Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 4 (August 2003)

The Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter is published two or three times a year at irregular intervals. Click here for further information on how to buy the full hard-copy edition. Contributions are welcome - click here for Guidelines.

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

Copyright © 2003 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.


(Unlinked contents can only be read in the hard-copy edition of the Newsletter)



"A Mare's Nest from Missouri" by M.R. James

"'I seen it wive at me out of the winder': The Window as Threshold in M.R. James's Stories" by Rosemary Pardoe

"Atmosphere and Crescendo: M.R. James, C.D. Heriot and the Mechanics of the Ghost Story" by Tom Mullen

"'The Fenstanton Witch': Errors and Omissions"


"Reviews" (Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole;
The Face by E.F. Benson; The Journals of Mary Butts)

"Jamesian Notes & Queries" ("A Visit to St Michan's, Dublin" by Katherine Haynes; "'Negotium Perambulans'?" by Rosemary Pardoe; "Queries")

Artwork: Alan Hunter ("A View from a Hill"); Nick Maloret ("The Ash-Tree"); F.E. Mackie (web site edition only: caption to Stolas' picture from the Dictionnaire Infernal).


I expect you'll be wanting to know whether or not an M.R. James Society is going to be formed in the imminent future. I know I promised last time that in this issue I would announce my decision one way or the other, but I've now had second thoughts. The amount of interest shown in the proposition has been very encouraging as far as people wanting to join is concerned, but I'm less confident that there are enough potential active contributors at this point to get it going. I did say that the only resulting difference in the Newsletter would be that I would have to commit it to a set publication timetable, instead of its present flexibility, but this now looks like a bigger deal than it seemed. Currently I publish when I have enough material, and can wait until that's the case (although this invariably seems to mean a couple of issues a year). With a fixed schedule I have visions of spending all my time chasing up contributions instead of doing what I want to do, which is to concentrate on my own projects and researches (such as will result in a special extra MRJ booklet, to be included on subs early in 2004). I've therefore decided to wait a while longer. If I start to build up a nice back file of contributions, the Society will soon follow. If not, the Newsletter will continue as it is now.

I need contributions of articles, long and short, on M.R. James, and those among his friends and associates who also wrote ghost stories. I'm looking for coverage not only of MRJ's supernatural fiction, but of "all the odd mythological, folkloric, ecclesiological, demonological and angelological by-ways" that he explored from time to time in his writings. You can either submit an article on spec, or discuss your idea with me first to make sure it isn't something which has already been covered in G&S or elsewhere. I need queries for "Jamesian Notes & Queries", artwork, letters, additions to the published annotations; and I could also use one or two more volunteer reviewers, preferably with experience. So get to it!

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A Mare's Nest from Missouri

by M.R. James

Editor's Note: When I obtained a copy of this review by M.R. James of a nineteenth-century Biblical fake, I did so expecting only to add it to my files. However, having read it, and as soon as my stomach had stopped aching from the laughing, I decided that it was such a perfect example of MRJ's humour, at its most waspishly sharp, that it deserved a new audience. It is reprinted here for the first time, from The Guardian Church Newspaper, March 14, 1900, pp.403-404, by kind permission of N.J.R. James (Copyright © 1900 N.J.R. James). I have added a new set of notes, including further information on this and the other fakes that MRJ mentions (most of which are still in print today).

The Archko Volume; or, the Archeological Writings of the Sanhedrim and Talmuds of the Jews. (INTRA SECUS.) These are the Official Documents made in these Courts in the Days of Jesus Christ. Translated by Drs. McINTOSH and TWYMAN, of the Antiquarian Lodge, Genoa, Italy. From Manuscripts in Constantinople, and the Records of the Senatorial Docket taken from the Vatican at Rome. Philadelphia: Antiquarian Book Company. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Co.[1]

This is a true copy of the title-page of The Archko Volume, and the hopes it raises are in no way dashed by what follows. One really does not know where to begin the description of it. Something must clearly be attempted. The responsible editor appears to be the Rev. W.D. Mahan, of Boonville, Mo. [Mo. is for Missouri, as Ga. for Georgia: cf. "The Wrong Box," by R.L. Stevenson and G. Ll. Osbourne].[2] He it is who entered the work in 1887 and 1896 in the office of the Librarian of Congress at Washington, and he it is who furnishes the magnificent Prolegomena. The two Doctors McIntosh and Twyman (the former "of Scotland," the latter "of England") are only answerable for the translation of the Senatorial Docket and the rest. Whether Mr. Mahan is the author of that stimulating word Archko, and what precisely he means by it, are among the points that have eluded me as yet. There are others; but it would be premature to press them before the reader has been told more about the scope and contents of the Archko Volume generally.

Chapter 1 tells us "How these Records were Discovered;" and that is exactly what we should all like to know. En avant! -

"Some time in the year 1856, while living in De Witt, Missouri, a gentleman by the name of H.C. Whydaman became snow-bound and stopped at my house several days."

The evidence derivable from the context makes it probable that it was Mr. Mahan who was living in De Witt, and Mr. Whydaman who "became snow-bound." Mr. W. was a native of Germany and one of the most learned men Mr. Mahan had ever met. Mr. M. found him to be freely communicative. He had spent five years in the city of Rome and most of the time in the Vatican, where he saw a library containing 560,000 volumes. He "had seen and read the records of Tiberius Caesar, and in what was called the Acta Pilati - that is, the Acts of Pilate"[3] - he had seen an account of the trial, &c., of Jesus. Correspondence ensued, Mr. Mahan being anxious for a transcript of the report. Mr. Whydaman "has written to Father Freelinhusen, a monk of great learning at Rome, who is the chief guardian of the Vatican." Father F. informs him -

"That the writing is so fine, and being in the Latin language, as I told you, and the parchments so old and dirty, he will be obliged to use a glass to the most of it... He says he will do it for 35 darics, which will be in American coin $62.44."

Apparently the daric was still current in the Papal States in 1857;[4] its precise relation to the dollar can be worked out from the above data by readers of the "Guardian" at their leisure. Mr. Mahan forwarded the dollars and received the transcript, and Mr. W.'s brother-in-law got $10 more for translating it. Such was the effect of the document upon Mr. M. that he determined to investigate the subject, and on September 21st, 1883, he set sail for foreign lands to make that investigation in person. And here we have a digression of some length, which tells us how the discoverer made up his mind that some such documents as he has now given to the world must be in existence. He had long wondered how it was that -

"Such historians as Philo, Tacitus, Quintilian, and Josephus [one feels inclined to add Plato and Nicodemus] had told us nothing or so little about" the New Testament history... "I went to our histories - Mosheim, Lardner, Stackhouse, and others. They gave me no satisfaction."...

One history told him -

"That these records were burned in the Alexandrian Library. I knew the Babylonian Talmuds were in this library, or at least most of them were; but I also knew that the Talmuds of Jerusalem were not."

The results of his investigation were not less remarkable than this apparently intuitive knowledge:-

"I found by investigating that Ptolemy, King of Alexandria, presented seventy books to Ezra, which he refused to place in the Holy Canon, and it came very near bringing on a bloody war."

