Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 2 (September 2002): Part One.

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published two or three times a year at irregular intervals. A hard copy version is available to buy - click here for further information. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines. Issue 2 in hard copy also contains selected news from the "Jamesian News" web page.

Editor: Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail); Assistant Editors: David Rowlands and Steve Duffy.

Copyright © 2002 Rosemary Pardoe. All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.


Part One:

"Editorial" by Rosemary Pardoe

"Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M.R. James and others" by Mike Pincombe

"'The Fenstanton Witch': Story Notes"

Artwork: Alan Hunter ("Rats")

Go to Part Two for:

"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("A Source for 'Martin's Close'?" by Muriel Smith; "The Mystery Of It All" by Rosemary Pardoe; "The Spanish Translations of M.R. James's Ghost Stories" by Jorge Abraham Zepeda Cordero; "The Night-Raven" by Rosemary Pardoe, with comments by Jacqueline Simpson and F.E. Mackie; "Queries")
"MRJ at Auction" by Donald Tumasonis
Artwork: F.E. Mackie (picture caption)


Okay, I promised you a controversial article in Issue Two, and I think you'll find that Mike Pincombe's fits the bill nicely! This might be a good time to emphasise the fact that opinions expressed in the Newsletter are not necessarily those of the editors! Nevertheless, if an article is - like Mike's - original, well argued and/or well researched, there will always be a place for it here, regardless of how controversial its ideas. The Newsletter has no party line. And the lettercolumn is available to all to express opposing viewpoints. If submissions are rejected it's going to be for one or more of the following reasons: they retread already well-trodden ground; they're off-topic; or their writers have not done adequate research or thinking on their chosen subject.

Articles, long and short, are always welcome, on anything to do with M.R. James, his supernatural fiction and related non-fiction (also unrelated non-fiction if we think it will interest readers), and his ghost-story writing friends and associates. For main articles 8000 words is, in theory, the maximum length, and for "Jamesian Notes & Queries" 1500 words, but both limits can be exceeded when required. Queries, letters for the lettercolumn, addenda to the story annotations, small pieces of artwork, and relevant reviews are also needed at all times.

Issue One of the Newsletter has been quietly but very favourably received, and the observant among you will already have noticed that Issue Two is rather longer. I did think of splitting the contents up so that there would be three issues in 2002, but new postage rises have forced the decision to go for two only. I've also needed to increase the annual subscription rates for 2003 to £7.00 inland; £8.50/US $13.00 overseas. This is partly because of the postage consideration, partly because I underestimated the other Newsletter costs this year, and partly because I want to be able to produce still larger issues next year. As before, all published contributions (except for brief letters) will be rewarded with complimentary copies or subscription extensions.

While I'm happy with how the Newsletter is developing so far, I'm coming round more and more to the feeling (mentioned in passing in #1) that the way to go on from here is to form an M.R. James Society, with the Newsletter as its publication. Why? To give us a more 'official' presence when approaching publishers and organisations like the BBC for one thing; but also to free us up to range more widely among MRJ's writings (without ever losing touch with the ghost stories, of course). I'm not talking here about the dry academic stuff but about all the odd mythological, folkloric, ecclesiological, demonological and angelological by-ways MRJ explored from time to time. Yes, we could (and doubtless will) do this in the Newsletter anyway, but having an M.R. James Society will open things up to a new audience and a new range of potential contributors. The world of ghost story fandom is very quiet and, frankly, a bit dull at the moment - we need fresh blood! Opinions please!

Rosemary Pardoe, August 2002

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Homosexual Panic and the
English Ghost Story:
M.R. James and others

by Mike Pincombe

Montague Rhodes James, as we all know, is the Grand Master of the English Ghost Story in its 'classical period', which is roughly contemporaneous with James's own career as a supernatural author from the 1890s to the 1930s. He more or less invented the 'antiquarian' ghost-story which is still cultivated very purposefully by many contemporary supernatural authors in this country. But the antiquarian world of James's ghostly oeuvre - one that closely, indeed, often transparently, mirrors the one in which he moved himself as an antiquary and scholar - is surprisingly violent. James meant it to be so. He did not like gentle ghosts; he wanted them to be very nasty:[1]

[D]on't let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, "the stony grin of unearthly malice", pursuing forms in darkness, and "long-drawn, distant screams", are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded.

James wrote this in a short essay called "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories", published in The Bookman, towards the end of his career as a supernatural author in 1929. The comments just quoted come immediately after a passage in which James recorded his disapproval of what he regarded as gratuitous horror in some recent and primarily American specimens of the genre:

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach [James was 67 at the time], yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories.

He then goes on to consider sex as well as horror:

They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.

James was only fairly reticent about horror in his own work; but he was very definitely reticent about sex. Aficionados often point to the lack of a love-interest in his tales. Typical is the following comment by Michael Cox: "Women figure rarely in James's stories, for this a world where sex is not".[2] However, this statement rather begs the question: Does a world without women necessarily mean a world without sex? The answer - at least to us today - is obviously: No. And this is where 'homosexual panic' comes into the picture.

I take the term 'homosexual panic' from Eve Sedgwick's remarks on the Gothic novel in her classic 1985 study of "English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire" called Between Men. Here is the gist of her argument as it might be applied to the classic English ghost-story. According to Sedgwick, a society governed by patriarchy can impose a kind of ideological 'terror' on its male members (one thinks perhaps of the way Victorian society treated James's near-contemporary Oscar Wilde). Once homosexuality is not only outlawed but persecuted, the threat of being accused of deviancy hangs like the sword of Damocles over every man who wishes to share in the benefits of patriarchy rather than become its dispossessed victim. It is not so much a question of 'exposure', but 'accusation', because it is in the nature of this kind of political terror to be arbitrary and inexplicable. One day you wake up to find you have been denounced as a deviant, and you lose everything: family, friends, position, respect. This is the melodramatic narrative of homosexual panic.

