Issue 10 (September 2006)
The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published approximately twice a year. Click here for further information on how to buy the full hard-copy edition. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines.
Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.
Copyright © 2006 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.
"On Mysticism in Poetry and Art" by M.R. James
"Some (Further) Remarks on Ghost Stories" by Brian J. Showers
"The Black Spider: Antecedents of 'The Ash-Tree'" by Helen Grant
"M.R. James and the Vampires" by Tina Rath
"Two Magicians: Wilsthorpe and Aswarby" by Rosemary and Darroll Pardoe
"Marcilly-le-Hayer" by M.R. James - see the revised and newly annotated transcription in the G&S Archives
"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("Another Link to Alfred Watkins?" by Norman Darwen; "Ghosts in the Trenches?" by George R. Featherston; "A Note on Miss Mothersole" by Rosemary Pardoe; "An Eton and King's Query" by Rosemary Pardoe)
"Reviews" (Eton and King's by M.R. James; A View from a Hill on BBC4)
Artwork: Nick Maloret ("A View from a Hill"); Douglas Walters ("A Warning to the Curious")
Few will deny that M.R. James, for better or for worse, set the standard for the modern day ghost story. Indeed "a pleasing terror" has become something of a catch phrase for enthusiasts of the genre and all that it has come to encompass. Some aficionados take the aesthetics set forth in James's "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" as canon; and the article's reputation has helped to contribute to the use of Dr James's name as an adjective. Over the years, his aesthetic has become prevalent to an extent that it reaches far beyond the ghost story genre and into supernatural fiction as a whole.
James's chief assertion in "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", an article that defines the genre for many admirers of the form, is that above all the true aim of a ghost story is to inspire "a pleasing terror in the reader". This pleasing terror is a subtle chill that plays on a different part of the reader's nerves than, say, the lurid shock instilled by the image of Dracula, with blood-red lips, slumbering in the depths of Carfax Abbey, or the horrific awe created by Frankenstein's patchwork monster pursuing the good doctor across the Arctic tundra. In fact, James goes on to proclaim that, insofar as ghost stories go, "Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it". That is to say, sex and gore have no place in the Jamesian ghost story. However, "At the same time," says James, "don't let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror... are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded..." And so we find another Jamesian mainstay, one frequently overlooked by modern practitioners - that of the malevolent ghost. After all, how could a kind ghost ever hope to achieve a pleasing terror?
In a statement that almost pre-empts his pasticheurs, James writes that it is absolutely essential that, "The setting and the personages are those of the writer's own day, they have nothing antique about them". So in order to instil a pleasing terror, the ghostly threat must have origins in the familiar. In his introduction to Ghosts & Marvels, James further clarifies this statement: "For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. 'Thirty years ago', 'Not long before the war', are proper openings". In other words, the more the author can convince the reader that this could happen to me, the easier it will be for the author to disrupt the reader's - albeit imagined! - sense of personal safety.
Finally, a ghost story scribe must be able to "give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but... when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery". As with Lovecraft's Cosmic Horror philosophy, James believed that the fear of the unknown - "the shadow-haunted Outside" - is key to success. However, "We do not want to see the bones of [the author's] theory about the supernatural". To know the whys and wherefores of the weird is to dispel the supernatural with rationalism, and the ghost will vanish with it.
It is true that the Jamesian ghost story has the potential for being limited in scope - at the very least, if not given proper access to imagination, it runs the risk of going stale. Consider for a moment the sheer number of half-baked Jamesian pastiches that have been published over the years. And yet the modern ghost story, in its various manifestations, is alive and well and practiced by many who have tailored the Jamesian tradition to their own style. Some follow each note of James's tune in perfect pitch, some pick and choose which decrees to follow and which to ignore, and others make up their own; but it still remains that most modern supernatural fictioneers are either responding to or reacting against James's aesthetics.
At this point my words have taken up enough space, and I enough of your time. Perhaps I should step aside and let the modern practitioners answer:
James's aesthetics about the ghost story are sensible, and have the (considerable) added merit of having been written by someone who knew whereof he wrote. Certainly any proclamations about the ghost story which were written by someone whose Collected Ghost Stories have not been out of print since their first publication in 1931 bear careful consideration, and I'm sure I'm not alone, amongst writers of ghost stories, in saying that I pay attention to them in writing my own stories. However, I also bear in mind that I am living, and writing, in a very different world to the one in which James lived and wrote; so James's words are more of a guideline than a hard and fast rule.
