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Ghosts -- Treat Them Gently

M.R. James

first published Evening News, 17 April 1931
reprinted in Ghosts and Scholars, edited by Rosemary Pardoe and Richard Dalby (Crucible 1987)

Their Most Famous Creator Explains How to Get the Best Out of Them

What first interested me in ghosts? This I can tell you quite definitely. In my childhood I chanced to see a toy Punch and Judy set, with figures cut out in cardboard. One of these was The Ghost. I was a tall figure habited in white with an unnaturally long and narrow head, also surrounded with white, and a dismal visage.

Upon this my conceptions of a ghost were based, and for years it permeated my dreams.

Other questions -- why I like ghost stories, or what are the best, or why they are the best, or a recipe for writing such things -- I have never found it easy to be so positive about. Clearly, however, the public likes them. The recrudescence of ghost stories in recent years is notable: it corresponds, of course, with the vogue of the detective tale.

The ghost story can be supremely excellent in its kind, or it may be deplorable. Like other things, it may err by excess or defect, Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a book with very good ideas in it, but -- to be vulgar -- the butter is spread far too thick, Excess is the fault here: to give an example of erring by defect is difficult, because the stories that err in that way leave no impression on the memory.

I am speaking of the literary ghost story here. The story that claims to be 'veridical' (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be quite brief and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts -- as I am quite prepared to believe -- the true ghost story need do no more than illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may be as mild as milk.

The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that, must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.

Since the things which the ghost can effectively do are very limited in number, ranging about death and madness and the discovery of secrets, the setting seems to me a1l-important, since in it there is the greatest opportunity for variety.

It is upon this and upon the first glimmer of the appearance of the o supernatural that pains must be lavished. But we need not, we should not, use all the colours in the box. In the infancy of the art we needed the haunted castle on a beetling rock to put us in the right frame: the tendency is not yet extinct, for I have but just read a story with a
mysterious mansion on a desolate height in Cornwall and a gentleman practising the worst sort of magic. How often, too, have ruinous old houses been described or shown to me as fit scenes for stories.

'Can’t you imagine some old monk or friar wandering about this long gallery?' No, I can’t.

I know Harrison Ainsworth could: The Lancashire Witches teems with Cistercians and what he calls votaresses in mouldering vestments, who glide about passages to very little purpose. But these fail to impress. Not that I have not a soft corner in my heart for The Lancashire Witches, which --ridiculous as much of it is -- has distinct merits as a story.

It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person. Elementals and such-like do not come under this rule.

Roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer. Such was the elder Hamlet and such Jacob Marley. The latter I cite with confidence and in despite of critics, for, whatever may be urged against some parts of The Christmas Carol, it is, I hold, undeniable that the introduction, the advent, of Jacob Marley is tremendously effective.

And be it observed that the setting in both these classic examples is contemporary and even ordinary. The ramparts of the Kronborg and the chambers of Ebenezer Scrooge were, to those who frequented them, features of every-day life.

But there are exceptions to every rule. An ancient haunting can be made terrible and can be invested with actuality, but it will tax your best endeavours to forgo the links between past and present in a satisfying way. And in any case there must be ordinary level—headed modern persons -- Horatios -- on the scene, such as the detective needs his Watson or his Hastings to play the part of the lay observer.

Setting or environment, then, is to me a principal point, and the more readily appreciable the setting is to the ordinary reader the better. The other essential is that our ghost should make himself felt by gradual stirrings diffusing an atmosphere of uneasiness before the final flash or stab of horror.

Must there be horror? you ask. I think so. There are but two really good ghost stories I know in the language wherein the elements of beauty and pity dominate terror. They are Lanoe Falconer’s 'Cecilia de Noel' and Mrs Oliphant’s 'The Open Door'. In both there are moments of horror; but in both we end by saying with Hamlet: 'Alas, poor ghost!' Perhaps my limit of two stories is overstrict; but that these two are by very much the best of their kind I do not doubt.

On the whole, then, I say you must have horror and also malevolence. Not less necessary, however, is reticence. There is a series of books I have read, I think American in origin, called Not at Night (and with other like titles), which sin glaringly against this law. They have no other aim than that of Mr Wardle’s Fat Boy.

Of course, all writers of ghost stories do desire to make their readers' flesh creep; but these are shameless in their attempts. They are unbelievably crude and sudden, and they wallow in corruption. And if there is a theme that ought to be kept out of the ghost story, it is that of the charnel house. That and sex, wherein I do not say that these Not at Night books deal, but certainly other recent writers do, and in so doing spoil the whole business.

To return from the faults of ghost stories to their excellence. Who, do I think, has best realized their possibilities? I have no hesitation in saying that it is Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. In the volume called In a Glass Darkly are four stories of paramount excellence, 'Green Tea', 'The Familiar', 'Mr Justice Harbottle', and 'Carmilla'. All of these conform to my requirements: the settings are quite different, but all seen by the writer; the approaches of the supernatural nicely graduated; the climax adequate. Le Fanu was a scholar and a poet, and these tales show him as such. It is true that he died as long ago as 1873, but there is wonderfully little that is obsolete in his manner.

Of living writers I have some hesitation in speaking, but on any list that I was forced to compile the names of E. F. Benson, Blackwood, Burrage, De la Mare and Wakefield would find a place.

But, although the subject has its fascinations, I see no use in being pontifical about it. These stories are meant to please and amuse us. If they do so, well; but, if not, let us relegate them to the top shelf and say no more about it.

copyright©Robert Hood 2002-2007

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