He also ascertained some interesting matters about the library of one Serenus Samnaticus. Here is a specimen of accurate reference to authorities as it is understood in Boonville, Mo. - "Dr. Rashi, D.D., who wrote in Paris in the twelfth century, says in Vol. III, page 190," that there were in ancient libraries men called "baalie suphoths," whose business it was to collect the parchments of the various authors, "pin their dates together," and bind them:-

"We find that the works of Philo were compiled by Pseudonymaus Joseph Ben Gorion, A.D. 150. This Ben Gorion was a Jewish Rabbi... Josephus was compiled by Ekaba, another Jewish doctor, at the close of the second century... Josephus was published in book-form by Havercamp, in Amsterdam, in 1729. Now all he had to guide him was what Ben Gorion had said. So it is with Philo, which was put in book-form by Mangey, in London, in 1742; all he had was what Ekaba had pleased to compile of his works."

Here, again, is a fine, bold challenge to the public:-

"If the New Testament records are true, then the historical items contained in this book must be true; and if these items, or items like them, be not true, then the items of the New Testament are not true; that is, no man dare to say these are the identical items, but items like these, and why not these? They came from the right place."

One cannot deny a slight obscurity in the expression here; but, as Mr. Mahan might say, there are obscurities in many books and why not in this?

It is impossible to follow Mr. Mahan through every step of his closely argued introduction. But I cannot help calling attention to one or two of the incidental discoveries which marked his investigations. In the Ante-Nicene Christian Library he found "what was called the Homilies of Clementine."[5] Elsewhere he seems to have made use of a work in eight volumes by Colens the First (not, I believe, Bishop Colenso, but Celsus is meant) against Christianity, and of "Duranzo [ought we to read Phrantzes?], a Greek historian who wrote thirty-six volumes in Constantinople" in the seventh century. "These histories are in the Paris library for the inspection of any one." The thought has crossed my mind that in this last sentence there may be a dim reference to the Paris edition of the Byzantine historians.

Mr. Mahan has solved, among others, the problem of the Vulgate and the Old Latin, and his solution is well worth quoting. It is this:-

"The Vulgate is an ancient manuscript, taken from the Hebrew, and translated into the Latin in the second century; also one of the Greek and one of the Syriac. These are all of the same date. This Vulgate in the Latin was used in Africa. The Church of Rome was under Greek control at this time and rejected the Latin Vulgate, and used what was called at that time the Vetus Latina, or old Latin. This is the history of Tertullian, Vol. I., page 202.

"In the fourth century, Jerome tells us, there was another translation of the Vulgate, under the instruction of St. Augustine, and St. Jerome recommends this in the highest terms. About the fifth century there was another translation made, which is called the Codex, in the Latin language. There was one at Alexandria, one in the Vatican, and one at Sinai. Parts of these are preserved in the British Museum... The Codex of Sinai is in the Greek..."

I must again renounce the idea of enlarging upon the results which would follow from the acceptance of this statement. That they would be momentous there can be little doubt; precisely what they would be probably no human being can tell:-

"Another question arises in the mind of the reader, and that is: How was it possible for these writings to be preserved so long? I answer that there are many works much older than these in existence. Homer is 900 years older; why not these?"

Truly a headsplitting question. Grant for a moment that these documents are 900 years older (which appears to be what we are asked to do), then, ex hypothesi, Homer is 900 years older than they are, and we suppose that they must be 900 years older than that. In fact, we are carried very swiftly by this fascinatingly simple process into the very dawn of history:-

"Then it may be asked again: May not I be deceived? May not these men (Dr. McIntosh of Scotland, and Dr. Twyman of England) have imposed upon me? To this I would say: That is impossible."

And what could be more satisfactory than that?

More quotations from ancient authors follow, and more close and soul-satisfying argument. Then we come to the pièces justificatives - letters from Dr. McIntosh (of Scotland) to the people of North America; from Mr. Mahan to his wife, dated "Market-place, City of Rome, Italy," in which we have a stirring account of his voyage. "I was awful sick," he writes, with a noble simplicity. There are, too, notices of his meeting with Dr. McIntosh at "St. Elgin," and of a "holy auditory" of the Pope (which took place in a room 300ft. square), of the work in the Vatican, and of many, many other "items" of absorbing interest. Next, General J.B. Douglass writes to inform us that he saw the papers which Mr. Mahan brought back to Boonville, Mo., and that he "was impressed at the time with the belief, from the writing and spelling, that the parties were of foreign birth and education." Whether the "parties" meant are Pilate and Caiaphas, or merely Dr. McIntosh and Dr. Twyman, the gallant general leaves to our discretion to determine.

Notaries public, clerks of circuit, and attorneys-at-law finally appear to confirm the existence of the general and of Mr. Mahan, and the fact that they loaned him 200 dollars, shortly after which he disappeared from Boonville, Mo., for a considerable time.

The rest of the introduction is not characterised by so much brilliancy. We will pass over it, and come to the newly discovered documents. But we must deal with them very shortly, for it must be confessed that they are by far the least interesting part of the book.[6] We begin with an interview of one Jonathan, with the Bethlehem shepherds, quoted from "Sanhedrim 88 B, by R. Jose, Order No. 2," and a letter from Melker, a priest of Bethlehem, to the Higher Sanhedrim. Then there is Gamaliel's interview with Joseph and Mary. This was found in the Mosque of St. Sophia, in the Talmuds of the Jews, 27 B. Gamaliel's description of Joseph is most uncomplimentary. He was tall and ugly, his eyes were gray and vicious, and "he is as gross and glum as he looks."

Two reports of Caiaphas were also discovered at St. Sophia's, the second of these drew tears from Doctors McIntosh and Twyman, and from several American clergymen, while Mr. Mahan is able to assure us that it is one of the most solemn things he has ever read.

The Vatican yielded the next set of documents. First among them stand some short notes of that celebrated writer "Valleus Paterculus," whose work, entitled "Historia Romania," had been "thought to be extinct." Next we have the report of Pilate. I cannot resist giving two short quotations. Pilate's wife says to him:-

"Behold, the torrent in Mount Kedron flows with blood, the statues of Caesar are filled with gemonide, the columns of the interium having given away, and the sun is veiled in mourning like a vestal in the tomb."

The report ends in these terms:-

"With the promises of faithfulness and good wishes to my noble Sovereign,
"I am your most obedient servant,
"Pontius Pilate."

Two apologetic speeches follow. One is the defence of Herod Antipater, the other that of Herod Antipas. And the volume concludes with seven very long letters of Hillel the Third on the Providence of God, which were sent to Mr. Mahan after his return home, and appear to have been compiled out of some reasonably sensible text-book of divinity.

On looking back at the report of Caiaphas I find one sentence (not a typical one, it is fair to say) which cries aloud for preservation in these columns:-

"But when he yielded up the ghost, he proved to all that he was hypostatical (that is, a human body) and the lodi curios had come from the iclandic covenant, and his trinitatis unitas was all a sham."

The parties who wrote this were, one would say, evidently of foreign birth and education. Expressions such as lodi curios and "iclandic" take their place with the Archko of the title, the intra secus of the title page, and the gemonide of Caesar's statues.[7]

To speak seriously, here is a book of about 250 pages, nicely printed, neatly bound, provided with a frontispiece representing the interiors of the Vatican library and of the mosque of St. Sophia; one, moreover, which has found a publisher in America and an agent in England; and it contains, from one end to the other, nothing but the most intolerable, ignorant, stupid, tumid bosh. What is the meaning of it? Why was it written? The person calling himself Mr. Mahan is not mad, so far as I can see. The book is too coherent and too dull to make that hypothesis a probable one. It is just possible that Drs. McIntosh of Scotland and Twyman of England, both "of the Antiquarian Lodge, Genoa, Italy," may in some way, not easy to imagine, have practised upon his frank intelligence. Whether that is so or not, it is clear that an engaging simplicity is a prominent feature in the character of Mr. Mahan.

