Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 9 (March 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.


(Unlinked contents can only be read in the hard-copy edition of the Newsletter)



"Class War in 'Casting the Runes'" by Mike Pincombe

"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("Slightly Cross about 'Abbot Thomas'" by David Longhorn; "A Defence of 'Two Doctors'" by Mark Nicholls; "Adventures of a Jamesian Detective" by Rosemary Pardoe)


"Reviews" (Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James; Beating the Devil: The Making of NIGHT OF THE DEMON by Tony Earnshaw)

Artwork: Douglas Walters ("Lost Hearts": the portrait on the stairs); Lamplough's Pyretic Saline; Douglas Walters ("Lost Hearts": the hurdy-gurdy)

Class War in
"Casting the Runes"

by Mike Pincombe

If we had to draw up - heaven forbid! - a major and a minor canon of the ghost-stories of M.R. James, everyone would, I think, place "Casting the Runes" amongst our author's greater achievements in the genre. We could probably all agree on some of the qualities which make this story more satisfying than 'lesser' works such as "Two Doctors," or "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard," or "After Dark in the Playing Fields". For one thing, it is simply more terrifying (in the gentle literary sense of the word). It is also more dramatic - and this must be one reason why of all James's stories only this one has been turned into a feature film. But I like to think that "Casting the Runes" is such a good read because it is so powerfully 'over-determined'. By 'over-determination' I mean that the story develops as it does by reason of not one but several motives. In this tale, the main motive force is - obviously enough - supernatural. Karswell is out to take his revenge on Dunning by 'casting the runes' against him, and it is this device which sets the narrative on course towards its terminus (quite literally in this case). On the other hand, the real narrative terminus is not the encounter on Dover Pier, but the mysterious death of Karswell at Abbeville; and this, I would suggest, is motivated by - class-war!

One of the most striking (and obnoxious) elements in "Casting the Runes" is the scorn heaped on Karswell's literary style. Henry Harrington reports how he and his brother John laughed at Karswell's History of Witchcraft when the latter was asked to review it: "The first time we made game of it together. It was written in no style at all - split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise". The Harringtons are disgusted by what they perceive to be stylistic solecisms; and yet a split infinitive seems rather innocuous, hardly enough to produce such a reaction. What is really at stake here is that Karswell is an outsider: he is marked by his inability - or reluctance - to obey the stylistic codes by which these gentleman-scholars are bound by their privileged education. Moreover, Karswell does not apply the same kind of scholarly rigour to his material as an Oxford or Cambridge man (John Harrington was educated at Cambridge, and so, presumably, was Henry): "Then there was nothing that the man didn't swallow: mixing up classical myths, and stories out of the Golden Legend with reports of savage customs of today - all very proper, no doubt, if you know how to use them, but he didn't: he seemed to put the Golden Legend and the Golden Bough exactly on a par, and to believe both: a pitiable exhibition, in short". We know that James had a low opinion of Sir James Frazer's Golden Bough, and his polemical review (1917) of Jane Harrison's comparative-mythological article on "The Head of John the Baptist" suggests that he may have even felt threatened by the revolutionary new ideas that were beginning to take root in Cambridge (he snipes at new disciplines in "The Mezzotint" and "Oh, Whistle", too). But the point here seems to be that Karswell swallows everything whilst the Harringtons' gorges rise at the merest hint of an uneducated style. It is a question of discrimination; and Karswell is clearly discriminated against by the gentlemen-scholars of James's tale.

Even the relatively polite and affable Mr Gayton, "Secretary of the --- Association", when asked whether The History of Witchcraft was as bad as it was made out to be, replies: "Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the pulverizing it got". He has no sympathy for Karswell and endorses the critical violence - "the pulverizing" - used against him by Harrington. Gayton's collocutor recalls the review in question: "I must say if I'd been the author it would have quenched my literary ambition for good. I should never have held up my head again". Exactly: the impertinent outsider has to be shamed and repulsed in his attempt to intrude upon the privileged circles of genteel scholarship. As it happens, of course, Karswell is no gentleman and he is not discouraged by Harrington's hostile review, for he has just written a new paper called The Truth of Alchemy, which Dunning has judged "perfectly hopeless". We do not know if Dunning refers to its style, but we may suspect that the content of this paper may not be so hopeless as he thinks. After all, Harrington laughed at The History of Witchcraft, but he was unable to defend himself against the runes of which he had read in Karswell's book and no doubt dismissed as ridiculous. Gayton is more careful: "But besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I'm very much mistaken if he hadn't tried the greater part of his receipts".