For example, I think that James had it just about right when he stated that it is essential that "the setting and personages are those of the writer's own day". There are exceptions to this, of course; but for the most part, I think writers who are attempting to evoke a terror, pleasing or otherwise, in a contemporary audience need to set their tales in a world that said audience will know and understand. Not many people now know what it is like to spend weekends at a country estate, or tour the Continent easily and inexpensively, or are familiar with England between the wars; and such a world, no matter how carefully evoked (and many modern writers are not careful in their evocation), is bound to appear strange and foreign, and therefore distancing: not conducive to the creation of terror. How much more frightening, to a contemporary audience, is something set in the here and now: an anonymous office block; a rundown urban landscape; a formerly sleepy suburb transformed by the arrival of newcomers and/or the need for more housing. Little of this would have been grist for James's mill, but in the hands of a contemporary writer all provide rich pickings.
James is also correct, I think, in his belief that the writer should not explain everything away at the end. Some ghost stories seem obscure for the sake of it, but what is worse is the story which crosses every "t" and dots every "i", leaving no space for ambiguity or speculation. It is interesting to note that most of the ghost stories which are rated highly by those who know the genre are tales in which there is no clear-cut explanation or answer. On the other hand, James's aversion to sex in ghost stories, while understandable in light of his own personality and the time in which he wrote, is somewhat limiting. Sex - the pursuit of it, the lack of it, the pervasiveness of it, the effects of it - is all around us, and to ignore it as an ingredient in, or catalyst of, modern ghost stories is as pointless, and self-defeating, as telling writers that they should not include hatred as a motivating factor in their work.
I would say, therefore, that I approach James's aesthetics as a practical set of guidelines. Allowances must be made, but not many; and they are as good a guide to writing fine supernatural fiction as it is possible to find.
When I began writing ghost stories just to fill a space I had in a student magazine I was editing, I didn't give much direct thought to the matter, but looking at it later, I realised that I must have absorbed (or agreed with and unconsciously adopted) far more of MRJ's tenets for the successful ghost story than I had realised; and particularly those mentioned in the "Preface" to More Ghost Stories relating to the fairly familiar setting and characters and talk such as you may meet or hear any day; the "if I'm not very careful something of this kind may well happen to me". I am less fixated on the "malevolent or odious" requirement, because - to answer the question "how could a kind ghost ever hope to achieve a pleasing terror?" - the "well-meaning" or amiability of an apparition may well be misunderstood: just look at the incident of the matchbox being put into Mr Batchel's hand in the darkened Library, or the well-meaning hermit and map-provider of Munby's "An Encounter in the Mist" who - with the best intentions - sent unsuspecting travellers to their destruction.
The "Jamesian doctrine of reticence" is, indeed, one of the most important for success, particularly in the description of malevolent apparition(s): "they hadn't much to call faces but I could seem to see as they had teeth". What you look for (and hope to achieve) is the minimal amount of suggestion that will set the readers' imaginations working for themselves.
MRJ wrote about old documents, legends, apocryphal histories, college and chapel life, and antiquities because this was his daily round. Had he been a plumber he would doubtless have set his tales around plumbing and the hidden places plumbers have to explore. I took this reality to the limit perhaps in that my entire collection They Might Be Ghosts was woven around jobs and interests that I had pursued at some time or another in a varied working life.
For me, however, the one essential sine qua non is mentioned in his "Preface" to the Collected Ghost Stories: "Places have been more prolific in suggestion" (than his own or others' experiences, or suggested by books). MRJ set his stories in real places, sometimes blended with others or thinly-disguised, but nonetheless real. I, too, have found that the setting is essential and it has to be a real place; somewhere I have been or know well.
I always start by getting down my thoughts on the place; not too descriptive but enough to establish it in my mind... once that is done, and only then, I can start the plotting, because the incidents then fall into place. It's only a guess, but I think MRJ, too, recollected a place and that very impression suggested a happening... a story.
Of course, when you wrote for G&S in the 1980s and 1990s, you had no option but to make your story adhere to several of MRJ's "rules". Luckily they are pretty general (and many of course apply to fiction other than ghost stories) and not too restricting.
We are different from M.R. James, and I don't mean that we wear FCUK t-shirts and not waistcoats and stiff collars. I mean the problem with writing ghost stories today is that it is well-nigh impossible for us to put our mindset in the pre-Freudian, pre-psychology era.
Drama, fiction and science have all rubbed our noses in the fact that ghosts must have psychological underpinnings; that they are the logical exteriorisations of loss, bereavement, the embodiment of Jungian archetypes and/or wish-based experiences to rank alongside alien abductions and sightings of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ghosts, whether we like it or not, have come to represent the "return of the repressed". And everybody knows it.
To ignore that element of psychology in storytelling is to return to a simpler, less ambiguous age, where ghosts were largely nasty and conformed to the rules of folkloric cause-and-effect. It is to take a leap from CSI back to Sherlock Holmes.