Sedgwick explains: "So-called 'homosexual panic' is the most private, psychologised form in which many twentieth-century men experience their vulnerability to the social pressure of homophobic blackmail".[3] It goes back further than the last century, however; and she goes on to relate homosexual panic to a sub-group of the nineteenth-century Gothic novel: "[E]ach is about one or more males who not only is persecuted by, but considers himself transparent to and often under the compulsion of, another male" (p.91).[4] Clearly, we can apply this narrative of persecution and pursuit to ghost-stories in which living men are chased and tormented by the ghosts of dead men - James's "pursuing forms in darkness".

Indeed, M.R. James provides an exceptionally interesting case-study in terms of the present topic because of his addiction to a very vigorous and close physical contact with other men: 'ragging'. This is a boisterous game somewhere in between tag and wrestling; and James loved it. He played it at school and he played it at university. Here is an account of an episode between himself and a friend called St Clair Donaldson, later Bishop of Salisbury, which seems to date from the year 1882, when James was a twenty-year-old undergraduate at Kings:[5]

I then called on St Clair... He eventually came to my rooms and I speedily originated a rag by hanging his hat on the coal scuttle. Marshall and Thomas thought my book cases were falling and came to see if they could render any assistance. We were at that moment somewhat mixed on the hearthrug.

What did Marshall and Thomas make of the scene that presented itself to them as they entered James's rooms. Were they amused? titillated? shocked? A clue may be gleaned from a memoir written by Cyril Alington on Lionel Ford, another of James's close friends. It concerns the lively games which would follow the meetings of an undergraduate society called the TAF, or 'Twice A Fortnight', over which James exercised, says Alington, an "informal hegemony".[6] I have not been able to find a copy of this text; but here is a passage quoting it from Cox's 1983 biography of James:

Conversation at the TAF was what Monty was pleased to call "trivial". There was a good deal of mimicry, with Monty as the leading performer; and there were rags. Cyril Alington, later Head Master of Eton and Dean of Durham, omitted from a description of the TAF "for reasons of piety" St Clair Donaldson's recollection of writhing on the floor "with Monty James's long fingers grasping at his vitals".

What would the spies and informers of Sedgwick's patriarchal police-state have made of that final image of Monty James's long fingers grasping at Donaldson's "vitals"? One can imagine them interrogating that last word: And just what do you mean by his "vitals", Mr Dean?[7]

Of course, according to Sedgwick's model, it should be James himself who worried about the possibility that his grappling with Donaldson might be interpreted in terms of homosexual foreplay. But apparently he did not. On the contrary, he seems to have been quite happy to be seen rolling around with other young men; nor were these playful scuffles regarded as scandalous even by his old Eton tutor, Henry Luxmoore, who was present at many of the Christmas Eve parties at King's where James and others would read out their ghost-stories. Luxmoore records in his diary for Christmas 1902 that James read an unspecified tale: "after which those played animal grab who did not mind having their clothes torn to pieces and their hands nailscored" (Cox: 1983, p.132). Was the forty-one-year-old Monty James still ragging even then? We may suspect that he was. And we may note that watching these exhibitions of horse-play was part of the pleasure of Christmases at King's for the pious and elderly Luxmoore.

Did James feel the "homosexual panic" which his ragging - and his general closeness to young men and boys throughout his life at Eton and King's and then at Eton again - might have inspired according to the Sedgwick model? I think the answer must be: Probably not; but others of his acquaintance certainly did. His close friend Arthur Benson, who recorded the pleasures and pains of his strong attachments to several young men in the course of his five-million word diary over the period 1897-1925, could never bring himself even to contemplate the mention of the "two thoughts, often with me, that greatly affect my life, to which I never allude here".[8]

Occasionally, we catch a fleeting glimpse of what these thoughts might have been. For example, on 24 January 1905, Benson was visited for the first time by Hugh Walpole, who would later write a number of good ghost stories and edit A Second Century of Creepy Stories (1937). At the time, however, Walpole was a twenty-one-year-old undergraduate at Emmanuel, with, it seems, a crush on Benson, which he revealed after desultory chat about history and literature and religion (cit. Newsome: 1980, p.176):[9]

Then he said [writes Benson in his diary] "And there's another thing" and then came out one of the most intime confessions I have ever heard, which I must not speak of here. The boy is evidently in very deep waters. But I could not help admiring the spirit he reveals. I don't think he is giving way. He said with a shudder "I could manage it all, if it weren't for my dreams." I asked him many plain questions, and I think he is living a sensible and manly life.

We can only guess what was said; but Benson's comments on Walpole's situation reveal the sort of picture which Sedgwick outlines in her chapter on the Gothic. It is "ghastly" and a "horror" and a "dark place to have looked into". Benson sees Walpole's dilemma (and his own, of course) in terms of a cosmic struggle between Conscience and Nature, where Conscience is designated the "voice of God", and Nature is a "strong, silent, force" - wordlessly dragging Walpole to the unspeakable. Benson, then, provides good evidence for the Sedgwick model; yet James seems to have been largely immune to the fears which preyed upon his friend - and almost certainly contributed to his long periods of utterly disabling clinical depression. Largely immune; but not completely unaware at some level of artistic consciousness, as a study of two of his best and best-loved ghost-stories may indicate: "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1903) and "A Warning to the Curious" (1925).[10]

"Oh, Whistle" might well be seen as an example of a sort of homophobic bullying (though it is much more complicated than that). The story revolves around young Professor Parkins of St James's College, Cambridge. Term is over, and he is about to go to Burnstow, to do some studying and play a bit of golf. Unfortunately, as he announces to his colleagues over dinner, the only room he could find was one with two beds. At this point, the "bluff person opposite", identified a few lines later as "rude Mr Rogers" (p.80), breaks in with a suggestion: "Look here, I shall come down and occupy it for a bit; it'll be company for you". Parkins is against the idea as he and Rogers clearly do not get on. Rogers really seems set on teasing his younger - but academically senior - colleague. On compelling Parkins to admit that he would rather he did not come, Rogers crows:

"Well done, Parkins! [...] No, I won't come if you don't want me; but I thought I should do so nicely to keep the ghosts off." Here he might have been seen to wink and to nudge his next neighbour. Parkins might also have been seen to become pink. "I beg pardon, Parkins," Rogers continued; "I oughtn't to have said that. I forgot you didn't like levity on these topics."