The Archko Volume is no isolated phenomenon in this century. In 1829 - and probably in other years - there appeared at Bristol a réchauffé of the history of the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges, under the name of the "Book of Jasher".[8] It lies before me as I write. Prefaced by a testimonial signed Wickliffe, and by an account of the discovery of the book at Gazna in Persia from the pen of Alcuin, and furnished with short notes by Hur, Othniel, Phinehas, and the editor, it is, in spite of all, a poor, dull piece of work.

Not very far removed from Jasher in date, and resembling it a good deal in form, is the famous "Book of Mormon."[9] It is to be presumed that the community of Utah are able to read it with satisfaction; but, to the non-Mormonic mind, it is the very weakest dilution of the historical books of the Old Testament.

The stately quarto of Constantine Simonides, published in 1861, and full of fac-similes, at first sight imposing, but rapidly crumbling away under examination, is a much more remarkable achievement; it imposed for a time upon men who had pretensions to be called learned.[10] What was attempted in it was not the floating of long spurious histories, but the production of early fragments of the Gospels and Epistles containing remarkable readings, and of inscriptions and colophons serving to confirm the Apostolic origin of the New Testament books. There are quotations from Hegesippus, part of a record of Christian chronology from an inscribed stone at Thyatira, fragments of a copy of St. Matthew's Gospel written in A.D. 48, and, in a footnote, a set of directions in Greek for taking photographs by a writer of the fifth century. There is no lack of enterprise about Simonides.

Most recent among the forgers of this type was the man who called himself Notovich, and who produced a Buddhist life of our Lord from the recesses of a Tibetan monastery.[11] But his book is too recent and was too widely known to make any detailed description of it necessary.

It is a curious trade this of writing apocryphal books; one that can only thrive in a milieu where the critical faculty is not developed. This age, unluckily for the trade, is nothing if not critical. People will be asking - "Where is the manuscript? What was it like?" Simonides was ready enough with his answer to the inquirers of this class. Fac-similes and originals were always forthcoming. Mr. Mahan is rather vaguer. The Vatican MSS. he used were "scrolls," and those at St. Sophia were like narrow strips of carpet around windlasses. It would be interesting to know to which collection the Vatican MSS. belonged. Were they Queen Christina's, or Palatine, or Ottobonian - or what?

It is difficult to say whether more of indignation or of amusement results from the study of the Archko Volume. Its prosperous appearance seems to indicate that in certain circles it has met with some little success. That any measure of success at all is far beyond its deserts this article has tried to show. There is no doubt whatever that it is an extremely bad book.[12]

Notes (compiled by and copyright © 2003 Rosemary Pardoe):

[1] The Archko Volume was first published in 1884. A shorter version of the "Acta Pilati" or "Report of Pilate" chapter appeared in 1879 under the same 'editor's' name (i.e. W.D. Mahan), but he seems to have copied the text from an earlier pamphlet, anonymously printed in 1842. The edition of The Archko Volume which MRJ reviewed was published by the Antiquarian Book Company of Philadelphia in 1896. The work has been reprinted many times and is currently available from at least two publishers. As one recent reprint states, "Popular demand never allows The Archko Volume to remain out of print for long" ("To the Reader" note in the Keats Publishing edition, 2000). For more information on The Archko Volume see "The Report of Pilate", Chapter Four in Edgar J. Goodspeed, Modern Apocrypha (Beacon Press, 1956, pp.28-44). (Goodspeed, incidentally, didn't know of "A Mare's Nest from Missouri", but elsewhere in his book [p.114] he describes MRJ as "a great modern scholar and man of letters".) (back)

[2] Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne, The Wrong Box (1889), Chapter 8:

"And that would be nothing," continued Mr Dickson sternly, "but I wish - I wish from my heart, sir, I could say that Mr Thomas's hands were clean. He had no excuse; for he was engaged at the time - and is still engaged - to the belle of Constantinople, Ga. My friend's conduct was unworthy of the brutes that perish."
"Ga.?" repeated Gideon enquiringly.
"A contraction in current use," said Michael. "Ga. for Georgia, in the same way as Co. for Company."
"I was aware it was sometimes so written," returned the barrister, "but not that it was so pronounced."
"Fact, I assure you," said Michael. (back)

[3] Obviously not to be confused with the ancient pseudepigraphon, Acts of Pilate (or the Gospel of Nicodemus), described and translated by MRJ in The Apocryphal New Testament (OUP, 1924, pp.94-165), and said by him to be partly "not earlier than the fourth century", and partly "probably an older document". (back)

[4] "The use of darics in Rome in the nineteenth century is a surprise to those who know that coin best from its use in Xenophon's Anabasis" (Goodspeed, p.32). (back)

[5] The Clementine Homilies, or the Homilies of Clement. Doubtless MRJ was chuckling at the whole idea of the Homilies of Clementine which sound as though they were written in California in 1849! (back)

[6] MRJ may seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time discussing the introductory chapters, but they take up over a fifth of the book, and he is right when he says that they are the most interesting part! (back)

[7] Not mentioned by MRJ, because it did not appear in the 1896 edition, is "Eli's Story of the Magi", some of which was very quickly shown, after the book's first appearance, to have been copied verbatim from Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur (published in 1880). Thus, for instance, the mysterious Archko sentence, "Egypt is satisfied with her crocodiles and anuman, holding them in equal honor", was produced when a line from the original was missed by the transcriber. The Ben-Hur text reads:

Egypt was satisfied with her crocodiles and Anu-
bis; the Persians were yet devoted to Ormuzd and Ahri-
man, holding them in equal honor...

In 1885, W.D. Mahan was summoned to answer charges before the Lebanon presbytery, found guilty of falsehood and plagiarism, and suspended from his position as a Presbyterian minister for one year, as a result of the evidence brought against him by General Wallace and others. Mahan apparently promised to withdraw the book, but only this one chapter was removed from most later editions. (See Goodspeed, pp.36-40.) (back)

[8] A lost book recorded in Joshua 10:13 ("Is this not written in the book of Jasher?") and 2 Samuel 1:18. Several Hebrew works with this title were produced in the medieval period for varied doctrinal reasons (one was published in an English translation in 1840), but the volume referred to by MRJ was a deliberate fake, dating originally from 1751, and slightly enlarged for the 1829 edition. The person responsible was Jacob Ilive, who was in business as a type-founder and printer in London from 1730 to 1763, and whose intention may have been to provide confirmation of his own Deist views by diminishing the importance of divine revelation in the Old Testament. Ilive's Book of Jasher was exposed as a fraud on first and later publication (not least because of the many unlikely details in the story of its discovery and translation into pseudo-Elizabethan English by the eighth-century Alcuin!), but gained a new lease of life when reprinted by the Rosicrucians in 1934, and remains in print today. (See Goodspeed, pp.81-87.) (back)

[9] The angel Moroni is supposed to have led the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith (1805-1844), to the golden plates inscribed with the Book of Mormon, in the 1820s. It was first published in 1830 in New York State, and is, of course, currently in print (also available in full in several places on the Net). (back)

[10] Constantine Simonides (c.1820-1867):

Fac-similes of Certain Portions of the Gospel of St. Matthew, and of the Epistles of Ss. James & Jude, Written on Papyrus in the First Century, and Preserved in the Egyptian Museum of Joseph Mayer, Esq, Liverpool, with a Portrait of St. Matthew, from a Fresco Painting at Mount Athos, edited and illustrated with notes and historical and literary prolegomena..., by Constantine Simonides. London: Trübner & Co., 1861.

