Category: M.R. James

“Curiosity has always been my downfall”: Doctor Who and the Jamesian Ghost Story

“Gothic” is an adjective regularly applied to vast swathes of Doctor Who, and while probably over-used, it’s a fair summary of the claustrophobic menace, melodrama and explained supernatural that’s a hallmark of the series particularly after 1974, and which reaches its peak in The Talons of Weng-Chiang (although Terminus, with its ghostly skulls, decaying fortress setting, cowled lepers, secret passages and hidden rooms is possibly the most genuinely Gothic story).

And while Gothic fiction is a vein that’s been richly tapped by Doctor Who, it would be wrong to suggest that it’s the only way to handle sci-fi horror. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in response to the perceived excesses and absurdities of Gothic, a group of writers, led by M.R. James, developed the antiquarian ghost story, which moved away from the kind of medieval settings or overt symbolism of Gothic and tried to bring the ghost story up to date, paring back the gaudy effects whilst preserving its pleasing terror. Some elements of the English antiquarian ghost story frequently seen in the work of writers like James, Algernon Blackwood and L.T.C Rolt include:

  • A great sense of the weight of history pressing on the present or near-present (often revealed through translated documents)
  • A circumscribed setting somewhere in the English (or north European) countryside, where terrible events echo down through the centuries
  • Warnings to the curious, with the unearthing of some ancient relic by an overly prying, often hubristic protagonist, who is punished by a disproportionately horrible fate

Nigel Kneale, a great admirer of M.R. James, synthesised many of these elements in Quatermass and the Pit, Beasts and especially The Stone Tape – where the scientific investigations of the protagonists unleashes something ancient and terrible that, in The Pit’s case, threatens the future of humankind. The Stone Tape, in particular, is an informative example of how science fiction such as Doctor Who can tackle the Jamesian ghost story. There’s a scientific explanation of residual haunting and all the apparatus of a modern research establishment applied to investigate an apparition that’s been embedded in the very fabric of the stones since ancient times, which is inexplicably malevolent, and which enacts a horrible vengeance on the scientists who have summoned it into the present day, converting one of them into another of its manifestations. The story’s conclusion is essentially they should’ve let it lie.

There are hints of this in some of the 1960s’ episodes: both The Power of the Daleks and The Tomb of the Cybermen suggest that science unbound by ethics can unleash inhuman horrors. But these are equally themes of the earliest sci-fi horror, Frankenstein, rather than uniquely antiquarian hallmarks, and are more about the deliberate resurrection of a monster than the accidental unleashing of a demonic force. Fury from the Deep and Doctor Who and the Silurians feature creatures from history or legend coming into the present as a result of human interference, but, barring some vague references to legends of sea monsters and race memory, neither fulfils the criteria of a true antiquarian ghost story as laid down by James.

Which means the first story which truly embraces the M.R. James / Nigel Kneale approach is Inferno – the tale of Professor Stahlman, an insatiably ambitious and curious man who digs deep into the Earth and unwittingly unleashes an uncontainable evil that’s presumably lain buried for millions of years. The ooze that emerges proceeds to infect various people, including ultimately Stahlman himself, and transforms them into werewolves as a punishment for this transgression. Stahlman comes across like the new Dean of Southminster Cathedral in James’s An Episode of Cathedral History, determined to make “improvements” regardless of the warnings of wiser heads. The Dean ultimately releases something that has been trapped inside an old tomb, “a thing like a man, all over hair,” which predates on the Southminster community just as the hirsute primords prey on the research establishment. As a synthesis of the antiquarian ghost story and Doctor Who, Inferno’s template is so successful that it’s interesting to note that for the remainder of the Jon Pertwee years the final story of every season features an unethical scientist (Horner, the Master, Stevens and ultimately the Doctor himself) unleashing something awful – in three cases, accidentally.

While it foregrounds the Dennis Wheatley elements of black magic, the first episode of The Daemons is classic M.R. James, with Professor Horner’s stubborn archaeologist very much in the mould of Professor Stahlman (or James’s Paxton, who also releases an ancient evil from inside a barrow), determined to make his name (and fortune) by uncovering the treasure inside the Devil’s Hump, and who is punished for this curiosity by being frozen to death. Other Jamesian elements include the Doctor’s slide show of the history of Devil’s End, and the idea of a priest who has little respect for the history of his own church. But while the Master may have something in common with Lost Hearts’ immortality-seeking pagan Mr Abney, on the whole The Daemons doesn’t punish its other protagonists nearly as harshly as it does Horner. The Pertwee years never repeat such an obvious step into the realms of the supernatural, although Planet of the Spiders does include monsters straight out of The Ash Tree, and, in a supremely Jamesian touch, the third Doctor’s horribly painful and prolonged death is explicitly a punishment for his greed for knowledge.

