The successful ghost story puts the reader into the position of saying to himself: ‘If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’
M. R. James
What is it with the British and their Christmas ghost stories? Despite resurgence in its popularity here in recent years, the Americans still do Hallowe’en better than us. Come midwinter though we are in our element. The idea that Christmas – and Christmas Eve in particular – should be the perfect time for gathering around the fire and taking it in turns to terrify the assembled company with ghoulish anecdotes seems so deeply rooted in British culture that it’s difficult to pin down exactly where it came from.
The most famous exponent of the tradition has to be M. R. James, the Cambridge don and antiquarian scholar who developed a passion for ghost stories and started writing his own to amuse himself and entertain his friends. It wasn’t long before his Christmas Eve readings – enlivened by some enthusiastic acting – became a highlight of the Cambridge year. The stories themselves are now seen as the mother-lode of English weird fiction, the standard by which all ghost writers since have been judged and often found wanting. M. R. James even had an adjective named after him: Jamesian, a word often used to describe a story characterised by an unsettling atmosphere of understated menace.
The Christmas ghost story didn’t start with M. R. James, though. His American namesake Henry James wrote his novella The Turn of the Screw in 1898, a full thirty years before the first publication of Montagu James’sCollected Ghost Stories. Henry James may have hailed from New York City, but he was an Anglophile at heart and eventually became a British citizen. The Turn of the Screw could be said to be the quintessential English ghost story and has probably been adapted for radio and screen more times than any other piece of weird fiction. It tells the story of an English governess and her battle to save her young charges from two particularly nasty apparitions. But the tale begins with a group of friends, gathered around the fire on Christmas Eve, telling each other ghost stories.
In other words, this business has been going on for centuries. There are those who insist it was Charles Dickens who started it all with his Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who first appeared to Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol in 1843. Personally, I doubt it. Christmas is an odd time of year. There’s nothing like the claustrophobia of enforced jollity to bring a family feud bubbling to the surface, and the staff on duty at police stations and hospitals over the festive season will tell you that there are more murders, drunken brawls and relationship breakdowns at Christmas than at any other time of year. What else can you expect when people who don’t normally see each other from one end of the year to the next are shut up together for days on end with nothing to keep them from each others’ throats but the Queen’s Speech and the Only Fools and Horses Christmas Special?
The whole baby Jesus business is a bit of a Johnny-come-lately in festival terms, anyway, and entirely the invention of the clerics. Before the Christian church got involved the traditional end-of-year junket used to be pagan, a kind of midwinter bacchanalia designed to deflect the Grim Reaper from his seasonal rounds. Could it be that our darker midwinter yearnings are actually a modern echo of this ancient custom? It’s interesting when you think about it: the very things that can make Christmas difficult – the cold, the dark, the glacial passage of time – are often dwelled upon in Christmas ghost stories and turned to creative advantage. Certainly the one thing that unites all members of a family, regardless of their age, gender or propensity to eat turkey, is the love of a good ghost story.
Weird fiction is a weird business, and it’s always fun to speculate about exactly where it came from and exactly why it does what it does. You won’t be surprised to learn that I love ghost stories, and that one of the things I still look forward to about Christmas is the wealth of ghost-related entertainment that’s usually on offer. I can’t remember precisely how old I was when I first discovered that along with the pigs-in-blankets and chestnut stuffing, Christmas also offered a televisual feast of ghoultide delicacies; I do know that no one else got so much as a glance at the special double issue of the Radio Times until I completed my investigations into what ghosts were haunting the schedules and when.
One has to get one’s seasonal priorities in order, and if any is more pressing than making sure The Hauntingisn’t going to clash with The Innocents I haven’t discovered it.
One thing you can say about the Christmas spirits: they tend to be a better class of ghost; if it’s vampires and werewolves you’re after, you’d better try Hallowe’en. When in 2002 the BBC commissioned a series entitledGhost Stories for Christmas, the format couldn’t have been simpler or more classic: Christopher Lee, seated in an armchair before an open fire, reading selections from M. R. James by the light of a guttering candle and not a staking or decapitation in sight. What’s more, it was a huge success. What the British have come to expect from their Christmas ghost stories is not buckets of blood but that indefinable frisson of Jamesian terror: footsteps in the snow, the wind moaning in the chimney, lamplight in an upstairs window. At the time M. R. James wrote them, his ghost stories were remarkable for featuring contemporary protagonists in modern settings. It is only with the passing of time that we have come to see them as deliciously romantic: the solitary professor, monk-like in his rooms, unwisely delving into arcane matters that would generally be best left alone… The haunted mezzotint, the copperplate handwriting on yellowed parchment, the repression of all rages and lusts behind a mask of punctilious Englishness – what most characterises the Christmas ghost story is an air of nostalgia.