Simonides was a controversial figure in scholarly circles in mid-nineteenth-century Europe. Although an undoubted forger (for which crime he was charged but not convicted), he also dabbled in the sale and study of genuine manuscripts, some of which he altered to increase their rarity, thus muddying the waters as far as this book of "Fac-similes" is concerned. Authentic material from the "Egyptian Museum" of the Liverpool antiquary Joseph Mayer was tampered with and given faked additions, such as the impossibly early portions of the Gospel of St Matthew (and presumably the fifth-century "set of directions... for taking photographs"!). Later in the 1860s, Joseph Mayer's important collection was donated to the Liverpool Museum (founded in the previous decade), and today the Egyptian Collection is the Museum's largest single group of antiquities, of which Mayer's acquisitions form the core.

Among other Simonides fakes was the correspondence which he produced to 'prove' his 1862 claim that he had forged the Codex Sinaiticus (the fourth-century Greek Bible manuscript eventually acquired by the British Museum in 1933 at a cost of £100,000, coincidentally during MRJ's trusteeship of that institution). (back)

[11] Nicolas Notovitch's La vie inconnue de Jésus Christ (The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ) was published in Paris in 1894, and translated into English for a number of American and British editions in the course of the following year (the first of the American editions was produced by another famous writer of supernatural tales: F. Marion Crawford). The book contains the text of a first-century "Life of Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" (i.e. Jesus), supposedly found by Notovitch in a Tibetan monastery where he was (as he claimed) staying in 1887 while recovering from a broken leg. According to this text, Issa spent some time in India with the Jains, Brahmins (whom he denounced) and Buddhists (with whom he lived for six years), before travelling on to Persia and preaching to the Zoroastrians.

Notovitch was not unique in being unable to resist the opportunity offered by the mystery of Jesus's 'lost years' from the age of thirteen to twenty-nine; and he was by no means the only author to propose a sojourn in the East (to explain what some perceive as an Eastern influence in Jesus's teachings). His book received a great deal of initial publicity, but then fell into obscurity until a reprint in 1926, when the "Life of Issa" was greeted once again as a major new discovery. The idea that Jesus might have visited India and Persia (and points east!) continues to be popular today (having undergone a particular resurgence in the 1960s); and The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ is usually in print. Investigators have failed to discover the existence of anything like a "Life of Issa" (the chief lama of the monastery, where Notovitch purportedly stayed, apparently denied all knowledge of such a work and of the explorer himself). There is some evidence, however, that Notovitch (a Russian war correspondent) may have been telling the truth about having visited Tibet. (See Goodspeed, pp.3-14.) (back)

[12] The Archko Volume is also mentioned by MRJ in The Apocryphal New Testament (p.90), where he calls it "a ridiculous and disgusting American book"; and in The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament (1920, p.xi), where he describes it as "an astounding work". Other modern forgeries noted in passing by MRJ in The Apocryphal New Testament ("more to show my consciousness of their existence than because they are at all interesting") are Notovitch's, and a "Letter of Benan" (the latter published in 1910; see Goodspeed, pp.50-57). MRJ discusses at slightly greater length (p.89) The childhood of Christ, first published in Latin and French in 1894, but not in English until 1904, and points out that the Latin version of this "sentimentalized compilation from Protevangelium, Pseudo-Matthew, the Latin Thomas, and the Arabic Gospel" contains "many phrases from Sike's Latin version of the Arabic Gospel, which was written in 1697". (back)

Strange New Gospels (1931), an earlier book by Edgar J. Goodspeed containing some of the same material as Modern Apocrypha, can be read on Roger Pearse's Tertullian Project site here.

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Atmosphere and Crescendo

M.R. James, C.D. Heriot and the
Mechanics of the Ghost Story

by Tom Mullen

Appraisals of M.R James's ghost stories are by no means hard to come by. In the Introduction to his Casting the Runes, Michael Cox calls the writer "one of those 'masters of the macabre'", a brilliant commander of "atmosphere and incident", the secret of whose stories is "at once obvious and impenetrable."[1] H.P. Lovecraft, in his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, holds James up as "a literary weird fictionist of the very first rank", a genius "gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life."[2]

But not all are frightened by the stories. Why not? How can we assess a ghost story for its 'scariness'? Most would say this is impossible and far too slippery a subject for an essay. Instead of pursuing this line directly, I want to look at James's late story "Rats" (1929) in comparison with C.D. Heriot's obscure "The Trapdoor" (1936).[3] "Rats" has received little critical attention and has hardly been exalted to the same 'classic' status as so many of MRJ's other tales, "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" (1904) particularly. With reference to some of James's own comments on the valuable qualities of the short/ghost story I aim to point out the probable reasons why this is the case, demonstrating that "Rats" has some important flaws and represents a weaker moment in his supernatural fiction career.

MRJ seems to have had few particular theories regarding his craft, and was even known to make fun of such talk of 'style', 'craft' or 'the art of writing'. He regarded the ghost story as "only a particular kind of short story" and "subject to the same broad rules as the whole mass of them."[4] Yet although his comments are notoriously few, where they do appear they are quite specific indeed and can give us some valuable insights into his methods. Some of his most intriguing remarks are found in his Introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (1924), in which he writes: "(T)wo ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo." According to James, we should be introduced to the central characters:

"...going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage."[5]

This we can see clearly enough in most of his tales. It is through subtle, chance preliminary encounters with "the ominous thing" that the atmosphere and tension of a good James story builds, and it is a technique the author particularly admired in the ghost stories of perhaps his main inspiration, J. Sheridan Le Fanu:

"The gradual removal of one safeguard after another, the victim's dim forebodings of what is to happen gradually growing clearer; these are the processes which generally increase the strain of excitement."[6]

We might remember the plight of the hapless Professor Parkins in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", or Paxton's gradual realisation of his fate in "A Warning to the Curious" (1925). Yet these episodes, this gradual boiling of the pot, would be irrelevant without what James saw in Le Fanu's stories as "the very skilful use of a crescendo" or, as he termed it in an article of 1931, "the final flash or stab of horror."[7] This is the climax of the story and usually the first time the ghost fully, or almost fully reveals itself. At this point still, James keeps an air of obscurity about his ghosts. For example, the linen with which the whistle-ghost moulds itself a face obscures a view of exactly "what manner of thing it was", and Mr Somerton in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" (1904) is conscious only "of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own." These are classic hallmarks of the well executed Jamesian encounter. In leaving his readers to fill in the gaps, the author mastered the "peculiar power" he so admired in Le Fanu's best stories:

"(T)he unexplained hints which are dropped are of the most telling kind... The reader is never allowed to know the full theory which underlies any of his ghost stories... Only you feel that he has a complete explanation to give if he would only vouchsafe it."[8]

As H.P. Lovecraft has it, "the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown."