Having said that, James was undoubtedly one of my major formative influences. Before reading his prose, I saw his fiction in the form of the seminal BBC TV series A Ghost Story for Christmas and ITV's Mystery and Imagination. And though they were, yes, scary, they were and are (to me) also a comfort zone, a distant world much like the Hammer universe; an escape from the real. For that reason over the years I have been drawn to writing a series of short stories that have oil lamps instead of light switches, hand-written letters instead of e-mails, shadows instead of fluorescent tubes. These tales, featuring my character Venables, are collected for the first time in Dark Corners (Gray Friar Press, 2006). But the appeal of them, I am aware, is that they offer terror through the "pleasing" (i.e. distancing) effect of time; and, I confess, homage.
But it is vitally important to remember that, like Poe, MRJ didn't set his ghost stories in the past. To him his setting was the here and now, the familiar world he knew, which he depicted with the necessary realism and exactitude to make his ghost effective.
The equivalent today might be to set a ghost in a council house, amongst an ordinary family, and perhaps set a malevolent force against the innocent children. Which is what I attempted in Ghostwatch (BFI DVD), my BBC TV drama transmitted on Halloween night 1992, which terrified viewers so much they jammed the switchboard, and caused questions to be raised in Parliament. Insightfully, SFX magazine called it "a thrilling ghost story M.R. James would be proud of".
James talks about avoiding "blatancy" in ghost stories. I certainly learned from making my TV series Afterlife (2 entertain DVD) that you don't hold a camera on a ghost too long. And if it speaks, you are lost. The sense of what I call domestic uncanny evaporates. Less is more. And James knew, even back then, that rubber masks and CGI do not true terror make.
It is not so much that we imitate him, or avoid imitating him, but that the Master has infiltrated us with his images: telling, pertinent, unforgettable. A deserted Suffolk beach or cliff-top graveyard is his, but we create Jamesian images - a dead girl's trainer in a plastic bag, a bald man repeatedly murdering his wife - in our obsessive, eternal play with the primal and the prosaic.
Even though I am not writing in the pure English Ghost Story tradition these days, my "apprenticeship" as a Jamesian author still informs my work. Malevolence and terror - check. (Demons 'R' Us. And werewolves, zombies, sorcerers, golems, trickster gods, you name it.) Slight haze of distance - check. (The years before the Great War.) Clear-cut detail - check. (See above.) But the tone of voice has changed, and so has the milieu. The Da Silva Tales have little place for academics (except a certain Montague Pierce... note the name!), being set in their own "surrealistic and macabre, yet amusing and slightly crazy world" (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36), yet they were born in a typically Jamesian piece, as "Cats & Architecture" was until the Captain barged in and took over my writing life. So the frame story features a writer working in off-season Venice and being led astray in traditional fashion by near-fatal curiosity, when the past intrudes and suddenly here's Luís da Silva dashing about, fighting demons and kissing dead necromancers.
It's interesting to look back now (the story was written in 2000 and has been followed by, at the time of writing, 18 more short stories and four-and-a-half novels) and see how the style has evolved. That central section of "Cats & Architecture" was still at least nodding to its antecedents; later tales, as soon as I had the Captain start narrating them, move to the "salty, choppy diction of the seaman" (Jim Rockhill, All Hallows 32) and are influenced more by Raymond Chandler than M.R. James, to the extent that Rick Kennett coined the description "Weird Noir" (a term I love) for them. Though if the action flags, I of course have a supernatural nasty appear, rather than a man with a gun. The other main difference is in pace, of course. James's advice, peerless for traditional ghost stories, "Into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage", has gone right out of the window!
And yet, now and then the Jamesian creeps back, as if it's my default mode. Witness the story "María Lisboa": "Kidd's deft command of 'Jamesian' techniques and themes is on display... M.R. James is also evoked in the demonic theme: pursuit by things unpleasant and references to an order based on that ill-omened place, Chorazin, which features in 'Count Magnus'... it is clever the way the 'Jamesian' motif is incorporated into the world of da Silva" (Peter Bell, All Hallows 36). The only deliberate thing was the Chorazin reference, and I wasn't even thinking of Monty's use of it at the time! But I do borrow Jamesian references as much as any other source: the chest in "Arkright's Tale" is straight out of "Count Magnus", and there's a "Casting the Runes" moment in Heart of Darkness, to name but a couple.
I'm sidetracking, if that's a word. So, back to the question. I approach MRJ's aesthetics unconsciously, I think: they are ingrained, as they should be in every writer of supernatural fiction. How we choose to use them is up to us. Which, come to think of it, applies to a lot of things, including language: you need to know the rules before you break 'em.