In other words, we prefer our yuletide hauntings to be retro, with long shadows, and preferably in black-and-white.
Of course, childhood itself casts a long shadow, and those things that delighted and terrified us when we were younger can sometimes appear lacklustre and even dull when we encounter them again as adults. While thinking about and reading for this article I inevitably began to recall those films that were special for me, special because I’d never seen anything like them before, and with that irresistible taste of the illicit because I was only allowed to watch them in the first place because it was Christmas. Would they, could they possibly stand the test of time, and the burden of emotion they had been prevailed upon to carry? The only way to find out was to see them again, a venture I undertook with some misgivings. The nights were longer in childhood, and the films weredefinitely scarier. I wasn’t sure I wanted that illusion to get debunked.
My first encounter with M. R. James came when I was about eleven, when I saw Jacques Tourneur’s film Night of the Demon as part of a Christmas double bill of scary movies. Night of the Demon was made in 1957, so I suppose to my concerned parents it seemed pretty safe. The movie it was paired with, Freddy Francis’s 1975 film The Ghoul, was another matter. It was in colour, for a start, and it went on until well after midnight. It was agreed that seeing as it was Christmas I could stay up and watch Night of the Demon just as long as I went to bed straight afterwards.
Never one to go down without a fight, I made a huge fuss about not being able to see Peter Cushing as the mad Egyptologist with a cannibal son locked in the attic (what’s not to like?) but the truth is I was glad to have a get-out clause. I saw the trailer for The Ghoul more than once in the run-up to Christmas, and the sequence showing Don Henderson’s bloodstained feet creeping down the attic stairs was in and of itself enough to give me nightmares. Night of the Demon, with its country-house setting and clipped bourgeois accents, did seem safer, and in a good way.
At any rate, I reckoned I could handle it.
I’d reckoned without the Jamesian influence. In his foreword to the 1924 anthology Ghosts and Marvels, MRJ makes no secret of his personal formula for a successful ghost story:
Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way. Let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
This is the very essence of ‘Casting the Runes’, the original MRJ story Night of the Demon was based on. In fact James doesn’t let you see the demon at all except as a lithographic illustration. Luckily for both film-lovers and weird fiction enthusiasts, Jacques Tourneur had both the sense and sensibility to similarly understate his case when he made Night of the Demon. I don’t think I properly appreciated the cleverness of the story at the time of that early first encounter, but I do know that the atmosphere of the film, the sense of the not-quite-seen, the insistently threatened, the horror just around the corner terrified and transfixed me long before the final revelatory sequence on the railway line.
I had fond, fond memories of this film, and when I viewed it again recently I was delighted to discover that Tourneur’s Night of the Demon lived up to every one of my recollections and even surpassed them. Dr John Holden, the classic Jamesian sceptic, is personified with dapper brilliance by Dana Andrews as he pursues his ill-advised scholarly enquiry into the nature of evil, and Peggy Cummins shows a lot more backbone than the average fifties heroine as Joanna Harrington, the niece of the demon’s first victim. The script, rich in the dramatic conventions of the day, is finely wrought, and the central message of the story – that it is impossible to outrun your fate once it has singled you out – is conveyed with conviction and evident enjoyment of the ideas at stake. There are some genuinely frightening moments. Night of the Demon is not just a good scary movie; it is a great film, full stop.
I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw the Ealing Studios movie Dead of Night. I know only that it was during the Christmas holidays, and that the ‘haunted mirror’ segment scared the bejesus out of me. I hadn’t read Borges then, and the story’s premise – that a mirror might be more than just a sheet of window glass silvered with mercury, that it might be the gateway to a world of nightmare – was new to me and horrifying.
I’m ashamed to say that perhaps because this one sequence had made such an impression on me I could barely recall what happened in the rest of the movie. The surprise when I saw it again was therefore all the more marvellous.
Alberto Cavalcanti’s 1945 film Dead of Night was the first of what came popularly to be known as ‘portmanteau’ horror films, movies that take the form of a set of shorter, separate stories-within-the-story linked together by a framing narrative. Portmanteau horror is most (in)famously exemplified in the films of Amicus Studios, makers of the late, great Asylum, but this fascinating little subgenre has proved something of an unquiet spirit, revived in 1993 with Necronomicon and still more recently in the super little triptychs of Asian horror, Three Extremes andThree Extremes 2. Dead of Night though was the original, and in many ways it remains the best. This film is now getting on for seventy years old, yet I was thrilled by its freshness, its vigour, its deft touches of modernism and ironic sense of humour. The movie looks superb, and showcases some fine acting, that of the young Michael Redgrave in particular. His portrait of a man on the edge of madness in the ‘ventriloquist’s dummy’ sequence is 24 carat.