Turning now to "Rats" and "The Trapdoor". Whether or not Heriot used James's tale as a template, the stories are almost identical in their general outline. Both concern an innocent sojourn at a country inn, which is of course haunted; a fact the landlord/lady in each tale is at pains to conceal, for in times gone by a haunting would bring an inn or house into ill repute rather than make it more of an attraction for visitors.

Let us compare descriptions of the establishments. MRJ spares only a short paragraph in the first page to summarise where his inn exists, its probable date of origin, a brief description of the brick and windows, the surrounding land and "view of the distant sea." As I have already noted, understatement is certainly a positive quality in James's fiction, but one feels there could be a little more attention to scene setting here. Heriot's inn, rather, is described more than once throughout his story at suitable digressions, and appears, we learn, differently depending on the time of day. By daylight "it was light and airy and looked across the road over a pleasant vista of wood and meadow", yet as the sun lowers "the shallow windows and mean proportions of sill and doorway seemed to emphasise its bareness" and "the roof sloped steeply upwards, black against the sunset." This light-dark dichotomy runs through Heriot's tale on a number of levels. The daytime sees his central character peaceful and comfortable, away from the stresses of his office life amidst pleasant sunshine and rainbows. By night, sinister shadows flicker across candlelit corridors and there is the Jamesian subtle implication that all is not well. It's almost as if Heriot's daylight world is some kind of façade, a curtain hiding the perils of "this dark grey world".

In "Rats" we are spared little introduction to "Mr Thomson", unlike the brilliant three or four pages James devotes to the portrayal of the secular Parkins in "Oh, Whistle". We learn only that Thomson is a young Cambridge scholar "desirous of solitude in tolerable quarters and time for reading." "The Trapdoor", however, introduces John Staines, the disclosure of the character's Christian name immediately making him more familiar, less formal perhaps, than James's Masters, Misters and Professors. The more rich description of Staines brings us into greater sympathy with him; we learn how his exploration of the home counties is a time of tranquillity, a time for him to recreate himself and delight in "the fact that he was John Staines." His nerves are particularly emphasised throughout: he blushes, feels guilt and apprehension, unease in the presence of the respect-commanding landlady Mrs Palethorpe, and passes sleepless nights with the sordid story of the Weedons on his mind.

We might ourselves be apprehensive about exactly how this fragile character will react in the face of some unknown malevolence. The first such encounter comes in the form of "hurrying footsteps and hushed voices in a low room", which Staines is at first not entirely sure isn't a dream. He starts awake, and there is the psychological emphasis of his "trying to rationalize the panic fears that swooped and fluttered in his mind." These panic fears soon "coalesced into one anguished dread that settled on him and chilled his drowsy consciousness into sharp awakening" as he hears a knocking from up in the loft. There is a real sense of Staines' anxiety here, and such consciously crafted language suggests Heriot was far more interested and engaged than James in "Rats", whose Mr Thomson, on first seeing the strange entity on the bed, is more immediately concerned with avoiding "the suspicion of having pried into places where he certainly had no business." We might feel a weak sense of his apprehension as he procrastinates around the inn plucking up the courage to revisit the bedroom with the key "which he had contrived to oil (as if that made any difference!)", but it seems there is more of James's characteristic humour rather than horror in this particular passage.

Perhaps Thomson's preliminary encounter would be more effective if it were followed by a few more such episodes, slowly increasing in tension, but this is not the case and barely a paragraph passes before the climax of the tale. Such is not true of Staines' plight in "The Trapdoor". He investigates the outside of the sealed loft meticulously, and again we sense his dread as "even the thick stuffiness of sunlight upon stagnant air was not warm enough to prevent a shudder over him" and as "common sense fought losing battles with his uneasiness." The run up to Heriot's crescendo is now very carefully managed. Staines has decided to force open the trapdoor just as the comforts of daytime again turn to night and "darkness arrived with its panic reinforcements." "The house was full of footsteps and movements," we are told; and "so full of watchful noise that it seemed like a challenge to finish matters that evening." Upstairs "the window showed grey" and a swooping bat or bird "seemed only to emphasise the stillness and immobility of the landscape." Staines very gingerly balances a chair in the corridor and, amidst a flurry of anxieties and with "a dismal sense of compulsion", slowly eases open the trapdoor and we read a final "stab of horror" indeed worthy of a good MRJ story. Little is seen in the blackness of the loft but "something" descends upon Staines' head, "resolving itself into a pair of hands, thin and damp, covering his face." There is the chilling obscurity and sickening attention to physical detail characteristic of James's best ghosts; we might remember the mouldy entity that protects old Abbot Thomas' treasure, or the hairy dog-like revenant Mr Poynter lays his hand on in "The Diary of Mr Poynter" (1919) as examples.

In "Rats", there is little build up to the "final flash" as Thomson quietly "stole to the door and opened it" as if he were late for some luncheon appointment his afternoon train might take him to. And this would be the first time that one of MRJ's protagonists almost laughs in the face of his ghost. Just how horrible can this thing be if it is first mistaken for "nothing in the round world but a scarecrow"? "Amusement" does cease, however, but gives way only to a rather pathetic-seeming spectre, moving stiffly in chains, and with a pantomimic "wagging head" lolling on its shoulders. Thomson scarpers, of course, with the almost cartoon manner of "the dash to the stair-head" and "the leap downstairs", followed by a faint. The scene he is confronted with on waking is perhaps the most frightening part of the story: the angry landlord Betts is "standing over him with the brandy bottle and very reproachful face", and Thomson receives a scolding hardly matched by that of Alice Palethorpe's polite letter of explanation to Staines.

Both works include the conclusive 'aftermath' that is present in some form or another in nearly all James's stories, in which a notion of the likely reason for the ghost's appearance is partly given, or at least hinted at. To discuss these end pieces fully would mean another essay, but it is notable how Heriot's story here departs from MRJ's more antiquated tradition, with the legend of Mr Wright and the sordid crime of the Weedons happening only twenty-five years earlier in "the happy days before the war", i.e. c.1911. Perhaps the story of the highwayman and the gallows reclaims some kind of eeriness for "Rats".

I fear I have been a little hard on James in the latter part of this article. In his more-than-thirty ghost stories one would expect slight inconsistencies, and in "Rats" the author does acknowledge "an ill-proportioned tale." As Lovecraft writes, "few of the tales are open to the charge of tameness",[9] and we should note that "Rats" is one of MRJ's later works, all of which were short and hurried, rarely taking the time to build the crescendo he recommended. Although these might fail in places where his masterpieces succeed, this does not mean they are without merit. Importantly also, the genre has its origins in the literature of oral tradition, and, remembering how James was known to read his tales to his audiences at King's, we might not be so quick to dismiss "Rats" as ineffective:

"Some pressure was needed; and on the appointed evening the party met and waited till at last, about 11p.m. as a rule, Monty appeared with the ink still wet on the last page. All lights except one were turned out and the story was read."[10]

To conclude then, if the success of a ghost story can be measured in terms of its 'scariness' or, as Lovecraft has it "whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread", then it can never really be the same for any two readers. But seemingly there are a few ground rules a writer must follow in order to please the majority, and as MRJ articulated, these rules indeed seem to be the same ones that govern any kind of short story writing: just a little attention to character, setting, pace and conclusion. Heriot's "The Trapdoor", like the best of MRJ's tales, as J.R. Cox writes, "will not fail to be effective, even on a second or third reading. They still compel the reader to sleep with the lights on."[11]