The Hinchcliffe episodes are more Gothic than Jamesian, more indebted to Universal and Hammer Horror movies than antiquarian ghost stories. Even Pyramids of Mars, which on the surface looks promising, has an imported horror and a rather too well-explained villain to fit the bill. Much more thoroughly Jamesian is Planet of Evil, which is practically A Warning to the Curious re-written for a sci-fi setting. Its protagonist, Professor Sorenson, removes something from beneath the ground of Zeta Minor and the ghostly demon that guards it enacts a terrible (and disproportionately cruel) penalty on his crew until the stolen property is returned. As in Inferno, the werewolf angle isn’t entirely Jamesian, although the similarity to the nature of many of his “ghosts” – hairy, fanged, clawed things, beast-like parodies of the human form, most certainly is:

“Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand; nails rising from the ends of the fingers and curving sharply down and forward, grey, horny and wrinkled… The eyes, of a fiery yellow, against which the pupils showed black and intense, and the exulting hate and thirst to destroy life which shone there, were the most horrifying features in the whole vision. There was intelligence of a kind in them — intelligence beyond that of a beast, below that of a man” (from Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book)

Image of the Fendahl is pure Nigel Kneale, and therefore indirectly influenced by James. The Stone Tape is evoked by the presence of science laboratories in an old building and by the summoning of the past into the present, the Fendahleen are suitably nasty (almost Lovecraftian) tentacled monsters, and the Fendahl’s origin is vague enough to satisfy James’s requirement that explanations should never be too thorough. Like The Daemons, this is equally influenced by Quatermass and the Pit’s story of alien influence over human development, a Von Daniken-esque angle that’s more Lovecraft than James. Nevertheless, with its atmosphere of creeping menace, the punishment meted out to Dr Fendelman, and the relentlessly malevolent nature of the Fendahl itself, Image of the Fendahl is unimpeachably Jamesian. Nothing else in the Tom Baker years comes close, although The Stones of Blood’s creepy history of Vivien Fay and the horrifying fate of the curious campers are chillingly Jamesian moments.

And although Snakedance features the idea of history coming back to haunt the present, it isn’t until The Awakening that we get another genuinely Jamesian story: one that’s equally happy to reference Children of the Stones, Witchfinder General and Blood on Satan’s Claw, with Malus in place of Behemoth. The doomed Sir George comes across like The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’s Reverend Somerton, intrigued by the discoveries in Little Hodcombe church, and awakening the monstrous demon through his greed. The Doctor’s comments on the carvings of Malus in the church, and his wild hypothesising about its origins, and its unambiguously malevolent intentions place this firmly in the Jamesian style – and it’s notable that all this comes about thanks to the curiosity of the local historian Andrew Verney, an amateur antiquarian very much in the mould of James’s protagonists. Set in an English village in the present day, featuring the intrusion of the past into the present, and an archetypal vengeful and evil demon in the form of “an intensely horrible face” that is buried under a church, The Awakening is almost as Jamesian as Doctor Who gets.

Almost, because The Curse of Fenric is the ultimate M.R. James / Doctor Who hybrid: a science horror take on Casting the Runes that throws in the oldest demon of all, flesh-rending monsters, runic carvings translated by a modern machine (very Stone Tape, that), a curse passed from person to person, and a pompous antiquarian who is the chief victim of the woken demon. In James’s Casting the Runes, the curse has to be passed to its victim – it can’t be slipped into their pocket, they must take it, albeit unwittingly. Here, the Russians can’t just be killed by the Allies – they have to take the ULTIMA machine back to Moscow willingly. Through a melange of other influences, the essentially Jamesian nature of the story is this: a small community dominated by the history buried beneath them; the antiquarian research of Dr Judson; the focus on old documents and ancient relics (such as the runes and the flask), and the thoroughly evil demon Fenric.

There’s a suggestion in About Time: Volume 6 that Fenric’s writer Ian Briggs was inspired by John Carpenter’s 1987 film Prince of Darkness. It’s documented that Carpenter was, in turn, inspired by Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape, and Kneale, as we have seen, was inspired by M.R. James. It’s a testament to James’s remarkable imagination that three generations of successful writers have taken their lead from him. And the 21st Century has already given us a pretty definite take on the Jamesian ghost story – Midnight’s unexplained and malicious entity that takes a murderous dislike to the curious crew of the shuttle bus passengers, and punishes the Doctor’s hubris – so it’s a fair bet to expect we haven’t yet seen the end of this haunting and highly successful sub-genre of Doctor Who.