One of the nicest things about Dead of Night is that as well as being a masterpiece of British cinema it is an archetypical reformatting of the classic Christmas ghost story. Here we have a group of friends, comfortably ensconced in the elegant drawing room of an English country house, telling each other scary stories as they attempt to unmask the secrets of the supernatural. A stranger arrives with the warning that they are all in danger, while a professional sceptic – Frederick Valk as redoubtable psychiatrist Dr van Straaten – seeks to reassure them of the omnipotence of science.
It seems curiously in keeping with the spirit of Christmas that its ghost stories often have a philosophical slant: do ghosts exist, is there life after death, is it possible to predict the future? There is almost as much talking as action in Dead of Night, a characteristic that is, once again, typically Jamesian.
The British are famous for their love of tradition, and woe betide those foolish enough to try messing with it. Christmas especially is a time when repetition tends to dominate over innovation, and perhaps that is why, where scary movies are concerned, we tend to keep recycling old favourites instead of experimenting with contemporary adaptations. There’s nothing wrong with the old favourites – as we have seen, quite the opposite – but to close the door on a haunted house simply because it’s new and therefore different would be to fossilize the canon, which would be a tragedy. The modern reworking of The Turn of the Screw screened for Christmas 2009 came under fire for being too explicit in its handling of the subject of child abuse. While it’s true that some might have to read Henry James’s original novella two or three times before grasping the darker implications of the story, it is also true that the molestation of minors does form the central tenet of that story, and I would have thought that one of the chief advantages of living in the modern age is that we are more accustomed to artists who say what they mean. I myself thought Sandy Welch’s adapted screenplay was inventive and thought-provoking.
I was similarly impressed by the new adaptation of what is perhaps M. R. James’s most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, commissioned by the BBC for Christmas 2010. Whistle and I’ll Come to You was scripted by Neil Cross, who worked on the BBC TV MI5 drama series Spooks, and directed by Andy de Emony, who also directed the two classic Red Dwarf episodes ‘Rimmerworld’ and ‘Gunmen of the Apocalypse’. It upset a lot of devout Jamesians, mainly because it deviated rather substantially from the original text. There are more characters, for a start. You don’t find many women in M. R. James stories (it’s easy to forget that women were not made full members of Cambridge University until 1947, and MRJ’s college did not admit women until the 1970s) but Cross’s Whistle and I’ll Come to You gave Gemma Jones a central role as Alice, wife to John Hurt’s melancholic Professor Parkin and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Perhaps the most notable aspect of this adaptation is that it gives its protagonist, James Parkin, a proper backstory. MRJ’s professors tend to exist in monastic seclusion. We cannot imagine them having families or sex lives, and the most interesting thing about them is their talent for stirring up ghosts. Hurt’s Parkin is a man with a past, grieving the loss of his life’s companion and racked by guilt for having to put her in a nursing home. The ghosts he stirs up are as much his own demons as the disembodied wraiths that, if we are to believe Monty James at least, are worryingly common along Parkin’s particular stretch of the Suffolk coast. The terror he experiences is all the more appalling for having its roots in Parkin’s personal reality.
I read the reviews of de Emony’s film with interest. I was delighted at the continuing passion expressed by so many viewers for the work of MRJ and for the tradition of the Christmas ghost story in general. But I have to say I had little sympathy for their proprietary insistence on textual rigidity. It’s important to remember that even the most controversial adaptation is just that: an adaptation, and does not affect the integrity of the original in the slightest. James’s stories never set out to be comfortable, and I found Neil Cross’s reworking to be beautifully imaginative, genuinely frightening (watch out for the bit when Alice’s hands come under the door!) and replete with a sense of elegiac Englishness that made it a truly satisfying dramatic experience. What I thought it proved – and far more convincingly than Jonathan Miller’s stiflingly dull 1968 adaptation of the same story – was how versatile the English ghost story is, and how timeless. James’s story is more than a hundred years old now, yet it is as popular today as it always was and perhaps more so. The fact that a screenwriter might choose to reinterpret it for our own time rather than slavishly reconstructing it as a period drama is in my view a measure of the love and respect still felt for these stories within our literary culture. I think M. R. James himself would be pleased and intrigued, to see how his work has endured and expanded in our collective imagination.
But it’s time to stoke up the fire now, I think. Our guests will be arriving soon, and I feel certain one of them at least will have a story to tell…
Happy Christmas, everyone!
(This piece was originally written for and appeared at the Starburst magazine website, December 2011.)