First of all it's worth pointing out that James disobeyed his own rules. When he said: "The setting and the personages are those of the writer's own day, they have nothing antique about them", it should be remembered that two of his finest stories, "Martin's Close" and "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", as well as several others are set over 100 years before James was writing. What I think he was getting at is that the past should be treated as a real place not as somewhere quaint, picturesque and "romantic" as in a Gothic Novel. With this I wholly agree.
Several of my stories are set in the past, but that past is always connected thematically or physically (not to mention metaphysically) with the present. Above all I treat the past with respect, as James did, not as some distant time when funny people wore funny clothes and said "forsooth" a lot. In this I follow James because it is my own passionate inclination to do so, not out of conscious homage. I have made use of his technique - particularly in terms of a certain kind of reticence - but I have also departed from it. I have certainly not found myself bound by his limitations, largely because I have wanted to base my stories on parts of my own experience and not on secondary invention.
Where I part company with James is in this business about "a pleasing terror". In so far as I have a purpose beyond that of telling a compelling tale, my aim is not to produce a pleasurable frisson of fear but to engage the reader in a profoundly harrowing experience. I want to deal with subjects which may not be "pleasing": depression, despair, the horrors of old age, sexual obsession, religious mania, cruelty, malice, in fact all the darker emotions of the human soul as they manifest themselves in society today. To be fair to James, though, he often went far beyond producing a mere "a pleasing terror". Did he intend to, though? That's a good question.
Well, obviously James's original model is by now very familiar to a modern audience, so in my opinion bringing something new to the aesthetic is the real challenge. As a contemporary writer, I feel that we must make the classic methods relevant to a modern reader, and by doing this tap into everyday fears as well as ancient ones. For me, there is nothing worse than pastiche. We owe it to the great writers of weird fiction to use what they achieved as a jumping off point to explore the fears that are prevalent today. We cannot use the cosy, overly familiar styles of the past to hide away from the casual barbarities of modernity; instead, we must drag these tried and tested traditional methods kicking and screaming into the grave new world that surrounds us.
Personally, if I'm writing a Jamesian story, I always try to adapt the format or formula to a modern theme, or use it to examine an aspect of contemporary life that I find disturbing. I'm also all for inter-textual fiction (but only when it's done well), so often try to bring that slight post-modern slant to proceedings. For example, in my own work I've used the backdrop of a Jamesian ghost story to examine such subjects as infant cot death, spousal abuse and suicide.
My favourite modern Jamesian story is without a doubt Ramsey Campbell's masterly "The Guide"; and in this story Campbell uses the device of having his protagonist discover a forgotten guidebook once used by M.R. James, which then serves to guide him only towards unforgettable horrors. This is a terrific idea, and is a prime example of what I mean when I say that modern Jamesian tales are often best when they knowingly reference the original model. "The Guide" is an extremely effective ghost story, but when read with a decent working knowledge of James's body of work, the tale becomes even more chilling and resonant.
Artistically, I am not a model of Jamesian restraint. And yet I am tempted to suppose that M.R. James would have a favourable response to some of my artwork, particularly the spook images that I created for dust jackets of Ash-Tree Press books. These ghostly images are not entirely delirious, and are not completely gaudy, although they exceed James's boundaries of restraint and suggestion. Visually, I hold to the Jamesian paradigm that supernatural depictions should connect the reader and the protagonist to an all-but-vanished era; a supernatural efficiency gathers force as it slouches through the corridors of time. "Count Magnus" is my second favourite story (my favourite story is "Schalken the Painter" by Le Fanu).
I do approach my stories with James's aesthetics in the back of my mind. But his admirable principles are submerged in the writing process and it's only as I think about his advice that I discover by how much my own tales reflect some of his ideas. I find I can best construct a tale to my personal satisfaction if my story is contemporary, and rarely does it stray more than fifty years into the past for its setting. My "haze of distance" is less that of time and more of space. My impression of a distant land, with its marvels and mysteries, will hopefully weave a sense of unease and dislocation in the reader's imagination.
James advises the writer to use reticence with his horrors and an attempt to conceal the full mechanics of the supernatural presence. And yes, that which is hidden is by far the most powerful element in my fiction, but it's often quite difficult to avoid an explanatory segment to the story. There's a fine line between just enough exposition to chill the reader and being so vague the reader is left wondering what has actually happened. My vengeful ghost in "How the Buckie Was Saved" and the mythological apparition in "Those of Rhenea" both attempt to walk this fine line. Yet I hope there's no doubt in either story that these supernatural beings exist in the world unexplained by their author, but which exert a shiver of fear and expectation nonetheless.
James abhors sex in a ghost story, whereas I feel that sexual tension can heighten malevolence, without recourse to gruesome description. Unrequited sex provides a dominant theme in my tale "La Serenissima", in which I tried to use lust to heighten the sense of dreadful expectation.