Karswell's advantage over Harrington and Dunning is that he has wide practical experience of a craft - magic - which they regard as superstition or error. In comparison to Karswell, these gentlemen-scholars are little better than dilettantes. According to the obituary notice read by Dunning in the tram-car window, John Harrington was an "F.S.A.", or Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, presumably an expert, then, in his field. Gayton says of his expertise in alchemy that Dunning is "almost the only man in England who knows about these things". But they are still amateurs, both as a matter of fact, and in comparison to Karswell. We know little enough about Harrington except that he lived in Warwickshire and liked music; but Dunning's routine is clearly laid out and suggests a good deal of hard work. He is represented almost as a commuter, travelling by tram and train from his house in the London suburbs to his work in the British Library, "where he had been engaged in Research".[1] But for all this, his intellectual labour is hardly productive, for as Gayton tells us: "Dunning hasn't published anything on [alchemy] yet".

Dunning's activities as a scholar lead to personal intellectual enrichment, no doubt, but he does not share his knowledge with the wider world through publication. He remains an amateur pursuing his own interests. Indeed, we learn very little of "the --- Association"; not even the field to which its members are devoted is revealed to the reader. What we do know, however, is that it is a private association, a learned society in which membership is clearly determined by a particular kind of education. Those who do not meet these requirements are rigorously excluded. The sequence of letters that opens the story is highly significant in this respect. Gayton's first rejection is politely neutral. Then his tone becomes rather more forceful as he faces the alarming prospect of actually having to meet the author of The Truth of Alchemy in person; later he seems worried lest even Henry Harrington might turn out to be a "hopeless crank". Finally, convinced that Karswell might pose some threat to Dunning, however slight, Gayton hides behind the anonymity of the third person and does not even sign his last missive. And, of course, Karswell's letters to Gayton are not included in this sequence at all. We have to make up our minds about him solely through the courteous but increasingly frigid responses of the Secretary. The exclusion of Karswell from this exchange reflects the exclusion of the intruder from the genteel membership of the --- Association. He is not told what was wrong with his paper, though later, in informal conversation with his wife, Gayton reports that Dunning regarded it as "perfectly hopeless" - which tells us nothing at all. But the very vagueness of the situation serves to underline the arbitrariness of the Council's decision to reject Karswell's paper without explanation: it can do as it pleases - "and what is a gentleman, if not his pleasure?"

Karswell, as we have observed, is not a gentleman - in any sense of the word. This is how Gayton describes him to his wife: "he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he's an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it". Apart from the half-serious reference to his being an alchemist, this description might yield evidence of Karswell's gentry status. Yet, as so often with James's slightly peculiar locution, there is something a little hesitant about that phrase "his address is Lufford Abbey". Gayton does not say that Lufford Abbey is Karswell's 'home', or that he 'comes from' Lufford Abbey; the word "address" suggests almost that Karswell is simply resident there for a while. Indeed, what we learn from the conversation at the luncheon party confirms the hint that Karswell is somewhat of an intruder in that part of Warwickshire. We hear that he "bought Lufford Abbey a few years ago", and that he has by no means mixed in with the rest of county society: "Nobody knew what he did with himself: his servants were a horrible set of people; he had invented a new religion for himself, and practised no one could tell what appalling rites; he was very easily offended, and never forgave anybody; he had a dreadful face...; he never did a kind action, and whatever influence he did exert was mischievous". Karswell remains a 'foreign body' in Warwickshire society: he does not wish to mix with his neighbours, and he does not wish his neighbours to mix with him. The terrifying magic-lantern show is intended to keep local children off his land, but it is also designed to alienate him even further from the local gentry.[2] Karswell clearly does not care if he is accepted into the ranks of this society at all. He is only a neighbour by virtue of the proximity of his residence to those of other people; but Lufford Abbey is a place unto itself under his possession.

