A still from the only film adaptation of M. R. James's work. Credit: IMDB

October 30, 2020   7 mins

I should probably begin by assuring sceptical readers that I have never seen a ghost, and therefore have no strong opinions on their existence or otherwise. And yet. In our previous home, a flat in an 18th century house in pre-gentrification Whitechapel, my wife, her brother and our flatmate all independently claimed to hear voices talking on the otherwise empty top floor (the flatmate moving out almost immediately afterward) — and even, once, a soft voice gently shushing our crying baby son back to sleep. 

On a T.A. course, over a decade ago, in the officer’s mess of Prince William of Gloucester Barracks in Grantham, a hungover colleague complained at breakfast of being woken during the night by a figure in RAF uniform. The mess staff, glancing at each other, alerted us to the story of the base’s purported ghost, an RAF airman killed in a wartime accident, whose presence, it transpired, was only ever experienced in my friend’s room.

That last tale is perhaps unsurprising: ghosts, should they exist, seem to be curiously institutionalised figures, adhering to schools, hospitals and museums, the London Underground and military installations. The Army, in particular, has a surprisingly rich and detailed ghost lore about its various historic barracks across Britain and, formerly, Germany. In this, we can say there’s something particularly British about ghosts: like our establishment, they seem doomed to wander forlornly across one Gothic quadrangle or another for eternity.

The essential Britishness of the ghost is worthy of consideration: this country, and all its constituent nations, shares with Ireland an extremely rich and highly evolved corpus of ghostly tales and claimed sightings compared to our European neighbours. No wonder, then, that the writer Peter Ackroyd claimed, in The English Ghost, that “the English see more ghosts than anyone else.” And yet, while “the word is of Anglo-Saxon derivation… curiously enough, the Anglo-Saxons did not see ghosts.” Is our ghost tradition a distant memory, suspended in the nocturnal gloom, of our island’s Celtic past? Through it, is England still, in some ghostly fashion, a Celtic nation? After all, as Ackroyd notes, boggart — the traditional northern English term for ghostly apparitions — like  bogeyman, the Cornish Bucca and Shakespeare’s Puck all derive from the Brythonic word for ghost, bwg.

Perhaps it is more relevant to note, as Ackroyd does, that “the English are also in many respects obsessed with the past, with ruins, with ancient volumes. It is the country where archaeology is placed on national television, and where every town and village has its own local historian.” The ghost, then, can perhaps be understood as the unconscious national understanding that the past is not dead, nor even truly past. We are haunted by our history, with a pleasing frisson, like no other nation on earth. Perhaps we can go further, and ask: are ghosts reactionaries? Suspended between past and present, retreading the forgotten ways of history, they are not simply residual echoes of the past, but exist purely in tension with modernity.

This tension between past and present, tradition and modernity can most clearly be seen in the tales of England’s greatest writer of ghost stories, M. R. James. The son of an East Anglian curate, his life’s path circumscribed, through his own choice, by the quadrangles of Eton, King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton again, Montague Rhodes James haunted the institutions of Edwardian England at a time of great and unbearable change. Like the fussy dons or stolid sons of the East Anglian squirearchy who peopled his tales, James was troubled by a dimly perceived force at the very edge of his vision which threatened to bring great horror to his world: modernity.

In his introduction to the Oxford World’s Classics edition of James’s ghost stories, the professor of English literature Darryl Jones observes that James’s stories “give articulation to a particularly English longing for the past, perhaps unsurprising for a writer who understood himself to be a Victorian, sometimes at sea in, and often at odds with the modern world.” In his professional life, “across a long career as an increasingly influential academic and university administrator, James seems to have opposed, and attempted to block where he could, every piece of progressive legislation and every really modern thinker that crossed his path, increasingly seeing (and using) Eton and King’s as bulwarks against secular modernity.” And no wonder: “Modernity is terrifying, monstrous, demonic.”

James himself was aware of this dynamic, observing that he preferred modern settings for his stories because “the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective… roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer.” The ghost is not a ghost because it is old: what makes it ghostly, what grants it its power, is precisely that it haunts the present and its rationalist assumptions with deeper, older passions. The ghost is the past, which will not stay buried, whatever we may wish. Such a tension between past and present, and the fear of a hazily-seen, monstrous future, is not unique to James’ stories, but is a thread that runs throughout the genre. 

In The History of the British Ghost Story, the literary critic Simon Hay observed that “the ghost story is, unlike the historical novel, a failed modernity narrative.” He goes on to write:

“The modernity on display in the ghost story has not successfully distinguished itself from its past; indeed, the whole point of the ghost story is that the present cannot wrench free of the past and so has not become fully modern. The ghost story, in other words, holds to a model of history as traumatically rather than nostalgically available to us.” 

But there is nevertheless something uniquely English about James’s pained wrestling with these tensions. After all, the classic vampire story, the product of the Anglo-Irish writers Sheridan Le Fanu and Bram Stoker, encapsulates the anxieties of the residents of the mouldering Big House living parasitically on a superstitious and unhappy peasantry.

