Saturday, September 08, 2007

A Warning

This is M.R. James. Montague Rhodes James. Provost of Kings. Medievalist, and writer of the most appallingly creepy ghost stories in the English language. If there was ever a book demanding to be picked up gingerly, by one corner, and with a hurried glance over the shoulder, it is his Collected Ghost Stories.

I would advise anyone new to MR James not to read this book in the following manner: one story after the other, straight through to the end. Do not do this. Do not read a story or so at night, sitting up in bed. A story or two, lounging in the bath; a few pages, waiting for the kettle to boil.

That's what I did, and I wish I hadn't. As the pages turned, so the atmosphere in the house thickened. Things started to feel oddly as if they were in the wrong places. Disquieted, I started keeping the radio on all day. The cool draught blowing from the back of the boarded-up fireplace made me uneasy. I'd watch something rubbish on television, and be wondering why I'd not changed the channel. Perhaps it was because I had become disinclined to reach for the remote control. In case I put my hand down on something else...something scaly. Or taloned. Or worse.

It's not that I'm a particularly suggestible soul. But Monty James is such an exquisite writer, and his mental landscape so thoroughly frightening, and so clearly set forth: a world of antiquaries, of rare books, old houses, ancient curses, mazes and mezzotints, you find yourself drawn into his sphere, and start, like his poor characters, to feel a strange sense of oppression. These are harrowing, grim, violent, horrifying and the most beautifully crafted stories of demonic vengeance and spiritual trauma. They make Le Fanu look pedestrian.

James believed in ghosts. Of course he did. He couldn't have written these stories if he hadn't. I've been told that for the many, many years he lived in his rooms at Kings, he'd take to his bed each night in mortal terror, for every night a strange tapping noise would rise up through the chimney-breast. Tap, tap, tap. Of course, the noise was simply the Fellow downstairs knocking his pipe out onto the hearth. But Monty never realised. For years, he was convinced that something, or A Something from the netherworld was trying to communicate with him.

He used to read these stories out loud to his friends. I can only imagine the atmosphere: some fine port; a flickering fire; weathered leather chairs and perhaps the rain beating on the casement windows, while the gaslights along Kings' backs glowed into the night. Wooooo!

I only mention this because I have been reading him again. Found my copy stuffed in a pile of books while packing. Read the fantastic story, this morning, of the chap who spent some days surveying an ancient maze on his property, and sitting down by candlelight to make a fair copy of a map of the labyrinth. Here's a taster:

The tracing of the plan was done: it remained to compare it with the
original, and to see whether any paths had been wrongly closed or left
open. With one finger on each paper, he traced out the course that must
be followed from the entrance. There were one or two slight mistakes, but
here, near the centre, was a bad confusion, probably due to the entry of
the Second or Third Bat. Before correcting the copy he followed out
carefully the last turnings of the path on the original. These, at least,
were right; they led without a hitch to the middle space. Here was a
feature which need not be repeated on the copy--an ugly black spot about
the size of a shilling. Ink? No. It resembled a hole, but how should a
hole be there? He stared at it with tired eyes: the work of tracing had
been very laborious, and he was drowsy and oppressed ... But surely this
was a very odd hole. It seemed to go not only through the paper, but
through the table on which it lay. Yes, and through the floor below that,
down, and still down, even into infinite depths. He craned over it,
utterly bewildered. Just as, when you were a child, you may have pored
over a square inch of counterpane until it became a landscape with wooded
hills, and perhaps even churches and houses, and you lost all thought of
the true size of yourself and it, so this hole seemed to Humphreys for
the moment the only thing in the world. For some reason it was hateful to
him from the first, but he had gazed at it for some moments before any
feeling of anxiety came upon him; and then it did come, stronger and
stronger—a horror lest something might emerge from it, and a really
agonizing conviction that a terror was on its way, from the sight of
which he would not be able to escape. Oh yes, far, far down there was a
movement, and the movement was upwards—towards the surface. Nearer and
nearer it came, and it was of a blackish-grey colour with more than one
dark hole. It took shape as a face--a human face—a burnt human face:
and with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple
there clambered forth an appearance of a form, waving black arms prepared
to clasp the head that was bending over them. With a convulsion of
despair Humphreys threw himself back, struck his head against a hanging
lamp, and fell.
I put the book down after reading that; went off up the road to buy a newspaper. It's a flat, heavy grey day out there, humid and unappealing. As I turned the corner, I yawned. Too much coffee early on. And at that moment, a wasp flew into my mouth. Banged against the roof of my mouth and fell onto my tongue. I froze with horror. I knew it was a wasp, and I knew that it was sitting on my tongue. Do not move, I thought. Don't try and blow it out, or spit. If it stings, you're in trouble. And slowly, this wasp clambered out of my mouth into the air; I could feel all six legs as it crawled over my bottom lip and my heart was beating high with horror. And then there was the buzz as it flew off; a little black and yellow piece of nightmare.

I am going to burn this bloody book!


Steve Bodio said...

Thank you, thank you, for the photo of Monty. I have been a fan of his since being creeeped out by The Mezzotint at about fourteen. I have half of his stories here and now must buy the rest. Which one do you quote?

I do love to read one or two on a dark winter day but then one has enough for a while.

pluvialis said...

The quote is from Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance, which I think was originally in _More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary_. There's a nice new-ish Collected Ghost Stories; I'll send you a copy. Went to an excellent reading of The Mezzotint and Canon Alberic's Scrapbook a couple of years ago: a chap dressed as James, sitting in an armchair next to a standard lamp and a small table with a whisky glass and a decanter, and everything else in darkness. It was wonderful: deeply spooky.

Xtin said...

The linen face! THE FACE IN THE LINEN! The faaaaaaace ...

=runs screaming=

Heidi the Hick said...

GAh! You warn me not to read it beginning to end, and then you do this, and top it off with the wasp snippet! I must read it!

Darnit now I'll have to get a copy. I have to. It's not just ghost stories...really beautifully creepy ghost stories! I've got a four inch thick Poe collection on my shelf. I promised myself I'd only read one story at a time, just to keep from running screaming!

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Okay-- the wasp in the mouth thing would unhinged me--truly, like put me in the hospital rocking in the corner for a few days. Gah! I'm going to talk with my hand over my mouth for the next week at least...

Quills said...

I think my husband has the whole M.R. James collection of stories. He has loved ghost stories since he was a child. He actually listens to an audio recording on head phones of some M.R. James stories as he falls asleep. No wonder he has some strange dreams.