Bloodletting has to be in small doses, according to James. Most of my own stories fit this tenet perfectly. More often than not my stories eschew gore and rely upon 'the pleasing terror' that is the dreadful, but essentially unknowable transformation at the end of life or a shade just prior to it, which is the terror we most fear and from which we hide most of our lives. Both "The Holidaymakers" and "In the Land of the Rainbow Snake" deal with mortal transmogrification in one form or another.
Most of my stories do not have literal ghosts in them, but have creatures from mythology, or take an aspect of the 'monster' theme (zombie, vampire, werewolf). However, my 'monsters' are re-defined so that they fit a mould that is more in keeping with James's ideas of appealing to a modern audience: frightening, otherworldly creatures in a more Lovecraftian cosmic sense, as in the shape-shifter I created in "Changing Tack".
James did, it seems, totally describe the aesthetics of the supernatural tale and, to my mind, writers who use his precepts will at the very least be on the right track. As an editor for a number of years on Dark Voices: The Pan Book of Horror and Dark Terrors: The Gollancz Book of Horror, it was often painful to read some of the 'slush pile' material that came in from first-time writers. I always suggested to the writers of the most amateurish texts that they should read a lot more genre fiction. With hindsight, I could just have said, "read M.R. James!"
How well James's aesthetics fit with the expectations of the modern readership is a tricky question. The films The Sixth Sense, The Blair Witch Project and (the original) Dark Water between them cover most of the stylistic principles you have identified in James: restraint in the first, lack of explanation in the second and suggestiveness in the third. In fiction, I'd point to the work of Charles L. Grant and Ramsey Campbell as evidence that weird fiction can still succeed commercially without relying on bathetic explanations, gory set-pieces or purple prose.
Of the principles you've identified, some appeal to me more than others. I don't want to inspire "a pleasing terror": I want to confuse, provoke, upset and disturb the reader, and that remains true whatever kind of fiction I'm writing. I'm also unconvinced that a ghost needs to be malignant for a ghost story to be frightening - often in my stories, the ghosts represent memory or guilt, and the real horror lies elsewhere. But I'm absolutely in agreement with James's view of the power of ambiguity and suggestion, and the complete banality of explanations. I can't stand stories where the "laws" of the supernatural are spelt out. That just turns the whole thing into a kind of adventure story.
I would add to your list that James excelled in representing the supernatural through a distortion of reality: a process whereby the normal environment becomes something weird and threatening. "A View from a Hill" and "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" are great examples. Fritz Leiber, influenced by James, used the same principle to create some of the finest 'visionary' ghost stories of all time. This is the aspect of James's writing that has influenced me the most. A lot of my stories feature "visions" of weird landscapes; and in my novel From Blue to Black, ghosts are encountered in music.
An aspect of the ghost story tradition that James used from time to time is the ghost as emotional metaphor: a symbol of guilt, loneliness or meanness of spirit. This concept is very important for me as a writer, though I associate it as much with de la Mare and Aickman as with James. Of course, James wrote more than one kind of ghost story. In some ways "Martin's Close" is quite atypical of James, but it's my favourite of his stories because its emotional charge is so bitter and intense.
 First published in The Bookman's Christmas Annual 1929, pp.169-172; reprinted in A Pleasing Terror: The Collected Supernatural Stories of M.R. James (Ash-Tree Press, 2001), pp.475-480.
 M.R. James's Introduction to Ghosts & Marvels (OUP, 1924); reprinted in A Pleasing Terror, pp.486-490.
 Lovecraft: "... but when we cross line to the boundless and hideous unknown - the shadow-haunted Outside - we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold"; Selected Letters II (1925-1929) (Arkham House, 1968), p.150.
back to top
When Rosemary asked me to review the new edition (and first reprint) of this classic book, I thought: I can do it in one word - Essential! I cannot imagine any genuine reader of the G&S Newsletter to whom Eton and King's would not either be already affectionately familiar, or long-desired. Although, having said that, I do know one Jamesian enthusiast who has a fine copy of the original 1926 edition on his shelf - unread! Words fail me.
The 1926 volume employed thick paper and large print and, though easy on the eyes, it is quite cumbersome. It also lacked two things: an index and some photographs. The latter are still not provided here, but thankfully the index is. If ever a book cried out for an index it was this one - MRJ refers to many people and places and things, and finding them to quote to someone, or to refer to, has always been a tiresome chore, unless one pencils the page numbers on the end-papers. Each page had a different heading reflecting its contents - a pleasant if slightly archaic practice - but this was of little help in re-searching the text for that obscure mention of, say, Saint Armagilus (Armel), or of the native home of the bed-bug. Now we have it all ready to hand via the extremely comprehensive index provided - with considerable diligence - by the Pardoes: it would really be impossible to better their efforts, particularly in providing full names to individuals where James gave only a (sometimes ambiguous) surname.