Of course, he does remember; that is why he said it: to make Parkins blush - like a girl. And this is where homophobic bullying comes into the picture. Parkins is represented throughout the story as somewhat 'unmanly' in the terms of the sort of collegiate life which James cherished and nurtured during his long spell at King's as student, fellow, and provost. It is not simply a question of effeminacy; Parkins also lacks the kind of intellectual culture which James prized as 'gentlemanly'. Parkins is weak on the Bible, on classical antiquity; he seems never to have read Dickens (and we may safely bet that Parkins does not smoke). Indeed, Parkins is a representative of the new - he is Professor of Ontography, a science even now yet to be invented - as opposed to the old order which the self-confessed Victorian M.R. James felt was under threat all through his life. So Parkins' effeminacy should be seen primarily, I think, as a means of further distancing him from the gentlemanly collegiality which James wanted to protect. James was not at all worried about effeminacy or homosexuality, as far as the record shows. But he did care about college life; and I think Parkins is a sort of scapegoat: he is carefully delineated as different in order that he should be punished, if not actually expelled from the society which James considered under threat from the new.

However, this scapegoating does have a sexual aspect; and it leads to a kind of sexually bullying element in Rogers' treatment of Parkins; not only in his trying to make him blush; but also in the veiled threats which lie beneath his manly offer to protect the girlish Parkins. He will "do so nicely to keep the ghosts off". What does Rogers mean by that? The idea is that these ghosts want to get at - perhaps even 'get on' - Parkins as he lies in bed. Perhaps he envisages some kind of physical contact? In any case, though Rogers claims he will drive away the ghosts, he clearly has in himself some of their presumed malevolence towards poor Parkins; and it is hard to resist a conflation of Mr Rogers with the ghosts from whom he claims he will protect the young professor - whilst secretly, we feel, intending to take their place as an agent of terror.

Parkins goes to Burnstow, removes a whistle from the ruined altar of an old Templars' church buried in the sands nearby, blows it, twice, despite the advice inscribed in Latin on its side, thus bringing upon himself the visitation of its ghostly custodian. The ghost - which we can tell is at least residually male because of the grammatical gender used in the inscription: Quis est iste qui venit - comes to his room and occupies the second bed. Next morning, the chambermaid asks which bed she should make up, since Parkins seems to have slept in both; and this produces another little scene in which Parkins' effeminacy is deftly hinted. She comes into his room as he is "putting the finishing touches to his golfing costume". I take it that the kind of clothes men wore to play golf a hundred years ago excited the same scornful comment as they do now; but there is an added touch of mockery in the image of Parkins preening himself - again: like a girl or woman, one wants to say. Parkins is also easily flustered when he reveals that - contrary to the reader's expectation - he has agreed to let Rogers come down after all (p.88):

"I expect a friend of mine soon, by the way - a gentleman from Cambridge - to come and occupy it for a night or two. That will be all right, I suppose, won't it?"
"Oh yes, to be sure, sir. Thank you, sir. It's no trouble, I'm sure," said the maid, and departed to giggle with her colleagues.
Parkins set forth, with a stern determination to improve his game.

One has to admire James's economy. Parkins tries to end speculation about his own nocturnal habits by mentioning his friend, then hastens to assure the maid that it is a gentleman he is expecting, rather than a lady-friend, I suppose; and throughout the conversation seems to defer to the chambermaid's opinion. And why does she giggle with her friends? Presumably she is sharing the story of her encounter with this rather strange and ineffectual young man who sleeps in two beds at once, and the so-called "friend" he's expecting. Certainly, Parkins feels embarrassed; and James signals the young professor's attempt to restore his manly dignity with that phrase: "Parkins set forth" - as if he were a mediaeval knight in search of adventure.

There is more of this character-painting, particularly in the scenes where Parkins talks and plays golf with a more positively virile older man called Colonel Wilson, who provides a contrast to the rather sinister manliness of Mr Rogers. That night, despite the warnings of his wise and experienced companion, Parkins does not throw away the mysterious whistle, but keeps it with him when he goes to sleep. A little later he wakes. There is someone in the other bed. It suddenly sits up and then gets up, still draped in the sheet, and goes towards the bed which Parkins has speedily vacated, listening to his movements since it is apparently blind. The last moments are worth describing in detail (p.94):

With formidable quickness it moved into the middle of the room, and, as it groped and waved, one corner of its draperies swept across Parkins's face. He could not - though he knew how perilous a sound was - he could not keep back a cry of disgust, and this gave the searcher an instant clue. It leapt towards him upon the instant, and the next moment he was half-way through the window backwards, uttering cry upon cry at the utmost pitch of his voice, and the linen face was thrust close into his own. At this, almost the last possible second, deliverance came, as you will have guessed: the Colonel burst the door open, and was just in time to see the dreadful group at the window. When he reached the figures only one was left. Parkins sank forward into the room in a faint, and before him on the floor lay a tumbled heap of bedclothes.