Certainly, James’s works are deeply rooted in the landscapes of England. The most common setting of his stories is a small, lonely, neoclassical manor, in an eerily flat and windswept East Anglia. In “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” (1903) James writes with wistful power of the Suffolk shoreline, with its “squat Martello tower, the lights of Aldsey village, the pale ribbon of sands intersected at intervals by black wooden groins, the dim and murmuring sea.” These are the edgelands, the lonely Saxon shore, “the lands of invaders and colonizers, the Angles who drove out or intermarried with the previous inhabitants of the area,” notes the literary critic Derek Johnston, where “the connection to the local soil and landscape runs generations deep, but it has also been built upon the remains of earlier populations, with earlier connections to that landscape, overrun by the incomers.”

By 1925’s “A Warning to the Curious”, the Suffolk landscape of “marshes intersected by dykes to the south,” with its “flat fields to the north, merging into the heath, fir woods, and above all, gorse, inland,” is haunted by more modern threats. The drama revolves around the buried crown of the Saxon king Raedwald of East Anglia (whose real-life ship burial, discovered in 1939, recurs in later fictional explorations of Englishness, from Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes to the BBC’s Detectorists). The crown is hidden along this lonely shoreline to protect England from the outside world — one of three “buried in different places near the coast to keep off the Danes or the French or the Germans.” The excavation of this protective talisman summons up dark forces, turning the familiar landscape uncanny, the Heimlich into the Unheimlich:

“calm sea dead in front, faint barking of a dog at a cottage on a gleaming dyke between us and it: full moon making that path we know across the sea: the eternal whisper of the Scotch firs just above us, and the sea in front. Yet, in all this quest, an acute, an acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility very near us, like a dog on a leash that might be let go at any moment.”

As Johnston notes, this is the “dark heritage” understanding of Britain’s landscape, a peculiarly “English tradition… of accepting the comfort in which one currently exists and pointing out that it is surrounded by potential horrors.” In James’ stories, “the rural landscape is not a reassuring indicator of permanence, nor a comforting example of man’s dominance over nature… but rather a symbol of the thin skin of civilisation that covers the deep and ancient horrors of the world.”

Similarly, in each story, as the literary critic Julia Briggs noted, “the hero is mildly culpable in that he wilfully rejects, because of his scepticism perhaps, the advice of wiser or older men.” As the bluff retired colonel “of prounouncedly Protestant views” in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” warns the central character, an unimaginative Professor of Ontography who literally unearths an ancient threat from the sandy Suffolk shoreline, “there’s generally something at the bottom of what these country-folk hold to, and have held to for generations.” 

The cursed whistle, inscribed in Latin, dug up from the ruins of a Templar preceptory, is of course a relic of England’s buried Catholic past, as the colonel notes, warning the professor that “he should himself be careful about using a thing that had belonged to a set of Papists, of whom, speaking generally, it might be affirmed that you never knew what they might not have been up to.” Through the tensions between Catholicism and Protestantism that run through James’s work, from his earliest tale “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” (1893) onward, a case can even be made for James as an Anglo-Catholic writer, whose rejection of modernity and desire to imbue the present with the sacred, awful mysteries of the past align him with those other critics of modernity in English early twentieth century genre writing, Chesterton and Tolkien. 

For the Catholic writer Daniel Frampton, James is “an especially poignant example of an English sensibility that regained, or perhaps even retained, a degree of Catholic feeling that was at its core medieval” and his ghost stories “are themselves a ghostly manifestation of the English, not always Catholic, sensibility that has come to realise that something vital really was lost as a consequence of the Reformation, and that this was to be regretted, since it also led to a process of secularisation.” 

Is there a clearer metaphor, then, than James’s corpus of ghost stories for the conservative worldview? James’s attachment to the English landscape, his obsession with England’s very soil and the secrets buried within it, and his understanding that the deeper, non-rational passions of the past are more powerful than the bland assurances of modernity are the central currents that run through English conservatism. Writing at the height of literary modernism, James’s fixation with the past’s dark and seductive threat to break into the present can be read as a form of wish-fulfilment, a desire to see modernity and the forces it unleashed sent scurrying away in chastened terror.

Unfortunately for James’ equilibrium, modernity could not be kept at bay in the world outside his Cambridge study. As Mark Fisher observed, even the Lowestoft hotel James used as the setting for “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was burned down by suffragettes in 1924. More profoundly, that great engine of modernity, the First World War, saw Cambridge converted into a finishing school for the trenches, and the King’s College playing fields into an overflow hospital for the Flanders wounded.

Perhaps the single most-read text of James’s entire writing career was the sober message of remembrance he penned, at the government’s request, to accompany the “death penny” memorial plaques sent to the war dead’s next of kin: 1,355,000 were sent to grieving families. Deeply affected by the deaths of so many of his students in the war, James retired as Provost of King’s College in 1918 to return to the Eton of his childhood, until his own death in 1936.

In the end, James could no more fend off the 20th century than could the static, unchanging England he loved. Perhaps it is only now that modernity is itself in crisis, challenged by the re-irruption of the passions of the past into the disordered present, that we can reassess James as an explicitly conservative writer, whose critique of progress, like the ghost tales which envelop it, is most powerful for only facing its horror obliquely.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.