Karswell is also a "person of wealth", another carefully chosen phrase! How does Gayton know this? He may assume that Karswell is wealthy because he has time to devote himself to the same kind of independent scholarly pursuits as Dunning. But the address must mean something, too, and maybe more. Dunning's house in the suburbs seems modest enough; and John Harrington's house in Ashbrooke has a touch of the suburban, too, perhaps, since 'The Laurels' is a house-name made famous as the Holloway residence of the Pooter family in The Diary of a Nobody (1892).[3] But the owner of Lufford Abbey must indeed be a "person of wealth", even if he is not quite a 'gentleman of means'. Furthermore, Gayton may already have made the connection between Karswell's wealth and his pursuit of alchemy, one of the aims of which was to turn base metals into gold. If Karswell has indeed discovered the truth of alchemy, then perhaps this might explain how he comes to be living at Lufford Abbey. This hint is confirmed when we are informed of the local rumours that Karswell has invented a new religion for himself, as if his alchemical practices involve the employment of spirits, whose dark presence amidst the fiercely-guarded secrecy of Karswell's house has been dimly perceived. And yet...

All we know of Karswell would suggest that he has made his money in trade. Amongst the warnings sent to terrify John Harrington is a wood-cut sent through the post from London and "addressed in a commercial hand". Another, also from London, is a calendar, "such as tradesmen often send". When Dunning has his encounter with the demon in the street, the latter is seen as a "man with a handful of leaflets such as are distributed to passers-by by agents of enterprising firms". And finally, Karswell chooses to display his first warning to Dunning in a row of advertisements posted in the window of a tram-car. The context is doubly significant in that James makes ironic allusion to one of them in a way which brings us back to questions of class: "the brilliant and convincing dialogue between Mr Lamplough and an eminent K.C. on the subject of Pyretic Saline". The point, of course, is that the dialogue devised by some copy-writer to sell this particular product is not "brilliant and convincing", but feeble and contrived. For what self-respecting King's Council would stoop to endorse a health-salt - or, indeed, any commercial product? This is not the kind of thing that gentlemen do. James's irony is based in a tacit assumption shared with his readers of the incompatibility of gentility and commerce, or, to put it another way, of gentlemen and tradesmen - or of the members of the --- Association and Mr Karswell.

Class-war! By all accounts, M.R. James was a pleasant and genial man whom everybody loved. So it may seem rather absurd to detect class-war at work in "Casting the Runes" (just as it may seem absurd to detect homosexual panic in "A Warning to the Curious"[4]). But, of course, James was only the author not the master of the words he wrote. Class-war underlay the culture of the society in which he lived. For radicals of the left and right, class-war was there on the surface of life: they saw it everywhere as an inescapable conflict which marked all aspects of the world in which they lived. Indeed, class-war lived in and through such persons. But its presence may also be felt in mild conservatives such as James, without his having necessarily to take a position on such matters. We really need an edition of James's correspondence before we can speak with any assurance on such matters, but, nevertheless, stories such as "Casting the Runes" indicate that James was aware of the deep social conflicts in the England of his day, and that this consciousness surges dimly in the narrative matrix of his ghost-stories.

I began by remarking on the over-determination of the end - or ends - of "Casting the Runes". Perhaps we can conclude on the same point. After Karswell has left for France, Harrington and Dunning think things over: "Long and long the two sat in their room at the Lord Warden. In spite of the removal of their greatest anxiety, they were oppressed with a doubt, not of the lightest. Had they been justified in sending a man to his death, as they believed they had? Ought they not to warn him, at least? 'No,' said Harrington; 'if he is the murderer I think him, we have done no more harm than is just...'''. Probably we all have some sympathy with Harrington's position at this point. It is the 'rough justice' of revenge: tit for tat. We may compare it to Karswell's exorbitant revenge against John Harrington. Though he may have been justly offended by John Harrington's bad review of his book, Karswell's retaliation was appallingly disproportionate to any offence that a bad review could possibly give to any sane person (and a 'rationalist' reading of the tale would certainly construe Karswell as a psychopath). So in terms of the morality of vengeance, the balance is undoubtedly in favour of Harrington as opposed to Karswell. And as it happens, having voiced his view, Harrington immediately agrees to Dunning's proposal to send a warning to Karswell by telegraph.