This is perhaps the most famous passage in all of M.R. James's oeuvre: it is a scene which readers seem to have remembered very vividly, and other writers often imitate or allude to it.[11] But what is the ghost trying to do? Wilson later explains that he has seen something like it in India, and that it could do no more than frighten Parkins. But at the time it seems that it is trying to make him fall from the window, or - could it be that it is also trying to kiss Parkins?

We remember that the ghost has occupied the bed in which Rogers was to have slept "to keep the ghosts off". At some obscure level, as I have already mentioned, James seems to be punishing Parkins, not for being, as the narrator puts it, "something of an old woman" (p.81), but because he does not fit in with the collegiate culture James wished to preserve. However, James does release the threat of sexual violence latent in that culture - which was one of the essential organs of patriarchal society in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods - in the ambiguous figure of the occupant of the second bed: the Angry Ghost - but also the intimidating spectre of the overbearingly virile Mr Rogers.

The possibility of homosexual violation figures rather more saliently in "A Warning to the Curious". Mr Paxton is pursued by the ghostly custodian of a buried crown which he has removed from its hiding-place deep in the side of an old barrow. He replaces it after a day or two of tormenting persecution; however, the ghost does not leave matters there, but continues to haunt Paxton. The poor man is tricked into pursuing the ghost, which has cast a glamour over his eyes, so that he thinks he is running to catch up two friends whom he has met the day before at his hotel, and to whom he has confided his story. The two friends then set off in pursuit of Paxton in the gathering sea-mist along the shore - noting the skeletal foot-prints intermingled with Paxton's tracks as they go - and eventually find him at the foot of an old coastal battery (p.354):

You don't need to be told that he was dead. His tracks showed that he had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the corner of it, and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight into the open arms of someone who was waiting there. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.

Paxton is finally caught in the terrible embrace of the ghost who has been pursuing him; and this open-armed embrace may well involve an equally terrible kiss. It makes sense for Paxton's mouth to be full of sand and stones because the ghost wants to make sure he does not reveal the hiding-place of the crown. But this does not explain the terrible state of Paxton's mouth and jaws. What has happened, it is hinted, is that his mouth has come into rapid and fatal contact with the teeth and jaws of the skeletal custodian of the crown: a kiss of death.

An earlier scene in that story moves us even closer to the abyss of homosexual panic. Paxton is burrowing into the mound where the crown is hidden, all the time horribly aware that someone - whom we know to be the ghost of a certain William Ager - is right behind him (p.348):

It was like someone scraping at my back all the time: I thought for a long time it was only soil dropping on me, but as I got nearer the - the crown, it was unmistakable. And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers into the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me - oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was! And horribly threatening, too. It spoilt all my pleasure in my find - cut it off that moment.

What are we to make of this scene? Paxton is prostrate in the tunnel, with the ghost of William Ager on his back. But where we might have imagined Paxton gasping with delight when he finally gets his heart's desire - by penetrating the ring of the crown with his fingers - the cry is transferred to the ghost on his back, and it is not a cry of pleasure but despair. A curious passage: Paxton violates both the burrow and the crown by penetrating them - and this seems to call forth a sexualised revenge on the part of William Ager, announced by the orgasm of misery and malevolence expressed in the ghost's cry, finally pursued to its own climax in what I see as the kiss of death on the shore by the battery, which the ghost celebrates with "a breathless, a lungless laugh" (p.354).[12] Throughout the story the ghost is described in terms of lightness: its lack of substance and visible shape. Towards the end, however, it gathers mass as it comes closer to catching its victim: foot-prints appear on the shore-line; and in a final and as it were tumescent climax, the ghost gathers enough substance to shatter Paxton's teeth and jaws in its horrendous kiss of death.

What I am suggesting here, of course, is that the ghost's attack on Paxton can be seen as a sort of extended homosexual rape. And I take it that homosexual rape is the severest punishment meted out to victims of the patriarchal regime. However, as with Parkins, the sexual aspect is not the primary one. Paxton is primarily punished for removing the crown because this is the last of three Saxon crowns buried along the East Anglian Coast, and, as we know from the manuscript of "A Warning to the Curious", the story was originally to have dated to the year 1917 (in the printed version the year is left blank).[13] Paxton's curiosity is tantamount to treason, then, in the anxious days of the Great War. There are other hints that Paxton is some kind of defector: he is on the point of leaving England to settle in neutral Sweden; and when the inquest is held we learn that "Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare" (p.355). On the other hand, we may note certain details which detract from Paxton's 'manliness': he is a "rabbity anaemic subject" (p.342);[14] and when he tells his story, he commits the cardinal sin against the stiff upper lip: "I believe he began to cry" (p.349). But here again these details function rather cruelly as an extra justification for the harsh treatment meted out to him.[15]

A pause for reflection may be in order. I seem to have made M.R. James seem some kind of sadistic patriarchal terrorist; whereas by all accounts he was a kind and gentle man who was loved by almost all who came in contact with him! But my point has been that although James seems to have been relatively immune to homosexual panic himself, he may be seen to use - perhaps unconsciously - the narrative strategies of homosexual panic in stories where the punishment meted out by ghostly avengers is really located in a different scheme of retribution: Parkins is really punished because he is modern and Paxton because he is unpatriotic (in my view).[16] Nor is James the only author of supernatural fiction perhaps unconsciously to use these strategies; and I want to conclude very briefly with a ghost-story by an exact contemporary of James: W. W. Jacobs - author of the famous "The Monkey's Paw". Jacobs' story "The Well" (1902) treats homosexual rape (if we can call it that) in a slightly different way than we have seen the figure used in James's work. Here is the story:

Jem Benson (no relation to A.C.!) is a rich young man who is about to be married to Olive; but his ne'er-do-well cousin, Wilfrid Carr, whom Benson has been bailing out of financial trouble for years, threatens to spoil everything. Now he is to marry, Benson refuses to support Carr any longer; but Carr needs money and has certain incriminating letters in his possession - written by Benson to an old mistress - with which he tries to blackmail his cousin. He says: "I know a man who would buy them at [fifteen hundred pounds] for the mere chance of getting Olive from you".[17] Here, then, is a typically Sedgwickian situation: Olive is a counter in a patriarchal economy regulating relations of power between men. But Carr is not interested in Olive; indeed, there are several hints that he may be homosexual (marriage and honeymoons are "not in my line at all" [p.73]).