In addition they have provided a most welcome "Introduction", full of gems of information - indeed, not unlike MRJ's own text - and in a restrainedly humorous style that also reminds one of their author. Added to these is "New and Old at Cambridge", a short and typically amusing article (6pp) that MRJ wrote in 1932 about the effects of the new Statutes of 1882 on Cambridge (University) life.
Eton and King's is NOT an autobiography; it is exactly what its subtitle proclaims -"recollections", reminiscences of friends and places. It does give some insight into MRJ's thought-processes but only mischievously. (If you want to be Freudian you might reflect on the significance of how late his voice broke!) He has, indeed, taken unto himself Elizabeth's advice to Mr Darcy: "Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure".
This is a light-hearted, affectionate account of times that were wonderful to him, and he avoids any controversial or disagreeable topics which would spoil that aim. He even deprives us of a ghost story (p.104). Reading Professor Pfaff's and Michael Cox's biographies of MRJ will suggest, at times, that other side of the coin he was so anxious to exclude, and we have the benefit denied the book's original readers of having the background that the biographies, and Gurney Lubbock's Memoir, provide. After a short but entertaining prologue on his Prep-school, Temple Grove, he takes us as a 'King's Scholar' to Eton and - inevitably - says so little about the other Eton boys, the Oppidans, as to confuse those who are not aware of the structure of the College. Thence to King's, where he was to remain for thirty-six years before 'coming home' once more to Eton. All this is told with an infectious enthusiasm for people, places and events, and obscure apocryphal information (did you know that King David's mother was called Nitzeneth?), that is a delight, and with an underlying sense of humour that can occasionally cause the reader to laugh out loud. He is shy of sharing with us his feelings for (say) the death of Seton Donaldson, his last summer 'Half' at Eton, or the Christmas Carol service at King's College, and deliberately pokes fun at his memories of those times: "All very pedestrian and Anglican and Victorian and everything else that it ought not to be: but I should like well enough to have it over again". But we are not deceived and get the measure of his feelings, none-the-less.
All of which has taken a lot of space to return to that snap verdict at the start of my review. If you don't have Eton and King's, buy it NOW - you have no idea what you are missing! Once read, you can keep the book handy for dipping into at any odd moment, and you will find instant pleasure in doing so. This new edition makes a handier travelling companion than the original, being less cumbersome and in the attractive Ash-Tree format, bound in maroon, with a strikingly effective and tasteful dust-wrapper: black background with title and author in white. Essential!
back to top
Since the mid-1990s and my discovery of Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1970s A Ghost Story for Christmas productions, it has become traditional to scan the festive Radio Times looking for a repeat showing, or to find myself wishing for another set of readings like Christopher Lee's in 2000. And it has also been traditional to come away disappointed.
So, as one who has moaned for years about how the BBC really should revive the series, I was utterly delighted when news reached my inbox that BBC4 would be screening a season of 'Ghost Story for Christmas' programming. The channel had already scored highly with me for its 2004 M.R. James season, despite the small frustration of the omission of The Ash-Tree and Lost Hearts from the run of repeats; and my hopes remained high for a further season of classic repeats in 2005. What was unexpected was the news that the season would include an entirely new A Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation, A View from a Hill. So, the build-up to Christmas was an exciting time as more details of the programme line-up emerged, press releases became available and trailers began to appear for "Ghost Week", featuring black cats wandering through gloomy corridors while a voice-over paraphrased lines from "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral".
A secondary delight was that, in deciding to reread the original story to prepare myself for the adaptation, I discovered that I had, in fact, never actually read it before. Despite the image of the hanged man being clear in my mind whenever I came across the title, my memory seems to have been based entirely on an illustration, though where I saw that illustration I've no idea. So I now found myself in fresh MRJ territory.
My impression of the story was that it had some effective moments and a very compelling central conceit in the binoculars that reveal what once was there. But it simply didn't chill me in the same manner as many of James's stories, with none of the skin-crawling dread of "The Ash-Tree" or the tragic inevitability of "A Warning to the Curious". In many ways, it is actually a fairly slight tale, more of an anecdote than a full-blown story. As such, it wasn't the most obvious choice for adaptation. However, the choice would have taken into account the fact that "View" had never been adapted for screen before and also required little in the way of special effects or expensive location shooting (which would surely explain its selection over the likes of "Count Magnus" or "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book").
Peter Harness's new script takes advantage of the slightness of the story and expands on it by creating fresh detail, reshaping both the tale and the characters. Indeed, there is so much expansion and extrapolation that the second half of the film is virtually a sequel to the events described in the original.
