Reading Group #12 (M. R. James' Birthday: 'The Mezzotint,' 'Casting the Runes,' 'Rats')
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I'll be starting with 'The Mezzotint' and rereading these (I've enjoyed them all at least one or two times before) in the order I listed them in the subject line. Feel free to switch it up, though.
By the way, I was made aware of M. R. James' 149th birthday by a notification on Facebook by the Nunkie Theatre company. It is a company, primarily one man, Robert Lloyd Parry, who performs M. R. James stories. I say, "performs", but basically he tells the stories in the persona of M. R. James, as if the audience were attendees at one of James' story telling sessions in his study.
I was introduced to this theatre company about three years ago when a friend brought me to a performance of two ghost stories, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" and "A Pleasing Terror". The venue was an old court house in a small village in the Wicklow mountains. We had to leave the main roads and traverse about ten miles of country road to get to the village. The night was cloudless, there was a full moon, and the valleys were filling up with ground hugging mist. Church spires poked out of sheets of fog in a couple of the villages we passed. It was a night made for ghost stories.
This gets me back to what I said here - http://www.librarything.com/talktopic.php?topic=120766#2834970 - and here - http://www.librarything.com/topic/119177#2835012 .
As I wrote there, over time I found 'Canon Alberic' sort of sneaking up on me despite my initial strictures on it. So I read a few more of James's stories on Gutenberg; then decided I was going to buy a good collected edition; so then, because of that, decided not to read any more online. But it's like with those tins of biscuits - you've got to have 'just one more' - and before you know it the tin is empty! I exercised a bit of will power to stop reading them, but it's going to start all over again now!
(Rises to feet, shuffles a bit, clears throat nervously) "My name is rankamateur and I'm an M. R. James-oholic".
One day at a time! One day at a time!
#2 - I'd have loved to have seen that. I see from his website there's a DVD, so I may see it yet.
Looking at the photos, Parry does look a lot like James. The trouble with that is, to me, James doesn't look a lot like James - not my idea of him, anyway. For some reason, I've got a picture of the late Cyril Cusack in my mind (I've a vague memory of him reading ghost stories, but whether James or no ...)
In relation to James and Parry, I have a copy of his first DVD, but I haven't watched it yet.
I just noticed that his next scheduled performances are here in Dublin in October, in The Loft Bookshop, Ireland's most recently opened indepenent bookshop, and only a couple of hundred yards from my place of work. (It was opened a few months ago by a friend of mine.)
Here are my comments on "Rats".
By M.R. James
The opening of this story, when the heaving of the bedclothes with rats is being described, reminds me of the time I came across the body of a dead sheep. Its wool-clad flanks were undulating and shifting as I looked on. It was not rats under the skin, but a mass of maggots devouring the carcass from within.
James’s protagonist in Rats strikes me as a very diligent student. He rents rooms for a month in the country and spends the majority of his time reading, writing and walking in the countryside. I suspect students of today would not be just quite as diligent; and perhaps students of James’s time were not-so either. James was a Cambridge Don, and as such I’m sure he wished to encourage students to be diligent and studious. Perhaps his character is an idealised student in the mind of James, or James is trying to promote good-studentship, or perhaps James had a sense of humour and he is being sarcastic.
In terms of the core story, I like how local culture and lore is being glimpsed by an “outsider”. The story of the gallows is obviously well known to the locals, and the existence of the “ghost” is known to the inn keepers, who, it appears, took on the business with full knowledge; a demonstration of how naturally such things were accepted by the local community.
Acute commercial awareness was demonstrated by the inn keepers when they expressed concern that the story of the ghost would get out and impact on the reputation of their establishment.
Why was the ghost of the executed inn keeper in that room? Had it been his room in life? Had he been chained and held in that room while awaiting execution? What had gone through his mind as he waited in that room for his execution with the gallows in full view?
Also, what happened at the inn after our student returned to Cambridge? Did the ghost become more active now that his rest had been disturbed?