But to continue: the story gives us to understand that Benson does away with Carr by disposing of him down a well in an overgrown park on his country estate. Unfortunately, Olive is particularly drawn to the place, which she finds agreeably creepy; and she and Benson are sitting on it shortly after the murder, when Olive seems to hear a whisper from the well behind her: "Jem, help me out" (p.60) - Carr's old cry to Benson, though now intended in a physical rather than financial sense. Then Olive drops her bracelet in the well; Benson tries to fish it out that night, but fails; and early the next morning he has to go down there himself on a rope - for he cannot let anyone else see what is at the bottom. The workman above, George, feels a tremendous tug on the rope; he pulls it up gradually and with great exertion, "until at last a violent splashing was heard, and at the same time a scream of unutterable horror" (p.87). George pulls in the heavy burden, "jerked violently by the struggles of the weight at the end of it", and finally a horrible sight is presented to his eyes (p.88):

A long pull and a strong pull, and the face of a dead man with mud in the eyes and nostrils came peering over the edge. Behind it was the ghastly face of his master; but this he saw too late, for with a great cry he let go his hold of the rope and stepped back [...] and the rope tore through his hands.

To regain a little ground for James, admittedly at Jacobs' expense, I would say that this is a botched job. Carr's face should be behind Benson's, not the other way around; because Carr is the Angry Ghost pursuing its victim: we aficionados know that he should have grasped Benson down in the well and that he must either be face to face with him or taking him from behind - for what could be more grimly ironic than a reversal of roles in which Benson, far from finally achieving sexual possession of the lovely Olive on their wedding-night, is instead sexually possessed by the corpse of Carr in the well. We recall the other Benson's shudder when he wrote of Walpole's predicament in terms of a "dark place to have looked into". Perhaps Jacobs looked there, too, and in the dark depths of the well saw the unspeakable homosexual union which Benson glimpsed in horror. It seems to have led him into a lapse of craftsmanship which has the murderer hauling his victim into the sight of the world - the very thing he was trying to avoid.

James, however, looked into the same abyss with a certain nonchalant equilibrium; and it is pleasant to conclude this paper with the suggestion that part of his greatness as a ghost-story writer lies precisely in that curious reticence about sexual matters which might so easily be perceived as a weakness, rather than what it is: a strength. "A School Story" was first published in More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), but Benson records how Luxmoore told "the story (by MRJ) of the ashes, memento putei" in December 1906 - just four years after Jacobs' "Well" appeared in The Lady of the Barge in 1902.[18] Perhaps James had read "The Well" and casually imitates it in his own tale; but his ending is very different. We have noted that Jem Benson seems compelled - whether by the ancient logic of providential narrative or the modern idea of the criminal returning to the scene of the crime - to expose his own wrong-doing; and consequently little enough is left to the imagination. But what happens to Mr Sampson (and why) is left very much in the dark in "A School Story". His end - if it is indeed his remains which were discovered in the well in Ireland - can only be guessed at by the Irish gentleman's description: "One body had the arms tight round the other" (p.121).[19] This seems just the right amount of information required to produce an appropriate shudder. The very idea of being embraced by a corpse - whether male or female - is sufficently unpleasant on its own; but I hope to have given some indication in the preceding pages that for James and his contemporaries the idea of one man being embraced by the corpse of another man might have been especially horrifying.