So much for the relatively straightforward narrative reading of the tale as a story of the supernatural. But we can also read "Casting the Runes" as a hidden narrative of class-war, in which the wealthy ex-tradesman Karswell has to pay the price for his attempt to intrude upon the precincts of the gentry. True, he has no wish to ingratiate himself with the Warwickshire county set. Indeed, he does all he can to make them his enemy. Class-war is played out instead at the level where James himself may have felt it most keenly: scholarship. Karswell feels himself equal to the learned gentlemen of the --- Association, but he must be proved an upstart. Gayton's use of the word "pulverizing" suggests a violent rejection played out at the level of the verbal attack. Harrington's review of The History of Witchcraft is described as "incisive": it 'cut into' the book (Latin: incido). Could it be that the verbal attack with the hammer and blade of the gentleman-scholar might be exorbitantly amplified as a desire to murder Karswell? James's bland phrase "the removal of their greatest anxiety" may be interpreted at face-value, or we may choose to understand that this is another way of saying that Karswell has been removed, for it is in him that their anxiety is embodied. I have always found it interesting that Karswell meets his end not in England but in France. No doubt he wishes to place as much distance as he can between himself and Dunning on the day of the latter's demise, so that no suspicion will fall upon him. But he has also been quite literally 'removed' from England and English society - permanently, as the slightly guilty conversation between Harrington and Dunning in the Lord Warden testifies.

Well, let us leave matters there. I am not sure how much of all this I actually believe! It is certainly the case that Karswell is 'demonised' by the Warwickshire couple with whom the Gaytons have lunch, who may represent a typically 'county' attitude towards upstart newcomers; and the association of alchemy with Karswell's wealth suggests an uneasy apprehension of the mysterious power of capital. But murder? Answers on a postcard, please.

Works Cited:

Grossmith, George, & Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody (1892; Penguin, 1945 [rpt. 1977]).
James, M.R., "Casting the Runes" (1911) in A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings (Ash-Tree Press, 2001), pp.149-165.
Lubbock, S.G., A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (1939), in A Pleasing Terror, pp.xxvii-xlix.


[1] A cancelled passage in the manuscript tells us that Dunning had "a turn for investigations genealogical, topographical, and antiquarian" (p.150, n.2), which would indicate that James originally conceived of Dunning in terms of a private gentleman-scholar with rather traditional interests, the sort of man one would meet in the shires busying himself in the local history of his parish. At some point, James clearly changed his mind, turning Dunning into a rather more serious-minded scholar in the published version, and moving him to London to get on with his work more efficiently.

[2] There is a well-observed little touch where their hostess relates how Karswell wrote to "the clergyman of his parish (he's not ours, but we know him very well)". The parenthetical aside is very good: a throwaway remark which reveals the casual sense of property the local gentry have in their clergyman, and also the general acceptance of country clergy as gentry or quasi-gentry. There is no doubt that the host and hostess are gentry, since they have residences both in the country and in London.

[3] The first entry in Mr Pooter's diary reads: "My dear wife Carrie and I have just been a week in our new house, 'The Laurels', Brickfield Terrace, Holloway - a nice six-roomed residence, not counting basement, with a front breakfast-parlour" (p.19). It is hard to imagine that James would not have read and enjoyed the adventures of the Pooters and their friends, either in book form, or as they were told in instalments in Punch.

[4] You all know my thoughts on homosocial panic! (See my "Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M.R. James and others", in The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter 2, September 2002, pp.5-13.) But let me remind you that James himself seems to have been perfectly happy with his own sexuality - or non-sexuality - even though he was imaginatively responsive to the pressures which made life miserable for friends such as Arthur Benson. Likewise, James seems to have felt (as far as I can see) a sort of mildly condescending and even affectionate regard for the working-class people he mainly encountered, especially servants. Lubbock's account of the way James adopted what he calls the "alter ego" (p.xli) of a grocer called Barker may even suggest a degree of empathy with "village tradesmen" (of a limited and music-hall kind). The tram-men William and George are the usual kind of working-class characters in James's stories: comic and harmless in the great tradition from The Castle of Otranto to Brief Encounter. They know their place...

