Monday, October 1, 2012

"Who is this who is coming?"


Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) - provost of King's College, Cambridge, and later Eton - was a medieval scholar, antiquary, expert on Bible apocrypha, and Father of the Modern Ghost Story.

SET against backgrounds that are scholastic or ecclesiastic, often apparitions in the fiction of M.R. James are connected with or evoked by material objects, such as the bronze whistle from the ruins of a Templars' preceptory in 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' - James' famous short story which was first collected in his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary of 1904 - and the Anglo Saxon crowns that prevent invasion in 'A Warning to the Curious'. In several of his stories there are also hints of bygone Satanism; like the warlock Karswell in 'Casting the Runes', James conjured unfathomable, ancient manifestations into a more rational age. As Tony Earnshaw states in the September 2012 issue of Sight & Sound, "James sets his horrors on the periphery of his protagonists sight and understanding, [changing] modern horror with his penchant for fateful inevitability."

Even though James' ghost stories are set within credible historic tableau, they are also classics of psychological terror: his phantasms are presented so vividly and effectively as to evoke physical shock. For the son of a parson - and a lifelong member of the Church of England - his ghosts are surprisingly outlandish, and are described by a precise framing of language that sits to evoke imagination. Kim Newman notes in Fortean Times #292 (September 2012), "his ghosts are hairy, wet-lipped, capriciously violent, smelly, all too tangibly there even when they're unseen." For example, in 'The Tractate Middoth' we meet a spectre with thick cobwebs over its eyes; an unnameable thing in 'The Uncommon Prayer Book' resembles "a great roll of old, shabby, white flannel"; and in 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance' there is a form "with a burnt human face" that emerges "with the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple."

In the 1968 version of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU, the mind of Professor Parkin (Michael Hordern) erodes like the subsiding graveyard where his troubles began.

Jonathan Miller's adaptation of 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' for the BBC's OMNIBUS is a seductively slow drama of a man being haunted by his own repressions. Professor Parkin (Michael Hordern) - a fussy, absent-minded bachelor from Cambridge - goes on holiday to a small seaside hotel. While walking he finds a graveyard and picks up a whistle lying in the undergrowth. That evening he discerns a Latin inscription on the side of the instrument - "who is this who is coming?" - and blows the whistle. Next morning over breakfast, he has a pivotal conversation with The Colonel (Ambrose Coghill), where the Professor scoffs at the notion of ghosts. The Colonel replies with a Hamlet quote, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy," to which the Professor counters, "there are more things in philosophy than there are in heaven and earth." That night Parkin suffers a nightmare in which he is pursued by a shape across the beach, and in the morning the maid queries why both beds in his room appear to have been slept in.

The best visual treatments of James' works are almost silent films, showcasing an elemental struggle that seeps into landscape, character and setting. Miller's work emphasises Parkin as an outsider by showing people conversing by mumbles and snatches of words, as if the viewer is listening to others the way Parkin does because of his years of scholastic solitude. The climax - where the Professor is horrified to see bedclothes rise and attempt to form a shape - leaves a spectral chill while mimicking one's expectations of ghosts under white sheets. It also illustrates the importance of the breakfast conversation, as it is The Colonel who tries to calm Parkins' hysteria and mask the "dangers of intellectual pride" as spoken by Miller's opening narration.

The 2010 version of WHISTLE AND I'LL COME TO YOU - where Parkin (John Hurt) struggles with his materialism - was a refreshingly austere inclusion to the Christmas TV schedule.

Directed by Andy de Emmony and written by Neil Cross, the 2010 version relocates the story from Suffolk to the West Country coast. Inexplicably replacing the whistle with an encrypted ring, this time Parkin (John Hurt) is a married man but tormented by his wife Alice (Gemma Jones)'s dementia ("a body that has outlasted the existence of the personality: more horrifying than any spook or ghoul.") After placing her into a nursing home, Parkin - a "scientist" - is riddled with guilt, and embarks on a walking holiday. Before long he is seeing a shrouded figure on the beach, and being kept awake at night by increasingly disturbing sounds. Similar to Miller's version, de Emmony is not concerned with dialogue; menacing rattles fill a sparse soundscape, as isolation of loss is explored, rather than the isolation of an unattached academic. It is a relentlessly desolate adaptation, offering no hope and no afterlife: "there is nothing inside us" Parkin states, "there are no ghosts in these machines. Man is matter, and matter rots."

In December 1995, Anglia TV broadcast the fifty-minute A PLEASANT TERROR: THE LIFE AND GHOSTS OF M.R.JAMES. This astonishingly insightful documentary is part talking heads and part dramatisation, and attempts to address two key questions: if James viewed his prose largely as entertainments - which started as readings to pupils and friends - why do they resonate so deeply; and was there an occurrence in the author's personal life that influenced such an educated man to look beyond this world. Interviewees include Christopher Lee - who clearly speaks from the heart of his affection for the tales - and Jonathan Miller - who surmises that James' tactile descriptions provide a universal air of dread. Although the programme uncomfortably detours into James' sexuality at the half-way mark, we soon reach the real meat: the events described in 'A Vignette', which was first published in a November 1936 edition of The London Mercury. This short "confessional" piece was written just before his death, and hints at an unnerving experience in James' childhood.