conscious may never be far behind. In one of the many splendidly eerie sequences in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958), Kim Novak wanders through the redwoods on the Pacific coast, addressing the giant sequoias as if they were alive - they are alive, of course (largest living things on Earth, famously), but as if they're listening to her... And in that weird forest hush, in the filtering sunlight through the thin ocean mists, who's to say they aren't? So maybe when a writer like James peoples his woods with ghosts and demons, one of the reasons they scare us is because they operate as symbols for this unnatural, somehow unlikely emptiness; an emptiness we can populate all too readily with our own misgivings. Fear need not arise solely from external stimuli; in the absence of a direct object, we can always draw upon ourselves, our own experiences and misgivings. The fear is within us, waiting to be vested in something or other.

The first European settlers on the American continent were well aware of the terrors of the forest. Of course, those forests were quite scary - there were Indians, who might not always be friendly and bring pumpkins and maize, but come instead with hatchets; there were bears, and poisonous plants, and the woods went on forever, and many died wandering far from home... but there were things less easily named, too. Even the sturdy Vikings were none too keen on the skraelings, their name for both the Inuit and the Micmac, the Native Americans of Greenland and Vinland. Skraeling translates roughly as "dried-up savage wretches", though Jacqueline Simpson proposes the variant reading of Screechers - which takes this reader back to Betton Woods, and is very Jamesian!

The woods of North America were slow to lose this minatory aspect. Here's an excerpt from William Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation (book 1.IX.), the story of the first settlers on Plymouth Rock, that expresses the sheer vertiginous sense of alienation felt by those fearful castaway pilgrims, as they stood on the beach looking inland to the forests of the New World:

"...what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men - and what multitudes there might be of them they knew not. Neither could they, as it were, go up to the top of Pisgah to view from this wilderness a more goodly country to feed their hopes, for which way soever they turned their eyes (saved upward to the heavens) they could have little solace of content in respect of any outward objects. For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue. If they looked behind them, there was the mighty ocean which they had passed and was now as a main bar and gulf to separate them from all the civil parts of the world."

One of Nathaniel Hawthorne's greatest tales, "Young Goodman Brown", deals with this nightmare scenario well enough to be regarded as a classic of American literature, and it's instructive to contrast it with those tales of James' we cited earlier. Young Goodman Brown is a citizen of Salem, and we first encounter him on the way out of town as evening falls, on "a dreary road, darkened by all the gloomiest trees of the forest, which barely stood aside to let the narrow path creep through, and closed immediately behind. It was all as lonely as could be; and there is this peculiarity in such a solitude, that the traveller knows not who may be concealed by the innumerable trunks and the thick boughs overhead; so that, with lonely footsteps, he may still be passing through an unseen multitude."

What would a good Puritan like Brown be doing out, this night? He's on his way, we eventually learn, to a witches' Sabbat. But he's not alone, it seems. Along the way are many familiar faces; everyone he knows in Salem, the most pious townsfolk, the deacons, the goodwives, all the upholders of faith and tradition... they all seem to be there, beckoning him on. Panic grows on him: eventually he's running so fast that he seems almost to fly. "The whole forest was peopled with frightful sounds: the creaking of the trees, the howling of wild beasts, and the yell of Indians; while sometimes, the wind tolled like a distant church-bell, and sometimes gave a broad roar around the traveller, as if all Nature were laughing him to scorn. But he was himself the chief horror of the scene, and shrank not from its other horrors." (My emphasis.)

Here's the nub of the matter. Young Goodman Brown believes himself at a Sabbat; believes all the town of Salem to be there, and damned to boot. But Brown is some way from being a wholly reliable narrator (very modern, that), and the only verifiable presence at that Sabbat, outside the fevered imaginings of Brown, is - Brown himself. The devil (or the devil in man, as we may prefer) has the power of similitude: he may cast himself as anybody; any notable of Salem. His words to Brown have a certain ambiguity: "By the sympathy of your human hearts for sin, ye shall scent out all the places - whether in church, bed-chamber, street, field or forest - where crime has been committed, and shall exult to behold the whole earth one stain of guilt, one mighty blood-spot." It's the Devil addressing his flock, in the story; but he might almost be describing the likes of Cotton Mather, feverishly eager to convince himself of the Salem witches' guilt, to conjure evil out of innocence. Once again, even though the woods may be (rationally speaking) empty, still there's something there.

