Some Remarks on Ghost Stories


A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which has made her nervous. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss.

by M.R. James

Very nearly all the ghost stories of old times claim to be true narratives of remarkable occurrences. At the outset I must make it clear that with these — be they ancient, medieval or post medieval — I have nothing to do, any more than I have with those chronicled in our own days. I am concerned with a branch of fiction; not a large branch, if you look at the rest of the tree, but one which has been astonishingly fertile in the last thirty years. The avowedly fictitious ghost story is my subject, and that being understood I can proceed.

In the year 1854 George Borrow narrated to an audience of Welshmen, ‘in the tavern of Gutter Vawr, in the county of Glamorgan’, what he asserted to be ‘decidedly the best ghost story in the world’. You may read this story either in English, in Knapp’s notes to Wild Wales, or in Spanish, in a recent edition with excellent pictures (Las Aventuras de Pánfilo). The source is Lope de Vega’s El Peregrino en so patria published in 1604. You will find it a remarkably interesting specimen of a tale of terror written in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but I shall be surprised if you agree with Borrow’s estimate of it. It is nothing but an account of a series of nightmares experienced by a wanderer who lodges for a night in a ‘hospital’, which had been deserted because of hauntings. The ghosts come in crowds and play tricks with the victim’s bed. They quarrel over cards, they squirt water at the man, they throw torches about the room. Finally they steal his clothes and disappear; but next morning the clothes are where he put them when he went to bed. In fact they are rather goblins than ghosts.

Still, here you have a story written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader; and as I think, that is the true aim of the ghost story.

As far as I know, nearly two hundred years pass before you find the literary ghost story attempted again. Ghosts of course figure on the stage, but we must leave them out of consideration. Ghosts are the subject of quasi-scientific research in this country at the hands of Glanville, Beaumont and others; but these collectors are out to prove theories of the future life and the spiritual world. Improving treatises, with illustrative instances, are written on the Continent, as by Lavater. All these, if they do afford what our ancestors called amusement (Dr Johnson decreed that Coriolanius was ‘amusing’), do so by a side-wind. The Castle of Otranto is perhaps the progenitor of the ghost story as a literary genre, and I fear that it is merely amusing in the modern sense. Then we come to Mrs Radcliffe, whose ghosts are far better of their kind, but with exasperating timidity are all explained away; and to Monk Lewis, who in the book which gives him his nickname is odious and horrible without being impressive. But Monk Lewis was responsible for better things than he could produce himself. It was under his auspices that Scott’s verse first saw the light: among the Tales of Terror and Wonder are not only some of his translations, but ‘Glenfinlas’ and the ‘Eve of St John’, which must always rank as fine ghost stories. The form into which he cast them was that of the ballads which he loved and collected, and we must not forget that the ballad is in the direct line of ancestry of the ghost story. Think of ‘Clerk Saunders’, ‘Young Benjie,’ the ‘Wife of Usher’s Well’. I am tempted to enlarge on the Tales of Terror, for the most part supremely absurd, where Lewis holds the pen, and jigs along with such stanzas as:

All present then uttered a terrified shout;
All turned with disgust from the scene.
The worms they crept in, and the worms they crept out,
And sported his eyes and his temples about,
While the spectre addressed Imogene.

But proportion must be observed.

If I were writing generally of horrific books which include supernatural appearances, I should be obliged to include Maturin’s Melmoth, and doubtless imitations of it which I know nothing of. But Melmoth is a long — a cruelly long — book, and we must keep our eye on the short prose ghost story in the first place. If Scott is not the creator of this, it is to him that we owe two classical specimens — ‘Wandering Willie’s Tale’ and the ‘Tapestried Chamber’. The former we know is an episode in a novel; anyone who searches the novels of succeeding years will certainly find (as we, alas, find in Pickwick and Nicholas Nickleby!) stories of this type foisted in; and possibly some of them may be good enough to deserve reprinting. But the real happy hunting ground, the proper habitat of our game is the magazine, the annual, the periodical publication destined to amuse the family circle. They came up thick and fast, the magazines, in the thirties and forties, and many died young. I do not, having myself sampled the task, envy the devoted one who sets out to examine the files, but it is not rash to promise him a measure of success. He will find ghost stories; but of what sort? Charles Dickens will tell us. In a paper from Household Words, which will be found among Christmas Stories under the name of ‘A Christmas Tree’ (I reckon it among the best of Dickens’s occasional writings), that great man takes occasion to run through the plots of the typical ghost stories of his time. As he remarks, they are ‘reducible to a very few general types and classes; for ghosts have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track.’ He gives us at some length the experience of the nobleman and the ghost of the beautiful young housekeeper who drowned herself in the park two hundred years before; and, more cursorily, the indelible bloodstain, the door that will not shut, the clock that strikes thirteen, the phantom coach, the compact to appear after death, the girl who meets her double, the cousin who is seen at the moment of his death far away in India, the maiden lady who ‘really did see the Orphan Boy’. With such things as these we are still familiar. But we have rather forgotten — and I for my part have seldom met — those with which he ends his survey: ‘Legion is the name of the German castles where we sit up alone to meet the spectre — where we are shown into a room made comparatively cheerful for our reception’ (more detail, excellent of its kind, follows), ‘and where, about the small hours of the night, we come into the knowledge of divers supernatural mysteries. Legion is the name of the haunted German students, in whose society we draw yet nearer to the fire, while the schoolboy in the corner opens his eyes wide and round, and flies off the footstool he has chosen for his seat, when the door accidentally blows open.’