Apart from the supernatural attributes of the story, I think James created a good metaphor for local community life where there are hidden horrors just below the surface. I am even inclined to draw a comparison with the child abuse scandals uncovered in Ireland where the Catholic Church was covering up misdeeds by its clergy and the public at large was in denial that such things could possibly happen.
With travel taking more effort in James’s times than nowadays, placing his story in the English countryside provides sufficient remoteness to create a cultural dichotomy between the local community and that of the student. Also, his descriptions of the environs are sufficient to create the feeling of remoteness.
Having spent five months mapping the geology of North West Inishowen I can relate to the student’s wanderings in areas not often visited by human beings. Standing atop a granite peak, surveying the surrounding bog-land and lough views is wonderful, but on more than one occasion it has given rise to eeriness and a sense of not being alone.
As you can see, Rats evoked a lot for me.
'Rats' is probably my favorite James yarn: creepy, a little off-kilter, and really ambiguous. That part about the thing's feet, phrased as a question---eep! The last time I reread this was in May, but I gave it another read anyway. Glad I did. Great stuff! Maybe one of my favorite short stories ever, actually. Strange to call it that, but I don't know...it really creeps me out. And that's fabulous.
I reread 'The Mezzotint' yesterday morning. Another great one. For all James' antiquarian trappings, his stories are uniquely creepy. Their archaicness gives them an almost court-room transcript quality that really works for me. His ghosts are almost demonic, too, and much eerier than the spooks of lesser pens. Hairy, wet, toothy---James knows how to write a ghost.
I'll get to 'Casting the Runes' tomorrow (or today, rather). I remember reading it very late at night about a year ago and finding it wonderfully uncomfortable. I should brush up on my Crowley a bit first, though, for the full effect...
Sorry if this post seems a little weirdly written, I'm a little tipsy. It's almost 7:30 am here in California, and I haven't even gotten to bed yet. Oy...
Thoughts on "The Mezzontint" later today, hopefully.
Now, you have a little lie down and everything will be alright when you wake up! Don't be thinking about those terrible rats, and ghosts, and demons, and ghouls,...
Anyway, where was I?
Oh yes, #7 - Also, what happened at the inn after our student returned to Cambridge? Did the ghost become more active now that his rest had been disturbed?
Did anyone notice the ambiguity of the last sentence of the third paragraph, "A sign on a post stands before the door; or did so stand, for though it was an inn of repute once, I believe it is so no longer."? Is it no longer an inn - or is it no longer an inn of repute? Either way, there seems at least a suggestion that Thomson stirred up just what the host and hostess feared he had.
I'm not sure if I think the business with the rats is a bit of a cheat. It's irrelevant to the story, but it sort of 'primes' you for it by putting that really rather horrifying image in your mind.
Also, your interpretation of the sign, the one about it no longer being an inn of repute, looks right to me.
Now for The Mezzotint.
By M. R. James
One of the things I enjoy about James’s tales is how he gives the reader, or listener, a glimpse into the everyday matters of life in his world. As a Cambridge Don with “rooms” on campus, he would have been in the same position as “Williams”, his main character in “The Mezzotint”. The rigidity of “Halls” at seven, the privilege of a servant calling round on Sunday to see if there was anything Sir required, and the structure of socialising in an Uxbridge college can, I would like to think, be taken as accurate reflections of the reality.
Another element of his stories is the insertion of what I can only describe as his sense of humour. I believe he used his stories to poke fun at, if not specific individuals who would be known to the members of his audience at his Christmas readings, then “types” of people they would know. His descriptions of conversations about golf and other sports indicate that he was not enamoured with golf in particular and conversations that focused on sporting events in general. The Mezzotint contains a particularly amusing description of golf conversations. I can relate to these sentiments.
I thought it funny that the gentlemen concerned in the events of the story, when they started noticing the changes in the picture, accepted that the changes were happening. What was particularly interesting was that they were still seeking solutions that were not supernatural, e.g. the use of sympathetic ink.
