Welcome to the January 2017 Literary Meeting!
The most recent literary theme is Antiquarian Horror.
As always, I’ve made informal references in text, with full references listed at the end.
Aromatic Accompaniment: Flickering Fireside and Poplar & Pine by WoodWick.
Wine: Alchemist Noir Red Blend (2014) by Winc and Red Diamond Shiraz (2013).
If you were to describe a tale in which a stuffy academic discovers something frightening, chances are most people would assume it was by H.P. Lovecraft, but it was actually M.R. James that made this type of tale famous. James wrote around the turn of the 20th century, but his writing has an archaic quality about it that is as stuffy as its author.
James was an antiquary, which means he studied and collected old things, legends, ruins, and other oddities of the past. James also read his ghost stories to his academic friends every Christmastime, which makes him my personal hero.
What fascinates me so much about antiquarianism is that from the viewpoint of the early 21st century, the antiquaries themselves are still close enough that they seem real, though distant, while the antiquities they write about are most definitely now part of the misty past.
What stands out about James’ ghost stories is how terribly present the horrible nasties are. In contrast to James’ archaic diction, which suggests a corresponding hesitance to reveal the Scary Thing in full view but rather to conceal it behind a curtain of suggestion, James’ Scary Things appear in full form, directly, seemingly crawling out of a picture frame right toward you. Ordinarily, this sort of directness makes for scary fiction that isn’t creepy or Spooky. And yet, the meandering, scholarly tone of his prose performs the concealment necessary to maintain tension and atmosphere in the face of direct terror. The consequence is that when we finally notice the Scary Thing sitting behind our chair, under our pillow, or in the haunted well, we get all the directness of a jump scare without any of its cheapness. Add in the fact that the setup to the final moments of terror reads like the first act of a good historical investigation a la Call of Cthulhu, and James has accomplished something unusual in the annals of the ghost story.
My real love of James comes from the scholarly investigations. For example, his most famous story, “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,'” begins with a visit to a set of ruins of a Templar temple and ends . “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” is essentially an investigation of a historical riddle, complete with consultation of musty gazetteers, word puzzles whose index is to stained glass windows, journeys to obscure churches with crumbling mausoleums, and finally a descent into a long-forgotten well that holds a treasure as well as…something else. But not an in-your-face something else, like a bad Lovecraft pastiche, but “something curved, that felt—yes—more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. … [Upon pulling the thing, which turns out to be a bag, out of the hole it was hidden in,] it hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms around me.”
With James, the pattern tends not to be so much “Epic Voice Legend, research, tropy reveal” as “scholarly exposition, vague dread inferred by reader due to genre, scholarly exposition/day in the scholar’s life, authorial foreshadowing of dread, scholarly exposition, scholarly climax, more description, and then the realization that the Scary Thing has already been there for a short time as the description following the scholarly discovery gradually leans into the reveal until it tips and slides into frame. It doesn’t so much jump out as make itself known. And when it does become known, the dryness which preceded and follows the reveal gives James a slow-burn tonal quality even in the midst of a horrific demon right behind you that I’ve never seen pulled off elsewhere.
The best way I can describe a James reveal would be to compare it to a jump scare. James gives the full force of the reveal to the reader about half a beat after the Scary Thing arrives, allowing the reader to experience that same twilight of uncertainty while examining a strange grey object that wasn’t there on your blotter before and following it back over the mottled grey skin of a hand, and along the wrist to the furry arm of the creature that looks just like the creature in the book you’re reading, the caption of which reads “drawn from the life.” Contrast that with a jump scare, which does your Spooky for you startling you half a beat before the reveal, such that the actual vehicle of the reveal is as irrelevant as it is overpowered.
• “The Mezzotint”
• “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”
We suggest you also read:
• “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad'”
• “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”
Good secondary analysis:
“A Podcast to the Curious — The M.R. James Podcast” (http://www.mrjamespodcast.com/)
Content References from the August 2015 Literary Meeting
James, M.R. Collected Ghost Stories. Ed. by Darryl Jones. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Print.
——. “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook.” Pp. 3-13.
——. “The Mezzotint.” Pp. 24-34.
——. “‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.'” Pp. 76-93.
——. “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.” Pp. 94-110.
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