Reprinted from Mike Pincombe's Night Thoughts in the 72nd mailing of the Everlasting Club (March, 2005).

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A slightly earlier version of the advertisement for Lamplough's Pyretic Saline,
mentioned by M.R. James in "Casting the Runes" and discussed by Mike Pincombe above.


Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James, edited by S.T. Joshi.
Penguin Classics (USA), 2005, xvii + 288pp, ISBN: 0-14-30-3939-3, US$16.00.

Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

Count Magnus is the first volume in Penguin's new two-part edition of M.R. James's ghost stories (the second part should be out late in 2006). Editor S.T. Joshi has logically chosen to treat the tales chronologically, which means that the core of Count Magnus consists of the contents of MRJ's first two collections, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911). You hardly need me to tell you that these feature some of MRJ's best and most popular (not necessarily the same thing) tales such as "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", "Lost Hearts", "Count Magnus", "Casting the Runes", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance". I doubt whether any reader of the Newsletter will feel they have to buy Count Magnus in order to obtain copies of these stories, so what else is on offer within?

S.T. Joshi provides a new eleven-page introduction, six pages of general "Suggestions for Further Reading" (in which Simon MacCulloch's "The Toad in the Study", from G&S 20-23, is called "perhaps the best single article on James"!), and individual notes for each story (with more "Further Reading" suggestions for most of them). There is also a small Appendix containing MRJ's little 1880 essays on "Ghost Stories" (first reprinted in G&S Newsletter 3), his comic-fantasy "A Night in King's College Chapel" (probably dating from c.1892, and first published in G&S 7), and the original prefaces to GSofA and More GS. The back-cover blurb describes "A Night in King's College Chapel" as "James's first known ghost story", which is questionable, but within the book the description is much more accurate: "the first avowedly supernatural tale by MRJ that survives". It is, however, a slight piece.

S.T. Joshi's former low opinion of MRJ's stories is well known. In his essay "M.R. James and the Limitations of the Ghost Story", which initially appeared in Robert Price's Spectral Tales 1 (1988), then as part of The Weird Tale (1990), he tore into MRJ, finding little to praise in his use of "a naive tit-for-tat vengeance motif", and the fact that (as it seemed to him): "it is simply not possible... to derive a general philosophy out of James' stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world-view". "I have not," he concluded, "much enthusiasm for James... I sincerely believe he is much inferior to... other writers... largely because his work is ultimately thin and insubstantial". Now, however, Joshi has undergone a welcome change of heart (and, in fairness, I should add that my own reaction to his essay, published in the lettercolumn of the following issue of Spectral Tales, similarly does not entirely represent my current position). In his introduction to Count Magnus, I can find little of any major import to disagree with, although I have a few niggles. He begins, for instance, by asserting: "It is no surprise that only that last body of work [i.e. MRJ's ghost stories] continues to attract the attention and fascination of readers worldwide". A search of the Net reveals that this is not really the case: many of MRJ's other writings are available there, and in particular the translations in his Apocryphal New Testament are reprinted on a number of web sites. I have even encountered people who know MRJ only from his researches in the apocrypha, and express surprise when they are told about his ghost stories. Plus there are his various library catalogues, some of which have never been superseded and appear in full on the Net.

Joshi also remarks: "So much attention has been given to the technique of James's ghost stories that insufficient attention has been paid to their deeper meanings". I think it would be more correct to say that there have been many attempts to find deeper meanings but that they have all - to a greater or lesser degree - resulted in failure, because people have been looking for the wrong thing and finding what they wanted to find even when it is not really there. Thankfully, Joshi is not referring specifically to the usual Freudian psycho-babble, but is rightly drawing attention to the fact that MRJ's religious beliefs and his antiquarian scholarship are "inextricably fused" in the "subtle but unmistakable progression" between his innocent scholars and the evil characters like Abney and Karswell, thus illustrating the "dangers of straying from orthodoxy". I agree with him that the search for "deeper meanings" in this area would produce valuable results - it has been a very long time since I believed (if indeed I ever really did) that the stories were mere entertainments and nothing more.