In the explanation of the events that unfolded in the picture we again get a glimpse of society of earlier times; I refer to the ability of the land owner, with the support of the authorities, to ensure that people he did not want around were moved on.
I could not see the purpose of the character, “Dennistoun”, as he is replaced as the main character almost as soon as he is introduced. Perhaps James believed he had to distance himself from knowing Williams, a person in charge of a museum at a college other than his own.
I quite like this story. After reading it this morning I went for a walk along the River Liffey to the village of Leixlip. There I found a house on the main street with three floors, each having a row of five sash windows with the exception of the ground floor where the front door was in the stead of a window. The only thing missing was the small portico.
This is another example of the more I read, the more reading I'd like to do - I'd really like to find out more about James's whole cultural and intellectual background (and Bierce's, and Blackwood's, and Poe's, and ...)
At the risk of reducing the creepiness of the story I am inclined to believe James was more interested in writing a story that would entertain and spook his readers/listeners than in exposing the hidden scandals of local communities. I could be wrong, but don't really think I am on this occasion; unless you know better.
I am in the same boat as you with regards to, the more I read, the more reading I'd like to do I would also use this same concept in relatin to the more I use LT the more I want to...
I quite take your point about James writing to spook and entertain. Though it's interesting to speculate how writers' works might be coloured by their times and background culture, I suspect that really getting into it would demand rather too much time and effort and run a big risk of not proving very enlightening at the end of it. I'm always haring off on some tangent and spending hours rooting through the books to the detriment of other things I'd intended doing.
ETA - ... and yet it's letting me edit this one ...
... and the one last but one ... weird.
... and the one last but one ... weird.
Spooky, I call it!
#16 it's interesting to speculate how writers' works might be coloured by their times and background culture,
I agree wholeheartedly, and with your subsequent suspicion.
My wife has been interested in the novels of George A Birmingham for some time. He was a Church of Ireland minister, real name Rev. James Owen Hannay, who wrote novels from 1905 to 1950; in fact he wrote sixty-four novels in that time.
Her interest is based on the fact that his novels incorporated the on-going social and political activities of the time in Ireland, a period that included much disturbance including a war of independence and a civil war, not to mention the backdrop of WWI and WWII. His portrayal of the political situation was always very balanced.
I suggested she do a PhD on the topic. It would be fascinating, but as you say, would demand rather too much time and effort and run a big risk of not proving very enlightening at the end of it.
Hmm! 56 novels published in 45 years, not to mention his religious publications. He must have had a lot of time on his hands.
Interesting fact, for a period of time he was the Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin, the same position held by Johnathan Swift. (Well, I thought it interesting.)
M. R. James can be really irritating at times. I'm beginning to wonder if he ever revised anything before publication. When the tension and menace is building nicely, why the devil does he sabotage his story by referring to Dunning in the present tense - as in, "The night he passed is not one on which he looks back with any satisfaction"? Infuriating!
What's the point of avoiding spoilers in these threads if the xxxxxx author is going to stick in his own?
Veil and others, what in your opinion is M.R.'s best story?
Hmn. 'Rats' is probably my favorite, but I have no way of justifying that. In fact, I don't even think it's his best--at least, not in the sense I'd usually mean that. But now I've confused myself, and this paragraph is making less and less sense, so...
Alright, new paragraph. :) I think his 'best' story, in terms of creepiness, writing, and general James-ness is either 'Casting the Runes' or 'The Mezzotint.' But then...'The Tractate Middoth,' 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook,' and 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' (especially that last) are all contenders, too. His stories are too similar for me to arrange from best to worst, and yet in being so similar you'd think that this would be a lot easier (or less subjective, at least). But I seem to be confusing myself again. What the hell?
Oy: so, to end this post, haha, I'd go on record as saying 'Casting the Runes' or 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.' Even though I said 'The Mezzotint' up there.