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A Podcast to the Curious

Over the last fortnight I’ve been listening to the first 10 installments of A Podcast to the Curious – a story-by-story journey through the M.R. James canon. As a relative newcomer to podcasts, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the banter between the hosts, Mike and Will. What I particularly like about the podcast is that the hosts do their homework beforehand – and include their sources and research on their website, here), referring, for example, to Warnings to the Curious, the splendid collection of critical writing on James, and to the Michael Cox biography. This means that their obvious enthusiasm for the stories is backed up by some informed insights that inspired this listener to pick up his hallowed copy of A Pleasing Terror and to read some of the tales with a new perspective.

So far, the podcast has covered all the tales in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary – James’s most well-known volume. So it’s a perfect moment to catch up, and then launch with them into More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. I’m particularly looking forward to the hosts covering A Thin Ghost, James’s least-loved collection, and some of the less-studied stories such as ‘The Fenstanton Witch’, which will be tougher to research but therefore have a lot that’s new to say.

The podcast is available on iTunes, and you can also follow Mike and Will on Facebook and Twitter.

The Night Comes On, by Steve Duffy

Available now as an e-book from Ash Tree Press, this 1998 collection of short stories is an admiring pastiche of M.R. James’s style which contains 20 tales, mainly set between the two World Wars. Duffy is an award-winning writer, and the quality shows through in every story – not one is without at least one shiver, and as a whole the collection sticks loyally to James’s rules, particularly that ghosts should be malevolent, and furious at the living. Even A.N.L. Munby had some friendly phantoms – but not Duffy. All his spooks are meant to frighten. And all of them seem to have their roots in an older world of Pagan rituals and black magic, of curses and Faustian pacts, so that modern civilisation is never more than a thin veneer over something dark and unknowable.

The weakness of the collection is that it frequently wears its influences too heavily, which means the reader begins playing a game of “spot the James story” rather than enjoying Duffy’s prose on its own merits. So, for instance, ‘The Close at Chadminster’ is another ‘Episode of Cathedral History’, ‘The Last of the Scarisfields’ is apparently inspired by ‘Lost Hearts’, though with a neat twist, while ‘The Hunter and His Quarry’ is more or less a re-write of Count Magnus. Perhaps the best synthesis of James’s approach with Duffy’s Pagan monsters is ‘Figures on a Hillside’, which features antiquarians uncovering a hillside giant – and in so doing unleashing something awful, hunched and spidery.

Equally, the ghosts themselves owe an immense debt to James’s thin, spiderlike and hairy, and invariably thoroughly tangible, apparitions. And so in ‘The Vicar of Wryde St Luke’ – a story that is so indebted to ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book’ that Dennistoun is name-checked – the monstrous guardian of a grimoire is of the same genus as the beast in the James story. Elsewhere, the gaunt keepers of a cursed book that is more than it appears have the same cobwebbed, dessicated visages as the watcher of ‘The Tractate Middoth’. And occasionally Duffy’s turn of phrase is drawn directly from James, such as the publican found “dead and black” just like Sir Matthew Fell.

In general, though, Duffy is less adept as James at revealing his horrors. Though famed for his reticence, James’s most outstanding moments of terror are depicted with sudden, startling clarity – as a horrible shape in the shadows suddenly illuminated by a flash of lightning. We remember, for example, the vast brown, mewling spiders in ‘The Ash Tree’, or that intensely horrible face of crumpled linen. Duffy’s ‘Out of the Water, Out of the Earth’ has overtones of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ with its hellish horrors emerging from an ancient well. But while James gave us a few telling and lingeringly nasty details about the amphibian Guardian of his treasure, Duffy’s monsters are left vague and rather abstract, and so fail to stick in the mind after the story ends and the lights go out.

By contrast, the best stories – including ‘The Night Comes On’, with its muggy Egyptology and furiously vengeful monster, and ‘Running Dogs’ which features a memorably sinister isolated railway station and a rather Aickmanesque sense of oppressive doom – have an inter-war period style of their own, which nods to James without slavishly following him. ‘The Story of a Malediction’ by contrast takes James’s idea of visiting disproportionately harsh punishments on his hapless victims to an unforgettably horrifying extreme, as a bystander in a dispute with Satanist gypsies is hunted down by a phantom straight out of Le Fanu’s ‘Green Tea’. In its cold, unblinking perspective on an arbitrary, unfathomable universe, careless to the existence of human beings, it’s as bleak a tale as there can be.

I enjoyed this collection, and at his best Duffy probably comes closer than any of his contemporaries to successfully evoking the Jamesian style in any sustained way. Certainly, if you’re a fan of James you can’t help but enjoy this. And at about £5.00 the e-book is too good not to buy.