[1] Michael Cox, M.R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (OUP, 1987), pp.xi, xxvi, xxx. (back)

[2] H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927; page refs. are to the Dover Books reprint of 1973), p.101,100. (back)

[3] C.D. Heriot's "The Trapdoor" was originally published in The Mammoth Book of Thrillers, Ghosts & Mysteries (1936), and reprinted in Hugh Lamb's A Tide of Terror (W.H. Allen, 1972). It is also in Forgotten Ghosts: The Supernatural Anthologies of Hugh Lamb (ed. Barbara and Christopher Roden, Ash-Tree Press, 1996). (back)

[4] M.R. James, Introduction to Ghosts & Marvels (OUP, 1924; page ref. is to the reprint in A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings, Ash-Tree Press, 2001), p.486. (back)

[5] Ibid. (back)

[6] M.R. James, "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu", adapted from a lecture given at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, March 16, 1923 (first published as "M.R. James on J.S. Le Fanu" in Ghosts & Scholars 7, 1985; page ref. is to the reprint in A Pleasing Terror), p.495. (back)

[7] Ibid. M.R. James, "Ghosts - Treat Them Gently!" (Evening News, April 17, 1931; page ref. is to the reprint in A Pleasing Terror), p.482. (back)

[8] James, "The Novels and Stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu", pp.495-496. (back)

[9] Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, p.102. (back)

[10] S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (CUL, 1939; page ref. is to the reprint in A Pleasing Terror), p.xlvi. (back)

[11] J.R. Cox, "Ghostly Antiquary: The Stories of M.R. James" (English Literature in Transition 12, 1969), p.202. (back)

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Tarnhelm: The Best Supernatural Stories of Hugh Walpole,
introduced by George Gorniak.
Tartarus Press (Coverley House, Carlton, Leyburn, North Yorkshire, DL8 4AY;
e-mail: <>), 2003, xiv + 363pp, ISBN: 1872621740,
£35.00/US$55.00 including p&p.

Reviewed by Mike Pincombe.

"It's strange how I loathe writing short stories."[1] So Hugh Walpole, on his own book Thirteen Travellers (1921), from which are taken three of the twenty-five pieces gathered in Tartarus's new collection of the author's supernatural tales. Walpole's self-confessed loathing for the form is hardly apparent in these well-crafted and generally satisfying stories, which, on the contrary, reveal a keen interest in the way shorter narratives can lead up so much more effectively to the epiphanic moment - of love, forgiveness, compassion, or plain terror - with which so many of these tales conclude. But for Jamesians, perhaps, it is precisely the ending which disappoints. We like our "final flash," as James puts it, but we also like to be in doubt as to what it all meant and even whether the story is really over at all. Walpole is a very different kind of writer: he wants you to understand his essentially moral purpose as articulated through an imaginative world in which the supernatural is an instrument of divine providence. James, of course, generally supposes a world in which the supernatural is diabolically malevolent towards humankind; which, in a predominantly Christian literary culture, makes it more difficult to achieve the sort of narrative closure that is open to the pious and sentimental Walpole. Consequently, at least to readers brought up on James, the "ghost part" of Walpole's ghost-stories feels weak and contrived.

I take the phrase from criticism levelled by their mutual friend, Arthur Benson, at James's own story "An Episode of Cathedral History";[2] but perhaps "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" is a better point of departure for comparison, since Walpole owned the manuscript of this tale. The "ghost part" in "Oh, Whistle" is one of the most forcible in the Jamesian canon, and the terror felt by Parkins as the sheeted apparition crowds up against him at the window is a hundred times more convincing than the ghosts which are meant to terrify Elinor Ryder, say, in Walpole's "The Snow," or, more pointedly, perhaps, Robert Lunt in the story "Mrs Lunt". Robert Lunt bears a strong resemblance to the haunted victim-heroes of two stories by his friend John Buchan, "The Watcher by the Threshold" and "The Wind in the Portico"; but whereas these two live in sickening horror of coming face to face with their nameless supernatural predators, there seems to me a remarkable discrepancy between the effect of horror produced by the relatively frequent appearances of the ghost of Mrs Lunt on the reader (via the narrator) and Robert Lunt himself - the lack of an "objective correlative," as T.S. Eliot would have said, for Lunt's extremity of revulsion.

The "ghost part" seems overwrought, but the real frisson lies in the narrator's anxieties that he might get too closely involved with the stranger who has invited him to spend Christmas with him in his isolated Cornish manor: "I fancy that I became quite romantic about Lunt," Runciman recalls. Lunt, a huge man with a thick black beard and a woman's voice, is clearly overexcited at Runciman's arrival and has to apologise: "you are the first visitor of my own kind." And Runciman, who has "like many Englishmen, a great distrust of demonstrations, especially from another man," feels awkward about Lunt's habit of touching him: "I felt perhaps that I wouldn't be able to live up to all his eager excitement about me." But he grows to like Lunt, and finally they await the ghost, "hand in hand, like a couple of lovers." In an earlier issue of this journal,[3] I have suggested that the ghost-story is an especially effective "conductor" of homosexual panic since it trades in nameless and perhaps unnameable horror, as indicated by Benson's remarks on one of the young Walpole's "intime confessions" in his secret diary. I think that something similar is working here, at a muted level, in "Mrs Lunt", and that this, and not the ghost, is what gives the story its 'edge'. But in other tales where one man feels a strong and to him inexplicable romantic attachment to another man, such as "The Little Ghost" and "Major Wilbraham", such psychologically disconcerting elements are sublimated in the underlying narrative of spiritual redemption, or, in the case of the latter, out and out salvation through the Second Coming of Christ.

Similarly, Walpole's supernatural stories about young boys (all clearly self-portraits) also tend to be sentimental rather than sinister. A glorious exception to the rule is the title-story "Tarnhelm", with its Jekyll and Hyde uncles, and the unexplained mystery of what the aniseed-breathed Uncle Robert actually wants with the young hero when he changes himself into a yellow cur. Despite Walpole's habit of dropping rather obvious clues as to the narrative denouement, the story keeps us in suspense because we want to know not how it will end, but what it means. On the other hand, "Hugh Seymour", which stars the same little boy in all but name, and has the same pairing of antithetical father-figures, fails to engage our interest in the same way. An ugly, awkward, dreamy child, Hugh is dismissed by his schoolmaster Mr Lasher, but taken up by the peculiar Mr Pidgen, a fat, jolly, dapper little man who is a cross between Mr Pickwick and Peter Pan. Pidgen has on his own admission never grown up, and is still in touch with the "Friend" who looked after him as a baby. Walking across the fields on Christmas Day, Hugh and Pidgen see a Scarecrow (consistently so capitalised in the text) transfigured by the setting sun so that it looks like a "knight in shining armour." Pidgen dies that night after witnessing this vision, but his pupil Hugh grows up to be his successor, and in his mid-twenties, living in March Square, London, "he was happy enough to gain the intimacy and confidence of some of the children who played in the Garden there." At the heart of this story lies a strong element of regression, which can be (and perhaps should be) deeply disconcerting in a tale of the uncanny; as it is, for example, in A.M. Burrage's "Smee", or L.P. Hartley's "A Visitor from Down Under". But once again, it is sublimated in an allegorical narrative of salvation, for the Scarecrow rigged up on its pole is pretty obviously Christ on the Cross, though he may only be glimpsed "in [his] glory" by those with pure and child-like imaginations such as Pidgen and Hugh.