Hope this, uh...answers your question, Friar. :D
Like Veilofisis, I would find it hard to pick a favourite.
I find it easier to give my least favourite. I know I'm likely to attract ridicule and derogatory remarks, but the story that did least for me was "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad".
I enjoyed all the rest but felt this one left me feeling, "so what?" There was just something missing.
I'll just add a warning here about forthcoming spoilers if you haven't read it yet.
I found 'The Mezzotint' a quite fascinating and satisfying read, yet almost totally devoid of tension and menace. We have the story that the mezzotint gradually tells, which could, no doubt, have been quite a hair-raiser - exept that we are quite effectively insulated from that story by the surface story of Williams and the mezzotint. It seems to me that James, instead of telling us a creepy story, is telling us a story about how Williams and his colleagues are told a creepy story.
On those terms it's a good story and entertained me and held my interest, but it is not a spine-tingler - but is that a fault? If the story 'entertained me and held my interest' it must work on its own terms - can those terms justifiably be criticised for not being some other terms?
I really haven't been able to work myself out an opinion on this - not to mention that somebody is probably going to write, "But it is scary!" and plunge me into self-doubt.
If I was invited to one of his story-telling sessions, I'm suspect I'd come away with fond memories of a cosy evening. If I was invited to a session with Algernon Blackwood, I'd probably end up sleeping with the light on for a month.
I agree with what you're saying. He created an atmosphere in The Mezzotint without individuals being exposed to direct threat, although Williams was frightened enough to lock the picture in another room.
The explanation about the poacher, etc... gave material for people thinking up scary things.
There was no explanation of the white cross on the robe, unless that was a common feature of burial shrouds at the time, and supposed to give credance to the idea of revenge from the grave.
Oops! The wind just slammed the window behind me and gave me an awful fright. :-)
I see what you mean. There is a book of ghost stories I read within the last two years and I described it as scary stories for a genteel audience. I can't remember exactly what it was. It may have been the ghost stories of Edith Nesbitt. I will investigate and get back to you.
Yes, I think there is a definite 'coziness' to James' storytelling that insulates us, sometimes, from real fear. But then, every once in a while, he utterly destroys the coziness and creeps me out on a Blackwood level. But this is rare. And I don't think the Gothic need be truly 'scary' per se, but I think it needs to have a certain preoccupation with notions of terror and 'otherness' to really be Gothic: and the more 'Romantic' (with a capital 'R') these preoccupations get, the more Udolpho they get; without the Romance you still create works like, say, Caleb Williams that are Gothic, in the sense of atmosphere, if not rooted in the spookiness of their peers.
And I DO find 'The Mezzotint' creepy. Not an all-out screamer, of course, but pleasantly eerie. Cozy, to use that word again. Oh, and I think your description of it being a 'story about a scary story' is really perfect, by the way.
Tell them to bring it on!! :D
You're doing nothing for rankamateur's self doubt. ;-)
Tell them to bring it on!!
United we stand!
By the way, I've seen a loosely-filmed version of 'Casting the Runes' called 'Night of the Demon', with Dana Andrews and the biggest demon you've ever seen chasing Karswell down the railway line at the end.
It arrived atrociously packed with nothing to stop the book sliding out the bottom - which it obviously did at some point as there was a really nasty scrape on the front and the book looked anything but mint - really annoying. I mean, it's not as if it's that much of an inconvenience sending it back - printing out the bumf, a bit of packing tape and a half-hour's walk to the post office - it's an attractive book getting damaged that's so annoying - probably quite irrational of me; it's the thought that it has been packed by someone who really doesn't give a shit about books - cruelty to books is what it is! Which is probably even more irrational of me.
I've got some pics on photobucket - http://s1220.photobucket.com/albums/dd444/rankamateuronpb/Really%20annoying/ - if anyone's interested - three showing it exactly how the postie handed it to me and two struggling to show damage on a black cover.
