Michael Dirda on M.R. James


What Arthur Conan Doyle’s adventures of Sherlock Holmes are to the detective story, M.R. James’s tales of revenants and demons are to supernatural fiction. They remain the gold standard, the blue-chip stocks, the flowering perennials amid each spring’s evanescent annuals. Even though mystery and short horror tales have evolved significantly in the last century, when neophyte readers are seeking introductions to these genres, any wise elder still sends them first to Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” (1887) and James’s “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1904).

Though showing considerable variety in their plots and themes, James’s ghost stories typically feature a male scholar, often an unmarried university don, who notices something anomalous in a decaying church, an old manuscript or a bit of folklore. Despite warnings of various kinds, the protagonist rashly proceeds with his investigations, sometimes out of intellectual curiosity, sometimes hoping to unearth valuable relics or to acquire unnatural powers. Inevitably this meddling awakens the attention of demonic guardians, nearly always with mortal consequences. Above all, atmosphere, setting and a carefully controlled denouement are central to the success of these cozily unsettling tales. Among the most celebrated are “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” and “Casting the Runes,” but every reader will have his or her own favorites.

Rosemary Pardoe, founder of the journal Ghosts and Scholars, once compiled a list of various stories composed in the Jamesian manner. Among the titles on “The James Gang” list, as it is nicknamed, are such anthology favorites as E.F. Benson’s “Negotium Perambulans,” H.R. Wakefield’s “He Cometh and He Passeth By,” Eleanor Scott’s “Celui-là” and Margaret Irwin’s “The Earlier Service.” Only a small handful of novels make the cut, however, perhaps the best known being Kingsley Amis’s “The Green Man” (which I introduced for its New York Review paperback edition). But here I want to look at John Gordon’s “The House on the Brink” (1970) and Fritz Leiber’s “Our Lady of Darkness (1977), which Pardoe deemed “the two best novels in the M.R. James tradition.”

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Initially marketed as a YA story of suspense, “The House on the Brink” (long hard to find but now available from Valancourt Books) is narrated in the third person, largely from the interior viewpoint of 16-year-old Dick Dodds. The setting is an English riverside town near some ominous marshlands. Gordon’s prose is relatively staccato, with lots of sentence fragments and short paragraphs, and the action moves rapidly, covering the events of just a few days. Much that occurs is slightly phantasmagoric, resulting in a story of psychological disorientation as well as physical threat.

One night, Dick discovers an almost invisible trail zigzagging through the nearby marshes, exuding a miasma of coldness and evil. Soon thereafter, the teenage Helen, who lives on a farm nearby, glimpses something manlike in the weeds, repeatedly lurching forward and falling over, then rising up again. When these young sweethearts consult a local water diviner, she warns them to stay far away from the slightly hysterical Mrs. Knowles and enigmatic Mr. Miller, both obsessed with a local legend about King John: His lost treasure supposedly lies sunken in the river’s mud but somehow guarded from discovery. By whom or what? This setup recalls James’s “A Warning to the Curious,” but the conclusion of “The House on the Brink” is arguably more terrifying.

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Set in hippie-era San Francisco, “Our Lady of Darkness” focuses on a middle-aged horror writer and former alcoholic named Franz Westen — a stand-in for Leiber himself — who is still recovering from the death of his wife two years earlier. One morning, Westen peers out his apartment window and, in the distance, notices a peculiar dancing figure on a hill named Corona Heights. On impulse, he decides to investigate. While on the hilltop, Westen casually glances through binoculars back at his own building: Leaning from his window and waving to him is “a pale brown thing,” vaguely human in shape.

The writer quickly hurries home but finds nothing amiss, except some tiny paper fragments scattered on the floor and window sill. Before long, however, a seriously frightened Westen rushes to consult a sybaritic, Magus-like acquaintance named Jaime Donaldus Byers, who — in my favorite chapters of the novel — relates the history of an occultist named Thibault de Castries, author of “Megapolisomancy.” In this extremely rare book, de Castries proclaimed the essential evil of skyscrapers and overbuilt cities and hinted at the existence of beings called “paramentals.” What’s more, it turns out that the occultist’s inner circle included Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Dashiell Hammett and, most important, the Weird Tales author Clark Ashton Smith.

Despite taking place in a modern American city, “Our Lady of Darkness” does demonstrate, in good Jamesian fashion, the malign influence of the past on the present, features several sinister books and buildings, pays precise attention to the Bay Area’s urban geography — you can trace Westen’s wanderings on a street map — and, at certain points, even reworks James’s “A View From a Hill” and “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” (For me, the novel contains one additional charm: I have met and corresponded with the now 88-year-old poet Donald Sidney-Fryer, known as Donaldo to friends and the inspiration for Jaime Donaldus Byers.)

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Both the Gordon and Leiber books are James Gang-certified titles, as are a few other novels such as H.F. Heard’s “The Black Fox” (1950) and Edgar Mittelholzer’s “My Bones and My Flute” (1955). Missing, however, is Thomas Bontly’s strangely neglected “Celestial Chess” (1980), available in a 40th-anniversary edition from Bruin Books, with an introduction by Thomas Kent Miller.

In Bontly’s opening chapter, the sudden death of a rare-book librarian immediately closes off access to the special collections of Cambridge’s (imaginary) Duke’s College. The 30-something David Fairchild thus finds himself unable to study the Westchurch Manuscripts, in particular an enigmatic poetic allegory from the 12th century. In short order, other deaths occur, and Fairchild detects a disturbing pattern. His suspicions eventually take him to the ancient family estate of one of the dons, a professor of physics, near which lies a ruined and reputedly haunted abbey.

Interspersed with Fairchild’s modern-day adventures, Bontly provides flashback chapters outlining the life of the allegorical poem’s author, a priest named Geoffrey Gervaise. Tormented by sinful desires and intellectual hubris, Gervaise finally decides to assuage his religious doubts through a daring gambit: He challenges Satan to a chess match. Gervaise wins the first two games, but the third and last is played using certain stars as pieces. Yet after 700 years that game isn’t quite finished. The priest, though dead, is owed one last move, and a murderous satanic cult is determined that this move should never be made.

While many of the elements in “Celestial Chess” are recognizably Jamesian, to my mind the book more fully resembles an occult thriller in the mode of Dennis Wheatley’s classic “The Devil Rides Out.” James would certainly have been appalled at all the sex, which, however, proves crucial to the plot.

So, there you have it: three excellent novels of antiquarian spookiness, ideal for bleak midwinter. The James Gang rides again!

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