The Fanshawe of the story, a rather easy-going young chap visiting an older chum in the country, is remoulded into a young, rather junior doctor of archaeology, sent to catalogue the collection of Squire Richards. It is hard not to see this as an attempt to invest Fanshawe with a more "Jamesian" quality, providing us with yet another antiquarian scholar amongst the ghosts.
This alteration of Fanshawe is just one of the ways in which the production seems to be closer to the spirit of previous M.R. James TV adaptations than the source story. Fanshawe, with his meticulous laying out of neatly folded clothing and precisely placed toiletries, is reminiscent of the socially awkward and rather pernickety Professor Parkins from Jonathan Miller's earlier reshaping of James's material for the "Omnibus" production, Whistle and I'll Come to You. And the young archaeologist's eventual fate, apparently to be forever haunted by the events that have befallen him, has echoes of both Miller's closing shot of poor old Parkins and the ominous destiny that clearly awaits Dr Black in Gordon Clark's sublime version of A Warning to the Curious.
This Dr Fanshawe is working on a paper entitled "Reflections from the Dead; An Archaeological Journey into the Dark Ages". He is ambitious yet cautious. He clearly feels his junior position keenly and is uncomfortable at being sent on what seems little more than an errand to the home of his superior's old school chum. He is defensive of his position, particularly when faced with an offhand comment from his host concerning the late Mr Baxter. When told that Baxter "fancied himself an archaeologist, like yourself", Fanshawe comes back with a surprised, "I am an archaeologist. Actually, I'm a doctor". Mark Letherens' delivery of the line is funny and rather touching and, while his Fanshawe is socially awkward, he is far more likeable than the Professor Parkins presented to us in the Miller film. And it is a rather cruel laugh that comes with Richards' response of, "Have to get you to take a look at my feet".
The script and the performances derive much dry humour from the awkwardness of the situation. Pip Torrens is amusingly bluff and blunt as the Squire, born into privilege with house and grounds to maintain but without the money to do so. The house is falling into disrepair, rooms lie empty and there are cracks in the glassware. This is a man who has been selling off the heirlooms to keep the house running, and Fanshawe's visit is symptomatic of the ongoing crisis.
Richards' reduced circumstances leave him with a reduced household staff, and only the aging butler, Patten (beautifully played by David Burke), on hand. Patten displays a mix of irritation, weariness and pride. His disgruntled, "I'm cooking", when instructed to help the unexpectedly-arrived Fanshawe with his bags, is delivered with just the right note of exasperation to be delightfully comic. In fact, the level of disdain between master and servant shows two men who have come wearily to realise that they rather need one another, aren't entirely happy with the situation but can't really think what to do to change it.
As in the story, Fanshawe takes a trip out on his own and runs into difficulties in the woods. An encounter with a seemingly menacing figure who turns out to be more prosaic than expected recalls a similar incident in the Gordon Clark A Warning to the Curious, and that same production is brought to mind during Fanshawe's panicked escape from barely seen figures closing in around him. These scenes are highly effective, with the prickling of the hairs on Fanshawe's nape fairly palpable, as something appears to swoop in on him.
Following Fanshawe's escape, as in James's original, Patten tells us the history of Baxter and his ill-fated obsessions. In flashback, we see Baxter hard at work, grave-robbing by night (another scene reminiscent of A Warning to the Curious), boiling down bones and constructing his binoculars. We've already seen that Baxter had no qualms about disturbing the dead. Amongst his "pretty bizarre" collection is a mask and, unlike in the original, there has been no attempt to disguise the fact that it's part of a human skull. Throughout the scene, the story's old watchmaker comes across as a diabolical and crazed necromancer.
This flashback sequence appears at the midway point of the film, not as in the story, where Patten's account pretty much wraps up events. But, despite the crows circling Gallows Hill as Patten's tale draws to an end, and Richards' snort of disbelief that the hanged men dealt with Baxter "because they didn't like their bones being boiled", the watchmaker's fate isn't spelled out (it's hard to resist the temptation to say that Baxter's destiny is left hanging).
From this point, we are in new territory, beginning with a dream sequence. There is a dream in the original story but, instead of MRJ's rather surreal discovery of a warning message amongst a rockery, clearly indicated as a nightmare, it isn't immediately clear that what we're seeing is not real. We follow Fanshawe's nocturnal wanderings through a house in decay, leading us to a dank bathroom, all brown water and stained tiles, and the realisation that a dark figure is standing very still in the gloom, wearing the skull from Baxter's collection. This provides one of the biggest jolts in the production. The cutting and rapid zoom of the camera are one of the few instances that remind us this is a modern television film, though the use of the skull mask is a trick as old as they come.