And while I'm being annoyed, why can't online concerns like photobucket capitalize their names? It's probably e. e. cummings's fault, ultimately.
Okay - rant over - I'm feeling quite sunny again, having got that out of my system.
Ahhhh I'm in a never ending war of attrition with Amazon. I send something back, they charge me for it again; I ask for a replacement, I get a box full of six copies of the same book; a shipment never arrives, they expect me to send back the phantom books before they'll replace them. And yet everytime I seem to wind up with a coupon, or an extra book (or even two or three extra books). And so it's getting a bit ridiculous. But above all else, my biggest peeve is that they must not store their books well, because I constantly receive volumes with warped pages, which has a bit to do with humidity and temperature. I hate that. I've never kept a single one.
AH! Now that I've vented that...
It's a little simpler in that in this case the only option is for a refund, so I'm not going to have piles of books flying back and fore, at least.
As a writer of fiction, however, I think he's actually rather good. - Always so much more to read! It's only recently, looking at some publisher's website (Folio Society?). that I realised that Crowley actually wrote fiction. In fact, I didn't really have much idea of what he did - just vaguely aware of a some sort of sinister reputation.
I see this thread is doubling as an Amazon Victims support group.
rankamateur, I can understand your frustration and ire. I know that volume (actually got a copy for my Son on Christmas) and it is lovely. I also know the packing of Amazon. The trouble started when they stopped using bubble wrap in their packaging. After that I didn't have a delivery from them without at least one damaged book.
That being the case I abandoned Amazon and started buying books from TheBookDepository.co.uk and was delighted with the results.
Of course, now I hear Amazon has just bought TheBookDepository.co.uk.
Worse than that, I recently recieved a delivery of books from TheBookDepository.co.uk and the books were delivered to my work place by a company called CityPost. They are a competitor of An Post, the Irish postal service. I work for An Post. In fact, I work in their HQ, the General Post Office (GPO). I don't need CityPost delivering to GPO. :-( That could be career determining.
It certainly IS becoming an Amazon Victims' Support Group! Hahahaha.
I hate to find myself at odds with veilofisis, but I find 'Rats' the least convincing of these stories.
The big problem is the first of Thomson's looks into the locked room - probably the key part of the story. It just doesn't work for me.
He looks into a well-lit room in the middle of a warm, sunny, spring day, sees someone in bed under the coverings, and immediately falls apart in terror. Why? Apparently because the person has their head under the blanket. Only dead people lie with their heads under the blankets. Nope - I don't buy it. I think he'd have been more likely to have fled in horror and embarrassment at the social gaffe he'd just committed. The 'blueish check counterpane' doesn't help. Had it been the middle of the night and the colour of the counterpane obscured by long years' worth of dust and cobwebs then he might have some justification, but as it is - I just don't believe in it. From then on the story is quite derailed for me. This bit destroys what receptivity I might have had for his second visit to the room.
I think 'Casting the Runes' works much better. Though I do think it's marred by James's 'spoilers' that I mentioned up in #20, and also by Dunning and Harrington's attempt, towards the end, to warn Karswell about what they'd done - it feels to me like a bit of an add-on and I suspect it's a reflection of James having some sort of last-minute scruples, but I don't really see why.
Those things aside, I found it quite a gripping page-turner - I think a thriller rather than a horror, despite the supernatural element.
Also, I can't help thinking that James intended a little wicked amusement in Karswell's magic lantern show for the kids who'd been annoying him - it wickedly amused me, anyway.
My favourite of the three, by a long way, is 'The Mezzotint'.
I do feel, though, a little that I'm loving it for the wrong reasons for a Gothic thread as one of its strengths for me is the sly, Saki-esque humour which runs all through it - his humorous asides on golf, for instance, and I especially loved the 'Sadducean Professor of Ophiology'. Actually, you could read that last as rather venomous humour and I wonder whether there's an in-joke there, a reference that would have been recognised by James's circle, perhaps to someone notoriously dismissive of ghost stories. My suspicion of this was strengthened by the reference to 'Bridgeford' people ('Bridgeford' presumably an equivalent of 'Oxbridge') which quite baffles me.