But perhaps it is unfair to compare Walpole's works with the traditional ghost-story, though that element is no doubt what matters most to the Jamesian readers of this review. Most of his supernatural tales are not meant to produce a "pleasing terror", but seem rather to be explorations of his own religious experiences (he was interested in spiritualism, for example, and once called up the shade of his friend Henry James). Occasionally, one catches a hint of one of the few contemporary writers Walpole seems not to have known personally: Algernon Blackwood, especially in the guise of "Uncle Paul". But where Blackwood saw Pan, Walpole saw Christ, and one only needs to compare Walpole's "Field with Five Trees" with Blackwood's "The Man Whom the Trees Loved" to see the gulf that lies between them. In Blackwood's tale, David Sanderson is torn away from his wife by the trees that, weirdly, love him; but the trees in Walpole's story stop Walter from putting himself at risk of adultery, and so act as providential agents in the preservation of sacramental union.

In the end, perhaps, this is where lies the real strength of these supernatural stories: a kind of humility which prevents Walpole from straying too far from orthodoxy whilst at the same time allowing him to worry away at its periphery in his own unassuming way. Blackwood and James are literary egoists: one feels they can only write the way that suits them personally (although clearly many of us share their tastes). But Walpole, the man who wanted everyone he met to love him, tends towards literary self-effacement. He is no mere cipher: many of his tales have writers as their narrators, and one, "The Tarn", even stages a sort of critical duel to the death. But his muse was, in the best sense, 'popular', rather than idiosyncratic; and one hopes that the release of this new collection of his supernatural tales by Tartarus will help to ensure his popularity is revived once again in the twenty-first century.

Rating (out of 5): ***


[1] Quoted in Rupert Hart-Davis, Hugh Walpole (1952; Sutton, 1997), p.187. (back)

[2] Quoted in Michael Cox, ed., M. R. James: Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories (OUP, 1987), p.328. (back)

[3] Mike Pincombe, "Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story: M. R. James and Others" (G&S Newsletter 2), p.7. It may be noted that Walpole wished certain details of his relationship with Benson to be kept secret, too, for he seems to have destroyed his early letters to Benson when they were returned to him. On the other hand, he also hints that Benson may have read too much into Walpole's falling "purely" and "idealistically" in love with him: "I suppose Benson saw more in it than met my innocent eye" (quoted in Hart-Davis, p.260). A word of warning to critics, perhaps. (back)

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The Face by E.F. Benson, edited and introduced by Jack Adrian.
Ash-Tree Press (P.O. Box 1360, Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada, V0K 1A0;
e-mail: <>), 2003, xxii + 187pp, ISBN: 1-55310-052-2,
£28.00/US$45.00/Can$59.00 plus p&p.

Reviewed by David Rowlands.

As a writer of ghost (or "Spook" to use his own slightly more jocular term) stories, E.F. Benson is, of course, almost as well known as M.R. James. To make his entire spook story output available - the first 'complete, collected, E.F. Benson' - has been the aim of Jack Adrian and Ash-Tree Press, and this is the fourth volume of the series, which reprints the tales in chronological order. Jack Adrian contributes an interesting introduction dealing with EFB's relations with the publisher, Ward, Locke, and The Windsor Magazine; and attempting to identify which of his stories was rejected on the grounds of being "anything but pleasing... a powerful story that is actually repellent... horrible." He also contributes a short appendix on EFB, Ward, Locke and dust-jackets, plus a list of dates of the original magazine publication of the tales herein.

EFB, as well as being a member of MRJ's circle, is included in the James Gang list, and whilst he is very much his own man rather than 'Jamesian', nevertheless he fulfils several of the requirements listed and practised by MRJ. Firstly, for both men, "places are prolific in suggestion." Indeed, in this present selection, covering the period between December 1923 and November 1927, we are entering what I call EFB's "golden era", when his descriptive passages evoking the genius loci add so much to the atmosphere and success of the tale. This is generally true of his later stories. Also, EFB tends to introduce his spooks gently at first, little by little until they hold the centre of the stage: another Jamesian requirement. Then again, both men wrote their stories in the hope of making the reader (or chiefly the listener, in MRJ's case) uncomfortable and subsequent sleep elusive. At one time I had two of EFB's books that had been presented to his friend John Fowler, the Vicar of Rye (with whom, incidentally, EFB saw a ghost in the secret garden at Lamb House). Both books were inscribed: "To John Fowler, hoping to give him some uneasy moments"! The Jamesian example of EFB's work mentioned in the James Gang list is "Negotium Perambulans" (from Visible and Invisible), which has a 'thing' in the nature of a phosphorescent and slug-like 'elemental' (Freudians read faecal-stool or phallus!). EFB had used this creature before in "The Thing in the Hall" (possibly the story Ward, Locke rejected, according to Jack), and it returns in this volume in "'And No Bird Sings...'".

Of the fifteen tales given here, no less than eleven are from Spook Stories, which I have often cited as one of my "crown jewels" of supernatural fiction. Two come from the follow-up More Spook Stories, while "By the Sluice" (a tale not previously reprinted in Benson's own collections) with its ghostly telephone bell, is slightly reminiscent of "Expiation", one of the two stories from Spook Stories not included here.

The title tale, "The Face", is fairly well known as one of EFB's most terrifying creations, and it has quite a Jamesian feel to it, particularly in the settings - notably the churchyard on the crumbling cliff (possibly borrowed by Jonathan Miller for his TV Whistle, and I'll Come to You adaptation). But for 'prolific suggestion', I refer you to my favourite of all EFB's stories in this book: "A Tale of An Empty House". The evocation of the setting - the salt marshes at Blakeney Point in Norfolk (described further by EFB in his last volume of autobiography, Final Edition, 1940, p.165) - is typical of that ability to put the reader into the location, making the chills so effective when they begin to build up to their climax. It is a wonderful piece of writing!

So, there you are. The Face will be a must for those collecting the 'complete EFB'. Jamesian enthusiasts who already have Spook Stories will not be quite so tempted, but those who don't, will enjoy some fine tales built on Jamesian principles. It is produced to Ash-Tree's usual high standards, with a Douglas Walters-illustrated dust-jacket.

Rating: ***½

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The Journals of Mary Butts, edited by Nathalie Blondel.
Yale University Press (47 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3DP),
2003, x + 499pp, ISBN: 0-300-09184-2, £30.00.

Reviewed by Steve Duffy.

