Saturday, 6 January 2018

Masters of the Short Story - Montague Rhodes James


MRJames1900.jpgI suspect that only those of a literary bent or perhaps who follow authors given to writing fictions about the macabre, the supernatural, the downright bizarre would know of Montague Rhodes James.
On this I may be wrong for there most certainly have been TV programmes dedicated to not only biographies but also dramas of his work. 

M.R. James as he was known was probably the greatest author of short weird tales, many of them ghost stories. He is a man often said to have influenced Susan Hill another fine author whose memorable works include the legendary ‘Woman in Black. I was captivated when I saw a Folio Society publication which featured M.R. James stories illustrated by artist James McBryde. Those who regularly read this blog would have seen my interest in Eastern philosophies –  Sanatana Dharma, Taoism and Buddhism plus the teachings of Jiddu Krishnamurti – and although I do not subscribe to any of them they have deeply influenced my thinking, changing my life in many ways. The one thing all share is accepting we only require that what we need not what we desire. Having given most of my CD’s and books to various charities and now only using the library for my reading matter, I found myself hoisted by my own petard. Upon sight of the delicious volume of Mister James’ work on the Folio Society website, I wanted a copy. I still do. However, without wishing to make myself sound saintly, I managed to persuade my desire to hold its horses and wait. I have a birthday in March so perhaps one of my children will give me a copy? Is that too sharp a hint? Not subtle enough? Well, bugger subtly when there is something you want…er, need. (?)

So, there I was without a book by this legendary author to read, so I reserved a copy from Southend Library which I subsequently collected. It is an incredible paperback containing some thirty short stories all of which set the hairs sitting up on the nape-of-the-neck. The collection is entitled “Collected Ghost Stories.” It is a remarkable anthology. The stories really do what it says on the label – unsettle you. The detailed style he employs is frankly incredible as are his descriptions both of which lend the reader the framework upon which to colour in the chilling implications drifting through their minds.

M.R. James’ talent is in the way in which he writes of the ordinary when engaged in detailing the extra-ordinary thereby leaving the reader, armed with all the pertinent facts, to fill in the horror with their own imagination. It makes for an uncanny read leaving the reader terrified by their own hand albeit cleverly engineered by the author.

Montague Rhodes James was born in Goodnestone, Kent in 1862. His father was a clergyman, his mother the daughter of a naval officer. Although best known for his short story writing, specifically his ghost stories, his fictions were not the only string to his bow. As a medievalist scholar, he was highly regarded. To this day his work remains greatly respected. He was also provost at Kings College, Cambridge. His own status was one he often used in his tales as, more often than not, they have as their central character a scholarly man, educated, intellectual and logical. The sort of man unafraid of whispers of spooks and spectres. A man very much like James himself.

The one short story and there are several worthies, that springs to mind are “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My lad.” I could have selected “The Mezzotint,” or “Rats” and very likely many others too as the quality is of the very best but I will stick with my first choice - “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My lad.”

The title is odd. At least I think so. It bears none of what accepted fictions of the ilk would use. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, employed titles that of themselves imparted a sense of dread, of fear. Narratives such as “The Lurking Fear,” “The Whisperer in the Darkness,” “The Haunter of the Dark.” James selects here a title that reads as though it might be a music hall tune. It is anything but. The conceit is a method by which to wrong-foot you into dismissing the nature of the story as being light of content, not something infused with terror. It is a trick that works well.

Professor Parkins is a young teacher, a Professor of Ontography who has been besotted by the game of golf following his introduction to the game by friends. He determines to have a short vacation where he can read, write and spend time playing the game he has recently grown to love. He decides on taking his break on the East Coast of England, Burnstow.  The seaside resort is a fiction. It doesn’t nor has it ever existed. The town is set in Suffolk. Many of James’ works are placed either in Essex, Cambridge or Suffolk. He seems to have had an affection for the East Anglian area. He selects a small public house, The Globe Inn, to stay at describing it as a lodging house. One of his friends with whom he details his plans asks him whether whilst in the region he intends to visit the Templars preceptory, the headquarters of certain orders of monastic knights, such as the Knights Hospitaller and Knights Templar. Parkins says he hadn’t planned to but would be delighted if it helps, agreeing to furnish his friend with all and any detail he might find on the site.

Parkins takes a room at the boarding house before spending his first day on the golf course improving his game. He intends spending his supper with Colonel Wilson but before h does he takes a walk along the beach. As his feet tread across the sand and shingle he trips over a gorse root-tangled with a large stone. Falling to his knees he spies a series of small depressions and mounds set in a circular fashion. He investigates using his knife to dig and clear away debris. As he excavates the blade hits upon a solid object which when struck sounds metallic. The object is a metal tube some four inches long. He pockets the object then takes it back to his room. Upon examining the cylindrical tube, he sees it is made of bronze and, or so he believes, is of great antiquity. Opening the tube, he is surprised to find a whistle within. There are a series of legends inscribed along its length written in Latin of which he is unable to translate properly but thinks it says something like “Who is this who is coming.” He tentatively blows the whistle and is pleased with the note he produces for even though the sound is soft the note strikes as of having an infinite distance in it.

The story continues. The prose is antediluvian. This, though, makes the account all the better. Phrases from the past when used appropriately harness the attention, focus the mind whilst steering you down a path that runs parallel to the central diegesis. They're subtly being such that they suggest something isn’t quite right but never state what.

Following their meal, Professor Parkin and Colonel Wilson take an evening stroll where they encounter a boy terrified out of his wits. When asked what he has seen that has frightened him, he says a figure at the window. Which window was that the pair asks only for the boy to assure them it is the window to the room in which Parkin has rented.

Like a master chef adding ingredients to the conservative economy, so the author increases the tension at a seemingly unhurried pace. A night spent restful in the hands of Morpheus is spoilt when the spare bed next to his shows signs of movement which Parkin dismissed as being rats. He promises himself he will speak with the hotelier in the morning. Rats in the next bed? Frankly, I would have left the room double quick and decamped in the living room near the fire for the night. This passage has the effect of a clawed hand placed on a chalkboard. The hand doesn’t rake its disturbing way down the board, but the implication is it might. In other words, there is no sound just the thought of it which of itself sends shivers down the spine.

There are no dismembered limbs, no bloody scenes of entrails spilt, no horror just a creeping terror that grips the reader so that they turn the page with a trembling hand. The conclusion, when it comes, is chilling. I don’t think it would spoil your read even if I told it, but I will leave that to you to discover. M.R. James. A name synonymous with fear.


Montague Rhodes James. A master short storyteller.
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Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

1 comment:

Vanessa V Kilmer said...

Going to be reading these.