I have no problems at all with Joshi's new comments on the "primitivism" of MRJ's "lean, dwarfish, and hairy" revenants, and on MRJ's attitude to women, which are as sensible as you'll find anywhere. But I'm less sure about the "certain element of malice" in MRJ's treatment of the lower classes. Although I see amused condescension, which can be offensive to the modern eye, I don't detect any malice.

Moving on to the various story annotations, there is obviously some considerable overlap with the notes in Ash-Tree Press's A Pleasing Terror, but a surprising amount of useful fresh material also appears, even if Joshi has chosen not to cover some matters such as textual variants. While there are no major new discoveries here, the small details, historical background and fleshing-out of some of the Pleasing Terror notes all make Joshi's efforts well worthwhile, although a few typoes have insinuated themselves ("Plotnius", "Straffordshire", Job 2:21 for 7:21). And sometimes his definitions miss the point: e.g. those for "Bridgeford", skip, bourdon, sported doors and chancels (Michael Cox's note in A Pleasing Terror on "bourdon" misses the point too, but in a different way!). Joshi even has the (admirable but surely foolhardy!) nerve to criticise MRJ's Greek and Latin. In a note on "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", he says that when MRJ refers to Papias's lost "'On the Words of Our Lord', which was known to have existed as late as the twelfth century at Nîmes", he "has made an error in translating" the word Logion (the Greek being Logion Kyriakon Exegesis, and the usual English title being Expositions of the Oracles of the Lord), presumably by confusing Logion (oracles, sayings) with the genitive plural of Logos (word). Actually, there is no error; MRJ was evidently thinking of a reference in Léon Ménard's 1750 history of Nîmes (Nismes) in which the author copied out the index from a c.1218 inventory he found in the sacristy of the church there: "Item: I discovered in a cloister a book of Papias, a book of the words of the Lord". MRJ has translated correctly from the inventory's Latin ("librum de verbis domini"). But it is clear that he was also aware of the standard English title of Papias's work: in the "Canon Alberic" manuscript (see the facsimile published in Ghost Story Press's 1993 Two Ghost Stories: A Centenary), he first wrote "Oracles" and then replaced it with "Words". In another of the "Canon Alberic" notes, Joshi supposes that "MRJ errs in interpreting the genitive case of the Latinized name Sammarthanus as the nominative case" when he describes the Gallia Christiana as "the great work of the Sammarthani". Again there is no error, for "the Sammarthani" are plural: they are not just Dionysius Sammarthanus (Denys de Sainte-Marthe) who revised the Gallia, but also other members of the Sainte-Marthe family, who produced the original versions.

The on-going attempts to annotate MRJ's stories can never hope to reach a definitive conclusion - there is always more to find out. I can, for instance, see one Biblical reference which remains unsourced in either place ("Depositum Custodi" - 1 Timothy 6, v.20 and 2 Timothy 1, v.14). But if you own both the Ash-Tree book and Count Magnus, there won't be a lot you're missing.

This, of course, brings me to the question of whether Count Magnus should be added to your library of MRJ's ghost story books. I would say that the extra material warrants a probable yes if you already have A Pleasing Terror; and, since that fine volume is out of print and largely unobtainable (and since Count Magnus is so cheap), a definite yes if you don't.

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Beating the Devil: The Making of NIGHT OF THE DEMON by Tony Earnshaw.
Tomahawk Press/The National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, 2005, xxvii + 127pp,
ISBN: 0-953-1926-1-X, £13.50.

Reviewed by Steve Duffy.

It's in the trees - it's coming - and here it is at last: a lavishly illustrated, exhaustively researched full-length appreciation of Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur's celebrated 1957 film adaptation of M.R. James's "Casting The Runes". I'll assume, for the purposes of this short review, that you've seen this oddly powerful and really rather wonderful film; if not, then go out and locate a copy forthwith. As for Tony Earnshaw's excellent book, it will surely by now have found its way on to the shelves of most lovers of Night of the Demon, and I can only urge those of you who haven't yet succumbed to do so, as soon as possible.