I think it's in a genre all of its own: a 'curiosity' rather than a thriller/horror with the interest lying rather in the inventiveness of the story than in creepiness and tension, and, of course, shot through with the slightly incongruous humour. Given all that, I think it's pretty much flawless.
ETA ... and talking about edgy humour and in-jokes, what about that business of naming the servant 'Filcher'?
That's in stock with UK Amazon.
While I have stated that in my opion "oh whistle and I'll come to you my lad" is probably the least appealing of M.R. James's stories, I must recant my words having just attended a performance of the story by Robert Lloyd Perry of Nunkie Productions. (It's a one man production company.)
He portrays M.R.James telling his stories in his rooms. It is a wonderful experience and he is such a great performer he brought M.R.James to life and also the characters and terrors in the stories he told. ("Oh whistle..." and "The Ash Tree".)
If you ever get a chance attend one of his performances. If not you can always get his DVD from his website.
Curse of the Demon / Night of the Demon 1957 ... based on Casting the Runes
I wonder how many whodunnits or murder mysteries fit this farcical trope;
green, white, red, yellow, purple, blue / rope, revolver, knife, wrench, lead pipe, candlestick /
library, bedroom, ballroom, billiards room, conservatory, kitchen, dining room, lounge, cellar, attic, staircase in hall
host, maid, cook, butler, guard dogs, vast dark remote house, secret passage ways, cloudy night, muddled identities, unreliable narrators, captive strangers
(some say this boasts loving nods to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None)
… sounds awfully gothic to me !
FYI: Clue the novel, based on Clue (1985) the film, was written by Michael McDowell, a writer previously mentioned in the Southern Gothic thread, having also written the screenplay for Beetlejuice, etc.
I enjoyed all three of these; Rats, Runes, Mezzotint. Just watched Twixt (2011) and they lovingly poke fun at the fog image throughout (by evoking Brando). Film was better than expected, very funny in parts. A good follow up to these creepy ghost stories. The comments above cover all the territory, so nothing to add. My order of preference is Mezz/Runes/Rats. The latter ticked me off because he'd purposely duped me. Dislike that approach, even if he blames a kid's memory for the odd structure/detail of the story (unreliable narrator, bah). His style of writing will take some getting used to. Although smooth and articulate and funny in spots, it feels like a boys club mentality which I can take or leave. Perhaps after a dozen stories I'll be 'initiated' and might feel differently. What he assumes I know (about England or University life), I don't. If they all carry a similar style of ghost story-telling, then I might stop after a dozen. Edith Wharton might be more my style.
This fellow is growing on me. Have spun through almost a dozen now, and my favourites so far are;
The Ash Tree (biggest shiver factor)
Number 13 (set in Denmark, different, off-kilter Faust-feel)
Canon Alberic's Scrapbook (fun for it to be in France, to get all the religious references)
The Haunted Dolls' House (family scoundrel gets his own back again)
Lost Hearts (great ending)
It's a while since I read M. R. James - scrub that - I was going to say that I can't remember a female character at all, but there's one in Lost Hearts, I remember. Cambridge being what it was back in the day, I don't suppose the old boy knew much about them.
Algernon Blackwood, though, can be forgiven a lot, I think, for creating Auntie Julia in The Empty House. When I was reading him she took me quite by surprise, though, so I suppose there's an 'exceptions and rules' thing ...
I hope you enjoy Aickman.
What did you think of The Beetle. I thought it was a hoot.
I loved your story about the Uncle Silas grab.
Do you have any clothbound hardcovers? I bought my first one (post-Cmas sale) and love the texture, and might look out for more like Vanity Fair and The Divine Comedy, etc. but wonder how they do with dust. Likely a magnet. Might have to find a glass case cabinet for them, since they're too pretty to bury.