M.R. James, "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" (1929), reprinted in Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden, eds, M.R. James: A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings (Ash-Tree Press, 2001), p.479. All references to James's writings are taken from this collection.
[2] Michael Cox, ed., M.R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (Oxford University Press, 1987), p.xxiv.
[3] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire (1985; Columbia University Press, 1992), p.89.
[4] Sedgwick mentions "Caleb Williams, Frankenstein, Confessions of a Justified Sinner, probably Melmoth, possibly The Italian" (p.91) - an impressive list.
[5] Cit. Michael Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait (Oxford University Press, 1983), p.55.
[6] Cyril Alington, Lionel Ford (1934), cit. Cox: 1983, p.59.
[7] The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word vitals refers to "those parts or organs of the body, esp. the human body, essential to life, or upon which life depends" (s.v. vitals 1 a). This could mean almost anything; but I recall that, 'when I were a lad', a bout of ragging at school was brought to a successful conclusion by grasping your opponent's genitals.
[8] Cit. David Newsome, On The Edge of Paradise: A.C. Benson, The Diarist (University of Chicago Press, 1980), pp.6-7.
[9] Walpole's comments on dreams and shudders are no doubt heart-felt, but they are also very literary, modelled, I suspect, on Hamlet's remarks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he could be happy to live in a nut-shell - "were it not that I have bad dreams" (Hamlet, II. ii. 255-256).
[10] It is perhaps worth pointing out that the poem by Burns from which James took the title of "Oh, Whistle" is a song sung by a lass to her lad. He is to pretend not to know her, since his family appear to disapprove of the match; but he needs only to whistle and she will come to him. A sexual invitation, then.
[11] Rosemary Pardoe has shown that this episode struck R. Thurston Hopkins so forcibly that he introduced words and phrases from it when he gave his account of the famous veridical haunting of Number 50 Berkeley Square ('and no bird sings') in his Cavalcade of Ghosts (1956). See Rosemary Pardoe, "'I've seen it': 'A School Story' and the House in Berkeley Square", Ghosts and Scholars 29 (1999), pp.41-43. Perhaps the image was so memorable because it was accompanied by one of the two pictures supplied by James's friend, James McBryde. (However, we might note that McBryde's illustration to the ghost's final pounce on Parkins does not reproduce the key details of the text, since access to the window is blocked by a heavy writing-desk.)
In passing, we may note that Cox records how H. Russell Wakefield alludes to the story in "The Triumph of Death", where "Oh, Whistle" is described as "a tale about some bedclothes forming into a figure and frightening an old man in the other bed" (cit. Cox: 1987, p.312); and that the unhappily aging Dicky Umphraville in Anthony Powell's Temporary Kings (Heinemann, 1973), feels like "the man in the ghost story, scrambling over the breakwaters with the Horrible Thing behind him getting closer and closer" (p.3). (Here is the other picture supplied by McBryde, by the way.) Parkins is, of course, young; so it is interesting to see that these readers seem to think of him as an old man. It bears out A.C. Benson's comment, apparently in connection with a reading of "Oh, Whistle" in December 1903, that M.R. James's characters were all "like elderly dons" (cit. Cox: 1987, p.312).
[12] Muriel Smith of The Everlasting Club has pointed out to me that the ghost's laughter is breathless and lungless because William Ager died of consumption.
[13] See Rosemary Pardoe, "The Manuscript of 'A Warning to the Curious'", Ghosts and Scholars 32 (2001), pp.47-49.
[14] Is there a sardonic reference to Alice in Wonderland at the back of all this? Paxton tells us he penetrated the burrow quite easily because "there was a rabbit hole or so that might be developed" (p.346).
[15] What happens to Paxton is matched only by the fate arranged for Mr Wraxall in "Count Magnus" (1904). Here it is not a question of the kiss of death, however, since James drops the hint that the flesh from Wraxall's face is sucked off by the demon's tentacular appendage. But Wraxall is clearly a prototype of Paxton: he is a rootless bachelor, with "no settled abode in England" (p.65), whose antiquarian leanings take him to Sweden.
[16] See my "'No Thoroughfare': The Problem of Paxton in 'A Warning to the Curious'", Ghosts and Scholars 32 (2001), pp.42-46.
[17] W.W. Jacobs, "The Well" (1902), rpt. Denys Kilham Roberts, ed., W.W. Jacobs: Selected Short Stories (Penguin, 1959), p.76.
[18] Cit. Roden & Roden: 2001, p.121, endnote.
[19] The narrator does not seem to read the inscription on the gold coin very carefully when asked by his host if he can puzzle it out: "'I think I can,' said my friend, holding it to the light (but he read it without much difficulty); 'it seems to be G.W.S., 24 July, 1865.'" (p.121). Does the narrator really read it at all? Or has he come to the same conclusion that we readers have also reached - without really needing to weigh the evidence...

The original version of this article was published in Night Thoughts, Everlasting Club mailing 51 (September 2001).

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"The Fenstanton Witch"

Story Notes

Of the seven unfinished M.R. James story drafts, only one - "A Night in King's College Chapel" - has been fully annotated (in Ghosts & Scholars 7 [1985] and A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James [Ash-Tree Press 2001]). Some of the others are so brief that they probably don't require such treatment, but the two exceptions are "The Fenstanton Witch" and "John Humphreys". It's hoped that "John Humphreys" will be covered in a future Newsletter. These notes on "The Fenstanton Witch" were compiled by Darroll Pardoe and Rosemary Pardoe. The page/line references are to A Pleasing Terror. Click here for the text of the story.

The (untitled) manuscript is in Cambridge University Library (ref. CUL Add.7484.1.27, 28b). Easily recognisable as one of the tales referred to by MRJ in his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write", its first appearance in print, in a slightly edited and polished version, was in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990), from whence it was reprinted in Tales of Witchcraft (ed. Richard Dalby, Michael O'Mara 1991). The title "The Fenstanton Witch" was first applied to it in G&S 12. The original transcription (taken by Darroll and Rosemary Pardoe) was reverted to for the more faithful version published in The Fenstanton Witch and Others (1999) and A Pleasing Terror, although even here the impenetrable nature of MRJ's terrible handwriting meant that some unreadable words and phrases had to be worked around. A few transcription errors and queries have come to light during the preparation of these story notes, some of which will only be resolved by a further examination of the manuscript.

The events in the tale take place in the eighteenth century rather than the sixteenth as stated in "Stories I Have Tried to Write". This is a surprising lapse of memory on MRJ's part, given the amount of authentic early-C18th historical detail he includes in the draft. He may have been confusing it in his memory with "There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard" which is set in the sixteenth century, and is, in some respects, slightly similar to "The Fenstanton Witch". Alternatively, the "sixteenth" may have been a slip of the pen or an error by the editor who transcribed his handwriting for "Stories I Have Tried to Write".

p.417, l.1: "Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe": These names appear to be made up - there are no entries in Venn's Alumni that fit. In "Stories I Have Tried to Write", the two are described as students, not Fellows, and MRJ seems to imply that they were genuine historical characters, expelled from King's for "magical practices". If that is the case, presumably their names were not Hardman and Ashe.

p.417, l.6: "Thorganby-on-the-Wolds": A village in Lincolnshire, about five miles south of Grimsby.

p.417, l.6: "Ospringe": A village in Kent, close to Faversham.

p.417, l.18: "Harwood's Alumni": This contains biographies of the members of Eton College - similar to Venn for Cambridge.

p.417, l.22: "Anne was on the throne...": Queen Anne reigned 1702-14.

