M. R. James Essay - Critical Essays


M. R. James, perhaps the most important practitioner of the ghost story between Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu and the modern scene, was, in the very best sense of the word, an “amateur.” An antiquarian, bibliographer, theologian, and educator by profession, his fiction writing was an almost accidental avocation; he made up and told (literally as well as figuratively) ghost stories for his own pleasure and that of his friends. His first two tales, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” and “Lost Hearts,” were composed to be read aloud at an 1897 meeting of the “Chitchat Society,” a short-lived literary club. The group disbanded, but James continued the ritual of reading supernatural narratives to friends every Christmas at eleven o’clock in the evening. Publication of the stories was largely due to the encouragement of these friends and never became more than a minor activity in James’s long and full, if uneventful, life.

This is not to say, however, that he was less than completely serious about his ghost stories. Although his oeuvre of thirty-two tales is modest in size, especially when compared with his voluminous nonfiction writings, the quality of the stories is uniformly high, and each has a flavor and style that is distinctly M. R. James. Beyond his own fictions, once he had committed himself to the writing of such narratives, James became both a staunch advocate and an important theorist of the genre.

The primary influence on his work was the mid-nineteenth century master of mystery and horror, Le Fanu. James thought himself a writer in the “Le Fanu tradition” and did everything he could to bring public attention to that neglected predecessor. In 1923, he edited a collection of Le Fanu’s best short fiction, Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery, initiating a “Le Fanu revival” which established that writer as the true father of the modern British horror story. James probably overstated his resemblance to his Irish forebear, but there are enough similarities between them to acknowledge a “Le Fanu-M. R. James tradition”—one that emphasizes familiar, contemporary settings instead of exotic, bygone landscapes; narrative distance and indirection rather than blatant sensationalism; and linguistic precision and subtlety over melodramatic verbal excess.

Although, when asked if he had any “theories as to the writing of ghost stories,” James responded “none that are worthy of the name or need be repeated,” he did, in fact, have a thorough, if succinct and simple, theory of the genre which he articulated—albeit reluctantly—in a few short essays that preface some of his collections. Most of these principles can be seen operating in “Lost Hearts,” the most famous of James’s early stories.

“Lost Hearts”

“Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are to me,” he said, “the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.” He begins to create his “atmosphere” and mount his “nicely managed crescendo” in “Lost Hearts” with the picture of a young boy arriving at a very old house; the boy is only sketched in; the house, copied from a real structure, is described in meticulous architectural detail. Like Edgar Allan Poe, a writer in most other respects very different from him, James often endowed his environments and inanimate objects with more reality and vitality than his human characters.

The reader quickly learns that the boy, Stephen Elliott, has come to live with his rich old uncle, Mr. Abney, following the death of his parents. Abney, a bookish scholar, seems benign, if austere and distant. The only odd note in their initial meeting is produced by the old man’s insistent repetition of the question: “How old are you?” Abney, however, retreats into the background when Stephen is turned over to Mrs. Bunch, his lively, affectionate, middle-aged housekeeper, who quickly establishes a comfortable setting for the boy—in keeping with James’s characteristic strategy.Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, then more insistently, until it holds the stage.

The “ominous thing” makes its unobtrusive entrance into the story when Mrs. Bunch tells Stephen about the mysterious disappearance of two homeless young people, a “gypsy girl” and a “foreign boy,” who had also been taken in by Abney. This information is immediately reinforced by a strange and terrible dream Stephen has in which he sees a strange corpselike figure seated in the bathtub, hands over its heart. Two bizarre incidents follow in short order: Stephen awakens one morning to find a series of slits in his nightgown over the heart area, and the butler refuses to go to the wine cellar because he hears voices. James manipulates the ghosts with great skill; the reader cannot be sure whether the rapidly intensifying danger to Stephen comes from these specters or from his uncle, or, perhaps, from both.

The climax of the story is signaled when Abney invites Stephen to an eleven o’clock meeting in his study. Immediately prior to the meeting, Stephen peers out his window and sees two ghosts:Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the lights shown through them. As he stood with his arms...

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