As I have said, this German stratum of ghost stories is one of which I know little; but I am confident that the searcher of magazines will penetrate to it. Examples of the other types will accrue, especially when he reaches the era of Christmas Numbers, inaugurated by Dickens himself. His Christmas Numbers are not to be confused with his Christmas Books, though the latter led on to the former. Ghosts are not absent from these, but I do not call the Christmas Carol a ghost story proper; while I do assign that name to the stories of the Signalman and the Juryman (in ‘Mugby Junction’ and ‘Dr Marigold’).

These were written in 1865 and 1866, and nobody can deny that they conform to the modern idea of the ghost story. The setting and the personages are those of the writer’s own day; they have nothing antique about them. Now this mode is not absolutely essential to success, but it is characteristic of the majority of successful stories: the belted knight who meets the spectre in the vaulted chamber and has to say ‘By my halidom’, or words to that effect, has little actuality about him. Anything, we feel, might have happened in the fifteenth century. No; the seer of ghosts must talk something like me, and be dressed, if not in my fashion, yet not too much like a man in a pageant, if he is to enlist my sympathy. Wardour Street has no business, here.

If Dickens’s ghost stories are good and of the right complexion, they are not the best that were written in his day. The palm must I think be assigned to J. S. Le Fanu, whose stories of The Watcher’ (or ‘The Familiar’), ‘Mr Justice Harbottle’, ‘Carmilla’, are unsurpassed, while ‘Schalken the Painter’. ‘Squire Toby’s Will’, the haunted house in ‘The House by the Churchyard’, ‘Dickon the Devil’, ‘Madam Crowl’s Ghost’, run them very close. Is it the blend of French and Irish in Le Fanu’s descent and surroundings that gives him the knack of infusing ominousness into his atmosphere? He is anyhow an artist in words; who else could have hit on the epithets in this sentence: ‘The aerial image of the old house for a moment stood before her, with its peculiar malign, scared and skulking aspect.’ Other famous stories of Le Fanu there are which are not quite ghost stories — ‘Green Tea’ and ‘The Room in the Dragon Volant’; and yet another, ‘The Haunted Baronet’, not famous, not even known but to a few, contains some admirable touches, but somehow lacks proportion. Upon mature consideration, I do not think that there are better ghost stories anywhere than the best of Le Fanu’s; and among these I should give the first place to ‘The Familiar’ (alias ‘The Watcher’).

Other famous novelists of those days tried their hand — Bulwer Lytton for one. Nobody is permitted to write about ghost stories without mentioning ‘The Haunters and the Haunted’. To my mind it is spoilt by the conclusion; the Cagliostro element (forgive an inaccuracy) is alien. It comes in with far better effect (though in a burlesque guise) in Thackeray’s one attempt in this direction — ‘The Notch in the Axe’, in the Roundabout Papers. This to be sure begins by being a skit partly on Dumas, partly on Lytton; but as Thackeray warmed to his work he got interested in the story and, as he says, was quite sorry to part with Pinto in the end. We have to reckon too with Wilkie Collins. The Haunted Hotel, a short novel, is by no means ineffective; grisly enough, almost, for the modern American taste.