p.417, l.23: "Dr James Roderick": Probably a transcription error. Charles Roderick was Provost of King's College from 1689 until his death in March 1712. He was born in Cheshire and had been Headmaster of Eton from 1682-1689. He is buried in King's College Chapel.

p.417, l.24-25: "Sir Isaac Newton...William the Third": Newton (1642-1727), physicist, astronomer, mathematician, alchemist and theologian, was at Trinity College from 1661 to 1696 (although he did not resign from his Cambridge positions until 1701). He was a member of the Parliament which, in 1689, declared that James II had abdicated, and offered the Crown to William of Orange (1689-1702) and Mary.

p.418, l.2: "the Observatory over Trinity Great Gate": The Observatory of Trinity College was established on the Great Gate of the College in 1704, and demolished in 1792. Isaac Newton presented a clock for use in the Observatory in 1708. Newton's rooms were actually a few doors further north along the Great Court.

p.418, l.3-4: "his dog Diamond": When Isaac Newton's dog Diamond knocked over a candle, setting fire to papers and destroying years of work, he said only: "Oh, Diamond, Diamond, thou little knowest the mischief thou hast done!"

p.418, l.4: "his cat and kitten": The invention of the cat flap is attributed to Isaac Newton, who is said to have cut a hole in the door for his cat when it was bothering him to go in and out while he was busy thinking. He also cut a small hole for her kittens before realising that they would follow their mother through the larger hole!

p.418, l.6: "Church in danger": This was a time of major conflict between High and Low Church Anglicanism. "The Church in Danger" was the rallying cry of High Church Anglicans against what they perceived as the perilous challenge of religious tolerance. The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed Dissenters their own licensed meeting houses, and the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1695 opened the way for a freer press and the issuing of anti-orthodox writings. "The Church in Danger" became a political slogan when the High Tories adopted it and used it against the incumbent Whig government, attempting to get Parliament to vote in 1705 that the Church was in danger under their administration. A sermon preached by Dr Henry Sacheverell in 1709 on "The Perils of False Brethren both in Church and State" resulted in his being impeached by the Whigs, with consequent rioting and civil disorder.

p.418, l.6-7: "depriving Dr Richard Bentley, then Master of Trinity, of his degrees": Dr Bentley (1662-1742), Master of Trinity from 1700 to 1742, was a classical scholar of great renown and friend of Isaac Newton. Unlike other Cambridge colleges, the Mastership of Trinity is a Crown appointment, and so Trinity could have a Master who was not to the liking of the Fellows of the College, as happened in this case. As Master, Bentley progressively reduced the privileges of the Fellows, who consequently attempted to have him removed from his position. There was a trial before the Bishop of Ely in 1714 and again a decade later, the latter ruling that he should be deprived of his Mastership, but nothing was done. Further attempts and litigation by the Fellows followed until 1738. As a result of his making charges for certain Doctorates of Divinity, Bentley was deprived of his own degrees in 1718, but these were restored in 1724.

p.418, l.9: "Parker's Piece": This was (and still is) an area of open common land east of Regent Street.

p.418, l.15-16: "the Old Schools of King's": The original buildings of King's College were north of the Chapel. In 1828, when the College had completed its present site south of the Chapel, the Old Schools (or Old Court, as King's called it) was sold to the University which demolished most of it and replaced it with administrative buildings. Therefore, King's College, at the time of the story, occupied the land between the Chapel and Senate House Passage.

p.418, l.26: "Chapel service... at three": Early evensong was customary at this time, so that it might be completed before dark.

p.418, l.28: "reedy and pedal-less organ": The organ in King's College Chapel was then a relatively new instrument built in 1687 by Renatus Harris, so would have been in good condition. An organ without a pedal department was not uncommon at this time - indeed as late as the 1850s the pedals were seriously inadequate. It is not obvious why MRJ calls the organ "reedy".

p.418, l.29: "Dr Blow": John Blow (1649-1708) was a native of Newark, Notts. He was organist of Westminster Abbey from 1668 to 1679 (when he was succeeded by Purcell), and Master of the Choristers at St Paul's Cathedral 1687-1703. He was also a prolific composer. Buried at Westminster Abbey.

p.418, l.30: "Dr Tudway": Thomas Tudway (?-1726) was the organist at King's College from 1670, and later university organist. His own compositions consisted chiefly of verse anthems, but he was also responsible for the compilation of a six-volume anthology of cathedral music.

p.418, l.36: "Old Court": See note to p.418, l.15-16.

p.418, l.39-40: "Fellow Commoners": Undergraduate members of the College who received special privileges such as wearing a more ornate academic gown, and dining at high table, in return for extra fees.

p.419, l.3: "Lord Methuen's treaty with Portugal": This Treaty between Britain and Portugal, concluded in 1703, included a provision for the importation of Portuguese wine into Britain at a low rate of duty. The intention was to disadvantage the French. Sir John Methuen (1650-1706) was Ambassador to Portugal and played a leading part in the negotiation of the Treaty.

p.419, l.6: "Fenstanton": A village about ten miles north-west of Cambridge.

p.419, l.7-8: "Lord Blandford": Charles, Marquis of Blandford, only surviving son of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, was admitted as a Fellow Commoner at King's College in 1700. He died of smallpox at King's on February 20, 1702/3.

p.419, l.11: "Dodgson of Magdalene": Untraced.

p.419, l.32-33: "her eyes were... as red as blood and the pupils like a goat's": Compare with old mother Wilkins in "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard", who was "red-eyed and dreadful to look at".

p.419, l.35-36: "Dr Morell, the Vice-Provost": There are several Morells in Venn but none who became Vice-Provost of King's. The name may have been mistranscribed.