The whole Salem witch-panic (in which an ancestor of Hawthorne's played a rather vacillating part) sometimes seems to me to have arisen fully-formed from those New England forests. Forests in which God was not; in which other deities were worshipped, and received sacrifice. Young Goodman Brown, the archetypal Puritan, goes out into the trees wanting to find something - wanting his worst fears to be justified - and, of course, that's just what happens to him. Hawthorne never quite condemns the Puritan hysteria, nor ever suggests that it was entirely unjustified; neither, of course, does he suggest that it was anything other than hysteria. More subtly, he seems to find in it an analogue for the human condition; an illustration of the very recognisable human tendency to fear the worst, and to be able to justify those fears in whatever way comes to hand. Looking through the OED I find the following citation under the heading of panic, which seems somehow appropriate: 1708 Shaftesbury Charact. (1711) I. i. ii. 15 "There are many Pannicks in Mankind, besides merely that of Fear. And thus is Religion also Pannick."

Nature, we're told, abhors a vacuum, and left to our own devices, we're all too ready to fill the empty places. If we're not at ease with the forest, perhaps it's because we're not at ease with ourselves. In the end, even the threat of emptiness will trigger its own fear. Even when the Indians are all gone, and the last wolf killed, the woods may still be a fearful place. What will we dream of then? Of the Jersey Devil, that spectral hooved beast with its leathery wings that haunts the Pine Barrens of New Jersey; of Bigfoot in the Pacific North-West; of Cthulhu in the swampy groves of Louisiana? Witches at their Sabbat? The dark denizens of Mirkwood? The thing in Betton Woods? The skeletons round Wailing Well? Mr Karswell's hopping thing in white? The cry of a night-bird in the plantation at Livermere? Whatever. Perhaps all these frightful things are really displacements of a more elemental fear; the fear of emptiness, of life without sentience or purpose, life we're unable to comprehend, or propitiate, or influence. When we go to the woods, it seems it's not enough to be prepared for wolves. We must also be prepared for their absence, lest we fill it with the contents of our own dark places...

Copyright © 1999 Steve Duffy

The original, slightly shorter, version of this article appeared in My Dark Life, Steve Duffy's contribution to the July 1999 Everlasting Club mailing.



On the same topic, this letter from Steve Duffy and Rosemary Pardoe appeared in issue 156 of Fortean Times (March 2002):


John Robinson (FT 153:54), describing "sylvan dread", makes reference to a BBC TV Christmas broadcast of an M.R. James story, The Three Crowns of Anglia. The name of the story (and the subsequent adaptation) is actually "A Warning to the Curious". The BBC production was written and directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. It was first broadcast in 1972, and repeated in 1992. Mr Robinson is quite right to point out that Clark's adaptation includes a most effective portrayal of panic fear; this scene, however, is not to be found in James' original tale. Elsewhere in James, though, we do find the following most suggestive passage, from the 1925 story "A Neighbour's Landmark".

The narrator is standing on the site of an old wood, now torn up, which used to have a "bad name" locally ("never a bit of game in it, and... never a bird's nest there"), when he hears "a note of incredible sharpness, like the shriek of a bat, only ten times intensified."

Beforehand, the narrator had found the pastoral scene pleasant; now, though: "When I turned to it again, the taste was gone out of it. The sun was down behind the hill, and the light was off the fields, and when the clock bell in the Church tower struck seven, I thought no longer of kind mellow evening hours of rest, and scents of flowers and woods on evening air...; but instead images came to me of dusty beams and creeping spiders and savage owls up in the tower, and forgotten graves and their ugly contents below, and of flying Time and all it had taken out of my life. And just then into my left ear - close as if lips had been put within an inch of my head, the frightful scream came thrilling again... all its effect was to take away every vestige, every possibility, of enjoyment, and make this no place to stay in one moment more."

To us, this sounds like a first-hand and most heartfelt description of panic fear, and we wonder: might M.R. James himself ever have fallen prey to it?

Copyright © 2002 Steve Duffy, Rosemary Pardoe

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