Mary Butts, who wrote the first critical appraisal of M.R. James's ghost stories,[1] never met her subject: for the sardonic amongst us this is a shame, since it is hard to imagine anyone much less attuned to MRJ's avowedly Victorian sensibilities than this Modernist advocate of pacifism, Sapphism, Crowleyan magick and sexual liberation. What would they have made of each other, Dr James and Miss Butts; what common ground could they possibly have established? Imagine the pair meeting for tea, exchanging small talk about their lives and interests, their domestic circumstances, their respective circles of friends. Start with the usual conversational standby: partners? MRJ never formed a passionate romantic attachment, either heterosexual or otherwise, in his long and blameless scholar's life; Mary Butts enjoyed (if that's the right word, since for Mary pleasure was invariably followed by long, involved, often injurious self-analysis, capped with an assortment of classical tags and literary allusions) a succession of physical relations with partners male and female. Moving rapidly on, then: what did you do in the Great War, Daddy? MRJ composed the memorial scroll sent to the next-of-kin of British soldiers who died in the '14-'18; Mary worked for the National Council Against Conscription (later the National Council for Civil Liberties), and her lover John Rodker was a "conchie", a conscientious objector in hiding from the authorities. Dear me (casting around for a non-controversial subject): read any good books lately? MRJ had little or no time for modern "literary" fiction, preferring detective novels and the classics; Mary's circle encompassed T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Virginia Woolf, Jean Cocteau, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce... etc. Ahem. Holidays? MRJ liked to go cycling with his friends, looking round old churches and the like; Mary went to Thelema, Crowley's magickal Sicilian abbey of Do What Thou Wilt, and studied to be an adept. Long pause... by now, the tea-party would, one feels, be flagging somewhat, strained rictuses and awkward silences all round. Ah well - why not bite the bullet, then? MRJ thought sex... well, I think we all know what MRJ thought about sex; Mary (and we can imagine the good Provost spraying a mouthful of tea across the room, not to mention making sure his skip washed the cups very, very carefully afterwards) used to do research for the National Commission on Venereal Disease. Dear oh dear: Mary Butts and MRJ. What did they have in common?

Well, they both loved a good ghost story, for one thing; and above all others Mary loved MRJ's. "I must nearly have committed Professor James' ghost-stories to memory," she writes, in January 1930. Mary came across MRJ's "Lost Hearts" in a back number of the Pall Mall magazine at the age of eight: this from her London Mercury essay: "I read, rapt with terror and felicity; and found in the tale more than the story to excite me. For it had made me aware of nature and my own environment.... There was something else too - though this, I suspect, was on a later reading - it filled my mind with new things. What were 'the religious beliefs of the late pagans'? What were the Mysteries? The Neo-Platonists? The Orphics? If I know some of the answers now, it was here that I first asked the questions. I was utterly fascinated."

Here we see the twin themes that would come to characterise Mary's fiction:[2] the striving after transcendental sensation, usually brought about through enlightened communion with landscape and sense of place or genius loci; and a passionate interest in Classic themes, structures and ways of thought. Both, of course, are entirely characteristic of the Modernist movement: see, most obviously, Joyce's theory of the epiphany, and his adaptation of the Homeric structure of the Odyssey for Ulysses. The themes crop up time and time again in her journals, written between 1916 and her death in 1937, and edited, in this highly attractive and informative edition, complete with index, biographical notes and illustrations, by Nathalie Blondel, Butts' biographer.

Modernism, "free love", Freud and Jung; Butts would always maintain an interest in developments at the intellectual cutting edge of her time, while maintaining an abiding interest in the Classics. These, together with the deeply-felt and passionately interwoven workings of her inner life, more or less dominate the journals. As Ms Blondel points out in her Introduction: "...far from compartmentalizing her life and her writing, [Mary] subordinated the former to the latter." All that befell her, good or bad, happy or sad, routine or scandalous, became grist to her mill, fit subject for her literary endeavours.

By now, you may have guessed that the reader who approaches this book seeking strictly Jamesian data may well end up feeling short-changed - there are just eleven entries for MRJ in the Index, none lasting much more than a page. Some of these citations are, shall we say, peripheral; as when she visits St Bertrand de Comminges in May 1920, having yet to read "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", or when she jots down her acquisition of The Five Jars in January 1927. Others, such as the entries around November 1927, deal at greater length with MRJ and other favoured writers of the supernatural. For the record, Mary's favourite MRJ tales were "The Mezzotint", "Casting the Runes", and "A School Story".[3] "Left to myself," she hypothesizes (5 November, 1927), "I should suspect that Professor James had once been in contact with an elemental, & built most of his stories on that." An interesting point of view - we are reminded of the first appearance of the shrieking ghost of Betton Wood in "A Neighbour's Landmark". "Most of the stories," Mary continues, "analyse down to a horrible, sub-human, non-natural thing evoked by bad people, who do or do not escape them. This, plus faultless style, invention and learning, make him a great master. I should like to know what gave him his root-idea." As would many of us! Mary died in March 1937, five months after "A Vignette" was first published in the London Mercury, November 1936, a publication we know Mary wrote for, and so presumably read. Did she come across this fragment there, and if so, did she find it as rich in suggestion as have so many subsequent Jamesian scholars?

In September 1932, Mary wrote to MRJ, thanking him for his former communication (a response to her previous letter re. The Five Jars, "so beloved in my nursery"), and asking him whether she might dedicate her own supernatural tale, "With and Without Buttons", to him. There is no record of a reply, and the story was eventually published, after both Mary and MRJ had died, without a dedication. There is some circumstantial evidence that MRJ may have been rather put off by Mary's extremely high regard of his work: in a letter to Gwendolen McBryde re. Mary's London Mercury article, he describes her (Mary's) unqualified admiration as "fulsome". Writing to Eric Millar, he enlarges on the theme: "a fulsome article on my art - save the mark. I knew not that I had any." Oh dear. It is, one feels, altogether characteristic of MRJ to have regarded such praise, not as his rightful due, but as indicative of a want of proper discernment and proportion on the part of its originator... and so that tea-party of our dreams was never to take place. Our loss; and maybe MRJ's too.

In May 1920, Mary Butts wrote in her journal: "There are two kinds of reading, reading which is contemplation - even a kind of vision & reading for information. For the first only the best will do..." Mary certainly ranked MRJ's ghost stories in that first category, and - while MRJ himself might still have had his reservations - we may well find ourselves in agreement with this fascinating and engaging woman, who was not so much ahead of her time, as representative of all that was most forward-thinking and audacious about it. For strictly Jamesian content, I'd be hard pressed to give this book more than a one-star rating (no place here for her MRJ-related articles, which would certainly have bumped the rating up by a star or two); however, since I found it full of interest in so many other ways, and believe it deserves to be read, I'm going to give it a generous, yet not unmerited...

Rating: **½


[1] "The Art of Montagu James", London Mercury 29 (February 1934); reprinted in Ghosts & Scholars 17 (1994). She also wrote about ghost stories in general, singling out MRJ's work for special praise, in "'Ghosties and Ghoulies': Uses of the Supernatural in English Fiction" (The Bookman, January 1933; part one of a two-part article.) (back)

[2] Besides her poems and stories Mary wrote several interesting novels, including Armed with Madness, a modern-day reworking of the Grail myth (such as all good Modernists presumably had to produce); Dangerous, a Sapphic novel unprintable in Butts' own lifetime and in fact never published until 2003; and Ashe of Rings, an allegorical work drawing on the Eleusinian Mysteries and that touchstone of Modernism, Frazer's Golden Bough. (Back at our imaginary tea-party, MRJ sighs once more...) (back)

[3] Mary's other favourite writers of supernatural tales included John Metcalfe, J.A. Middleton (specifically "The House of Horror"), Kipling, Bulwer Lytton, E.F. Benson, H.G. Wells, May Sinclair and Barry Pain. In her entry for 5 November, 1927, she also cites "[Clerk] Russell: 'The Upper Birth'" (sic): since she goes on to mention "The one founded on the Evcombe screaming skull" (sic), she presumably has Francis Marion Crawford in mind. Shaky memory for names, maybe, but good choices. (back)

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