p.419, l.39-40: "William of Malmesbury's tale": For a description of William of Malmesbury's tale of the 'Old Woman of Berkeley' see The Fenstanton Witch (Appendix, p.53), reprinted as a footnote in A Pleasing Terror (p.420). Dr Gates' edition of William of Malmesbury is untraced.

p.419, l.41: "Mr Newborough, afterwards Headmaster of Eton": John Newborough was headmaster of Eton from 1689 until his death in June 1712. He was born in Shropshire.

p.420, l.2: "the Witch of Endor": 1 Samuel 28, v.7-25. King Saul consulted with the Witch of Endor before his disastrous defeat by the Philistines at Gilboa. At his request she raised the ghost of Samuel, an event also referred to in "The Residence at Whitminster". (NB: The first words of the shade of Samuel are those quoted from the Vulgate by the ghost in B's "The Stone Coffin", Magdalene College Magazine, December 1913.)

p.420, l.3: "Dr Hodges' book on the Versions of the Bible": Untraced.

p.420, l.4: "Dr Bentley's last enormities": See note to p.418, l.6-7.

p.421, l.10: "a coffee house on the Market Place": The first English coffee houses were opened in the 1650s. In the course of the ensuing fifty years they became important meeting places both for gossip and for literary, political and scientific debate, particularly in London, Oxford and Cambridge.

p.421, l.8, 11: "Dr Gates", "Dr Roger Gates": Probably a transcription error for Dr Roger Cotes (1682-1716). Fellow of Trinity, he became the first Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy in 1706, and edited the second edition of Newton's Principia.

p.421, l.12: "Queen's": (In A Pleasing Terror only) This should be Queens'. The Queen's College is in Oxford. It is correctly given as Queens' in G&S 12 and The Fenstanton Witch.

p.421, l.12: "Bene't College": Corpus Christi College, which originally, and until the nineteenth century, used the adjacent St Bene't's church as its College chapel.

p.421, l.37: "masters of the elementals": Compare with Mr Abney's desire for "complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control the elemental forces of our universe" in "Lost Hearts".

p.422, l.6: "the lantern and western tower of Ely": Ely Cathedral is a landmark for all the fen country, and, as the story says, the towers are readily visible on a clear day from the Huntingdon Road.

p.422, l.7: "Lolworth": A tiny village about six miles north-west of Cambridge. The Lolworth turn is some half a mile from the village, on the straight Roman road leading from Cambridge to Fenstanton (and then on to Huntingdon). There is a mystery here. The village and parish church are south of the main road, so how could Hardman and Ashe have seen the south porch of the church from their position?

p.422, l.10: "Nocturnal funerals": There is also a nocturnal funeral in "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard".

p.422, l.17-34: "a group of figures...": Where was this procession going to? Is the episode intended merely to demonstrate that the eyes of Hardman and Ashe "are opened"? It doesn't seem to have any connection with the rest of the events, yet it was a scene particularly recalled by MRJ in his "Stories I Have Tried to Write" description. He added a detail there which is not actually in the tale: that the reluctant captive was someone whom Hardman and Ashe "seemed to know".

p.422, l.39: "the mountain full of issues and vaults of fire": i.e. Hell. If this is a quotation it remains untraced. Compare with the depiction of Hinnom/Gehenna as a "range of mountains, and among them a valley with flames rising from it", on the globe in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance".

p.423, l.6: "the north side of the dark church": Traditionally the 'Devil's side' of the church, where evil-doers were buried. Until relatively recently, in some places this side of the graveyard was used for nonconformists and others who had a right to burial but were not CofE. Squire Bowles in "The Experiment" (another nocturnal funeral), Gawdy in "The Mezzotint" and Mrs Mothersole in "The Ash-Tree" were also buried on the north side of the church; "that unhallowed side of the building", as MRJ misleadingly put it in the latter.

p.423, l.24: "the unseen peoples of the air": Satan and his angels, as in Ephesians 2, v.2: "...according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (cf. the "prince... of the air" in "Count Magnus").

p.423, l.27-35: "an ingredient for future spells... soil be replaced over it": Their plan is to raise the dead witch physically in order to get the "three locks of hair and the winding-sheet" from her, but most sources (e.g.: Francis Barrett's The Magus Bk 2 Pt 1 p.69; Bk 2 Pt 2 p.102) agree that, without such physical remains as these to start with, a body can only be raised in a non-corporeal state. Hardman and Ashe seem to have put the cart before the horse!

p.424, l.6-7: "91st Psalm: 'Qui habitat' ('Whoso Dwelleth')... the terror that walks in darkness": "Whoso dwelleth..." ("...under the defence of the most high") is the Book of Common Prayer wording. Verses 5-6 say: "Thou shalt not be afraid for any terror by night... For the pestilence that walketh in darkness...". This Psalm is also quoted in the lines at the back of the drawing in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book".

p.424, l.14-20: "a shape... closed eyes": The spell of Hardman and Ashe did not raise this demon: it is one of those "same gentry" which they feared they might encounter when it came for the old witch's soul (see p.421, l.30-37).

p.424, l.30: "Willoughton": A Lincolnshire village, six miles east of Gainsborough, and about seventeen miles west of Thorganby (see note to p.417, l.6).

p.424, l.35: "Weedon Lois": A village in Northamptonshire, five miles west of Towcester. The living of Weeden Lois has been in the gift of King's College since the Reformation.

p.424, l.43: "Barton": i.e. south-westwards (Barton being a small village about three miles outside Cambridge in that direction); presumably the wagon was heading for the Great North Road and on north to Lincolnshire.

A Note on Dates: The dates of the historical events described in this tale are contradictory. Despite MRJ's specification that the story is set during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), other references locate it to before 1689 (p.419, l.41), no later than 1702 (p.419, l.7-8), and as late as 1718 (p.418, l.6-7). Had MRJ polished the draft for publication, no doubt he would have rectified this.

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