If more by way of enticement were needed than Earnshaw's in-depth examination of the most celebrated Jamesian movie of them all, then look no further than Sir Christopher Frayling's introduction. Anyone who attended the 1999 Ghosts & Scholars Convention in Rochester will know that Frayling is both well-informed and splendidly entertaining on the topic of MRJ, and here he does a sterling job of introducing James's life and works to an audience probably unfamiliar with either. Touching on the film, he locates it - correctly, to my mind - on the cusp between two quite different styles of horror film: the '40s noir chillers helmed by Tourneur and overseen by Val Lewton at RKO, and the coarser-grained, more energetic Hammer-horrors of the '50s and '60s. One foot, so to speak, tiptoes elegantly amongst the suggestive shadows of I Walked with a Zombie and Cat People; the other - a hideous smoking claw, we assume - is firmly planted in the 1950s show-me tradition of Really Big Rubberised Monsters (With Zippers Down The Back).

One of Beating the Devil's many virtues is that it seems to lay to rest one of the most pervasive rumours concerning Night of the Demon and its eponymous Nemesis: namely, the contention, made both on Jacques Tourneur's behalf and by the director himself, that the notorious fire demon was entirely a crowd-pleasing afterthought, added by vulgar, Mammon-tainted studio hands after Tourneur's work on the film was done. Not so, says Earnshaw, who adduces a whole pile of evidence from pre-production and thereafter to prove that from very nearly the beginning of the project, some sort of visible, not to say tangible demon was envisaged. Admittedly this mysterious entity - ahem - grew somewhat in development, from scriptwriter Charles Bennett's first-draft suggestion of some nebulous ghostly creature in the trees, to producer Hal E. Chester's final authorised insert: that oddly endearing wrinkly-nosed hellspawn we know and love so well. But Earnshaw proves that from as early on in the production as the first, Hal Chester-inspired, rewrite, the demon which pursues Henry Harrington to his death (and which comes back later for Julian Karswell) was always going to be visible.

Chester, a tough, practical American showman who seems to have rubbed quite a few British backs up at Elstree, knew his audience; he knew they wanted steak, not just sizzle. A film called Night of the Demon would self-evidently have to include a demon, and you would self-evidently have to see it. Despite his later protestations to the contrary, Tourneur was quite aware of this: the script from which he worked called for a visible demon, and there is good circumstantial evidence that his own cut included several process shots of the monster. What Chester seems to have added, after Tourneur delivered his cut, were the close-up shots of the demon's face - but then, this had always been on the cards. In no way did it 'ruin' the movie.

Tourneur's reputation as a director of taste and sensitivity remains intact, and Chester is routinely vilified as an interfering barbarian. But as Earnshaw convincingly argues: "it is difficult to determine exactly how a producer can interfere in his own project". And the decision to show the demon from the very beginning had, as Alex Cox notes in his foreword, this crucial effect: "By making the supernatural REAL at the outset of the film, Night of the Demon raises the stakes... and this, rather than subtlety throughout, was M.R. James's intention".

Cox is also appreciative of another aspect of Beating the Devil: Earnshaw's fascinating discussion of the battles between the film-makers and the British Board of Film Censors. Extensive excerpts from the censors' reports on various drafts of the screenplay are included, and these contain some absolute pearls: not least, the characterisation of the fire demon by one examiner as a "nebulous horrible dinosaur". Yes, that's right - a dinosaur. Another examiner went back to MRJ's original story for guidance, only to note with something very like alarm that "it differs considerably from this script". The consensus view among the censors was that: "there are quite a number of scenes... which are not 'X' [i.e. X-rated, unsuitable for those below the age of 16], but the basic story seems quite unreasonable for any other category, even if it were done with restraint, which this is not".

As Cox does well to point out, the overwhelming emotion these exchanges are likely to produce in the modern reader is one of indignation. Time and again, the censors exhibit an unlovely mixture of snobbishness and paternalism in their misplaced concern for the man in the street and the likely consequences of his being exposed to anything even remotely over-stimulating. It seems entirely justified to conclude, as does Cox, that this is a Class Thing, not to say a Ridiculous and a Bad Thing.

Earnshaw's book is absolutely crammed with rich and thought-provoking details such as these. It is wonderfully researched, drawing on any number of interviews with players both major and minor; it is comprehensively illustrated; and it contains numerous appendices packed with all sorts of information. Anybody who has once seen and enjoyed Night of the Demon simply can't afford to be without it. Now let's have a really good DVD re-issue to go with it.

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