Fanshawe's archaeological interest, fuelled by Patten's story and by the drawings Baxter left behind, is what entices him out to the ruins once more the next day, and we have the stereotypical Jamesian hero, allowing scientific curiosity to draw him into contact with older forces. But, again, the decision to make Fanshawe an archaeologist serves a purpose, beyond adding that familiar antiquarian touch. Rather than simple curiosity, here is a driven man looking for an advance in his career and allowing himself to be caught up in Baxter's obsession.
When Fanshawe puts the bewitched binoculars to his eyes and finds that he is gazing at the long lost Fulnaker Abbey in close-up detail, we have a dizzying array of shots of spires and gargoyles that put me in mind of a sequence from the 1970s Treasure of Abbot Thomas adaptation. The shots become more frenetic, matching Fanshawe's exhilarated state. This is the first point in the film where he actually seems happy, as the reality of the view he sees overtakes him and he finds himself inside a beautiful church filled with golden light. But the second, bigger jolt comes when we realise that Fanshawe may not be alone there.
There is a jarring cut to black as Fanshawe flees and, after that, we're back to roughly what James described in the story. Only, in there, these events happened to Baxter in the past. Here, they are happening to Fanshawe and happening now. This is echoed in familiar images from Patten's tale reoccurring, with the search party and the crows circling Gallows Hill.
It makes total dramatic sense for Fanshawe to discover at first hand what had happened to the ill-fated Baxter, rather than to rely on Patten's retelling of events and thus end with a flashback. The final shot of our protagonist, now a haunted man, ever changed by his experience, adds an extra layer of horror that isn't present in the original story.
But, while Harness's script expands on the story, there are a number of key scenes that are excised completely. We have no sequence where Fanshawe correctly identifies Gallows Hill from the sight of a hanged man. Indeed, the few brief glimpses of a figure seen through some trees as Fanshawe investigates the abbey ruins, are so vague that it's not clear if the figure is standing or hanging. Nor do we have the black ooze pouring out of the ruined binoculars. It is tempting to wonder if these instances were seen as too unsubtle for this deliberately understated production. Perhaps the feeling was that too many clearly supernatural sequences might have disrupted the air of quiet dread rather than added to it.
Two particular losses troubled me more. The first is the glorious summertime setting, as James's description of the "dawdle through a bit of English country" is one of my favourite pieces of writing in the story. This, of course, can be accounted for by the budget that would be unlikely to stretch to scenes of travel in a period railway carriage, as well as by the late Autumn shoot. But, truthfully, it doesn't affect things dramatically and allows us a more immediate opening to the tale, with Fanshawe standing on the platform, forgotten by his host. (While I know nothing about vintage railways, those who do point out that the railway location sets the film considerably later than the 1925 of the story's publication. I would suggest this accounts for the choice of certain items of clothing and various props, to give the film a deliberately late 1930s feel, as it is easier to change costumes and props to suit a location than vice versa.)
The other, more serious casualty is the line about looking "through a dead man's eyes", which is undoubtedly the most memorable piece of dialogue in the story. This is such a strong line and one that so clearly gets across the nature of Baxter's work without hammering you over the head with explanations, that I definitely felt its loss. In fact, on first viewing I found the play could have used the line to clarify what exactly was happening (that said, my first took place while my then upstairs neighbours were having a noisy pre-Christmas party, so I missed a fair amount of what was going on. Further viewings have been far more rewarding).
Luke Watson's direction is steady and there are many nicely framed shots. The shots that seem influenced by previous James adaptations don't overwhelm the film and serve more as pleasant reminders than as slavish pastiche. Another influence, clearly shown in the dream sequence, is that of modern Japanese horror cinema, in particular the apparitions seen in The Eye and Pulse (aka Kairo).
In all, A View from a Hill is a worthwhile addition to the original run of A Ghost Story for Christmas: not as faithful to M.R. James as some might have wished, but nor were many of the previous adaptations. It is an effectively atmospheric piece of television and I hope it will have provoked enough positive response to make it just the first in a long line of annual adaptations. And, if it was deemed a success, surely future productions will have larger budgets so that we might get the hedge maze of "Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" or the Scandinavian setting of "Count Magnus".
I, for one, will definitely be checking the festive Radio Times this year.
Editor's Note: Peter Harness answers some questions about his adaptation of "A View from a Hill" here.
back to top
go to Newsletter Issue 1
go to Newsletter Issue 2
go to Newsletter Issue 3
go to Newsletter Issue 4
go to Newsletter Issue 5
go to Newsletter Issue 6
go to Newsletter Issue 7
go to Newsletter Issue 8
go to Newsletter Issue 9
back to Jamesian News Page
back to Ghosts & Scholars Home Page