Rhoda Broughton, Mrs Riddell, Mrs Henry Wood, Mrs Oliphant — all these have some sufficiently absorbing stories to their credit. I own to reading not infrequently ‘Featherston’s Story’ in the fifth series of Johnny Ludlow, to delighting in its domestic flavour and finding its ghost very convincing. (Johnny Ludlow, some young persons may not know, is by Mrs Henry Wood.) The religious ghost story, as it may be called, was never done better than by Mrs Oliphant in ‘The Open Door’ and ‘A Beleaguered City’; though there is a competitor, and a strong one, in Le Fanu’s ‘Mysterious Lodger’.

Here I am conscious of a gap; my readers will have been conscious of many previous gaps. My memory does in fact slip on from Mrs Oliphant to Marion Crawford and his horrid story of ‘The Upper Berth’, which (with The Screaming Skull’ some distance behind) is the best in his collection of Uncanny Tales, and stands high among ghost stories in general.

That was I believe written in the late eighties. In the early nineties comes the deluge, the deluge of the illustrated monthly magazines, and it is no longer possible to keep pace with the output either of single stories or of volumes of collected ones. Never was the flow more copious than it is today, and it is only by chance that one comes across any given example. So nothing beyond scattering and general remarks can be offered. Some whole novels there have been which depend for all or part of their interest on ghostly matter. There is Dracula, which suffers by excess. (I fancy, by the way, that it must be based on a story in the fourth volume of Chambers’s Repository, issued in the fifties.) There is Alice-for-Short [by W. de Morgan, 1907], in which I never cease to admire the skill with which the ghost is woven into the web of the tale. But that is a very rare feat.

Among the collections of short stories, E. F. Benson’s three volumes rank high, though to my mind he sins occasionally by stepping over the line of legitimate horridness. He is however blameless in this aspect as compared with some Americans, who compile volumes called Not At Night and the like. These are merely nauseating, and it is very easy to be nauseating. I, mot qui vous parle, could undertake to make a reader physically sick, if I chose to think and write in terms of the Grand Guignol. The authors of the stories I have in mind tread, as they believe, in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable), but they do not possess the force of either.

Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it.

At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M. G. Lewis.

Clearly it is out of the question for me to begin upon a series of ‘short notices’ of recent collections; but an illustrative instance or two will be to the point. A. M. Burrage, in Sonic Ghost Stories, keeps on the right side of the line, and if about half of his ghosts are amiable, the rest have their terrors, and no mean ones. H. R. Wakefield, in They Return at Evening (a good title) gives us a mixed bag, from which I should remove one or two that leave a nasty taste. Among the residue are some admirable pieces, very inventive. Going back a few years I light on Mrs Everett’s The Death Mask, of a rather quieter tone on the whole, but with some excellently conceived stories. Hugh Benson’s Light Invisible and Mirror of Shalott are too ecclesiastical. K. and Hesketh Prichard’s ‘Flaxman Low’ is most ingenious and successful, but rather over-technically ‘occult’. It seems impertinent to apply the same criticism to Algernon Blackwood, but ‘John Silence’ is surely open to it. Mr Elliott O’Donnell’s multitudinous volumes I do not know whether to class as narratives of fact or exercises in fiction. I hope they may be of the latter sort, for life in a world managed by his gods and infested by his demons seems a risky business.

So I might go on through a long list of authors; but the remarks one can make in an article of this compass can hardly be illuminating. The reading of many ghost stories has shown me that the greatest successes have been scored by the authors who can make us envisage a definite time and place, and give us plenty of clear-cut and matter-of-fact detail, but who, when the climax is reached, allow us to be just a little in the dark as to the working of their machinery. We do not want to see the bones of their theory about the supernatural.

All this while I have confined myself almost entirely to the English ghost story. The fact is that either there are not many good stories by foreign writers, or (more probably) my ignorance has veiled them from me. But I should feel myself ungrateful if I did not pay a tribute to the supernatural tales of Erckmann–Chatrian. The blend of French with German in them, comparable to the French–Irish blend in Le. Fanu, has produced some quite first-class romance of this kind. Among longer stories, ‘La Maison Forestière’ (and, if you will, ‘Hugues le Loup’); among shorter ones ‘Le Blanc et le Noir’, ‘Le Rêvedu Cousin Elof’ and L’Oeil Invisible’ have for years delighted and alarmed me. It is high time that they were made more accessible than they are.

There need not be any peroration to a series of rather disjointed reflections. I will only ask the reader to believe that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw.

Essay first published as ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’, The Bookman, December 1929