SOME (FURTHER) REMARKS ON GHOST STORIES
Conducted by Brian J. Showers, © April 2006
Published in Ghosts & Scholars, Issue #10
FEW WILL DENY THAT M.R. James, for better or for worse, set the standard for the modern day ghost story. Indeed "a pleasing terror" has become something of a catch phrase for enthusiasts of the genre and all that it has come to encompass. Some aficionados take the aesthetics set forth in James's "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" as canon; and the article's reputation has helped to contribute to the use of Dr. James's name as an adjective. Over the years, James's aesthetic has become prevalent to an extent that it reaches far beyond the ghost story genre and into supernatural fiction as a whole.
James's chief assertion in "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", an article that defines the genre for many admirers of the form, is that above all the true aim of a ghost story is to inspire, "a pleasing terror in the reader." This pleasing terror is a subtle chill that plays on a different part of the reader's nerves than, say, the lurid shock instilled by the image of Dracula, with blood-red lips, slumbering in the depths of Carfax Abbey, or the horrific awe created by Frankenstein's patchwork monster pursuing the good doctor across the Arctic tundra. In fact, James goes on to proclaim that, insofar as ghost stories go, "Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it." That is to say, sex and gore have no place in the Jamesian ghost story. However, "At the same time," says James, "don't let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror . . . are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded . . ." And so we find another Jamesian mainstay, one frequently overlooked by modern practitioners--that of the malevolent ghost. After all, how could a kind ghost ever hope to achieve a pleasing terror?
In a statement that almost pre-empts his pasticheurs, James writes that it is absolutely essential that, "The setting and the personages are those of the writer's own day, they have nothing antique about them." So in order to instil a pleasing terror, the ghostly threat must have origins in the familiar. In his introduction to Ghosts & Marvels, James further clarifies this statement: "For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. 'Thirty years ago', 'Not long before the war', are proper openings." In other words, the more the author can convince the reader that this could happen to me, the easier it will be for the author to disrupt the reader's-albeit imagined!--sense of personal safety.
Finally, a ghost story scribe must be able to, "give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but . . . when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery." As with Lovecraft's Cosmic Horror philosophy, James believed that the fear of the unknown--"the shadow-haunted Outside"--is key to success. However, "We do not want to see the bones of [the author's] theory about the supernatural." To know the whys and wherefores of the weird is to dispel the supernatural with rationalism, and the ghost will vanish with it.
It is true that the Jamesian ghost story has the potential for being limited in scope-at the very least, if not given proper access to imagination, it runs the risk of going stale. Consider for a moment the sheer number of half-baked Jamesian pastiches that have been published over the years. And yet the modern ghost story, in its various manifestations, is alive and well and practiced by many who have tailored the Jamesian tradition to their own style. Some follow each note of James's tune in perfect pitch, some pick and choose which decrees to follow and which to ignore, and others make up their own; but it still remains that most modern supernatural fictioneers are either responding to or reacting against James's aesthetics.
At this point my words have taken up enough space, and I enough of your time. Perhaps I should step aside and let the modern practitioners answer:
"How do you approach M.R. James's aesthetics with regard to your own supernatural work and the modern audience?"
Respondents include Reggie Oliver, Gary McMahon, Barbara Roden, Stephen Volk, Chico Kidd, David Rowlands, David Sutton, and more.
The full article can be read on-line in the September 2006 issue of Ghosts & Scholars.
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