From the Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M. R. James
The images are from 1968 BBC television adaptation by Jonathan Miller, which eventually lead into more annual adaptations of M.R.James stories for Christmas.
This case is dry. It is more dry than my throat after pintless three weeks(value=true). It is full of cobwebs and dust and I’m afraid today’s neurotic urban would call it, pardon me, ancient remnants of cheese cut in Sahara.
My interest slashes in, because we are talking about antiquarian, a term Montague Rhodes branded himself with. The name of the collection should warn anyone more interested in fast food horror, apologizes but this burger is all about mold. You should note the difference to my last blog about Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ which handled the modern iron era of Victorian time. Thus, if you are into traditional horror where dustjackets are non-existent and vacuum cleaner hardly present, the gothic lurks in the corners and ghosts have only wet dreams about chainsaws; then you are at home.
Mind you, I’m not an academic literature friend and certainly not an academic scientist of old or new English language so it is hardly a wonder this stuff takes time; though M.R.James content is easier than hundred years older literature, it still bears the marks of ‘old Oxford English'(expression of mine) mixed with author’s own peculiar style and occasionally could be called pre-material for Monty Python’s Flying Circus. To clear this, I might add that I at last took the history of Shakespeare from the library to clear out some details of his life: I had to give up since after two pages I always dozed off. The book was from 1963, very scholarly styled and a testament to my own brains getting old.
The protagonist, or rather victim of the tale is professor Parkins, ‘young, neat and precise’ and very resolute against the existence of the unearthly. Later the script lets us know that he is more like ‘old woman – hen-like’ and ‘destitute of humor.’ Author likes friendly spanking of his characters, especially if these don’t believe in ghosts. Yet characterization continues with ‘dauntless and sincere in his convictions.’ Moreover, he is professor of ontography in St. James’s College; a faculty that in itself could alienate further readers coughing the dust of old scolarships but which strengthens the bond of antiquarian horror aficionados by simply emphasizing the strictly scientific approach of professor to his environments.
So there is a tough little nut to crack for believers of supernatural.
There is the moment when reader must also face the peculiar phrases: In the beginning there is a dialogue and the author lets us know that the other participant is ‘a person not in the story’. But he is! Is this already some existential prank referring to Parkins’s profession of choice? However, this person non-existent in the story asks for a favor from the professor who is leaving for a links vacation in Burnstow (that is Felixstowe according the author confession). An ancient Knights Templar preceptory, that was provincial estate of temples in Paris and London, resides there and this ‘non-existent’ storyperson, who is later identified as ‘Rogers’ au contraire to author’s promises in the beginning, asks for Parkins to visit the site for him. He also suggests to accompany Parkins if he wishes so, to the extent of ‘keeping the ghosts off’; this causes another Jamesian effect, Parkins ‘may have gone pink.’
There comes strange moment for the reader as fiction is mixed with ‘facts’: The phrase used by Rogers, ‘What Dr Blimber actually said’, is referred with asterisk and indeed the page holds explanation in lower edge, telling that ‘Rogers was wrong vide Dombey and Son p.12.’ How would you analyze fiction where author fixes words of his characters with asterisk sidenotes? Some antiquarian oddity? I’m at loss, yet somehow I find it hilarious.
So, our protagonist, or soon-to-be-reprimanded-of-little-faith victim travels to Globe Inn, Burnstow, with the promise from Rogers to follow him later. At this point is good to observe that there is a narrator hanging above, who occasionally refers to first person singular without identifying more. Also there comes a name ‘Mr Disney’ which messes up the storybuild; My only clue is that the first name is Rogers whom we met earlier.
At the Globe Inn Parkins meets colonel Wilson, old school soldier who from the start is the antithesis of professor. A professional ‘ancien militaire‘ from the Empire’s edges and as later can be proved, in his voyages has seen all things Parkins does not believe in. The Jamesian(or contemporary) expressions about colonel later are the ‘Peace…in military bosom’ and ‘Great bourdon in a minster tower’, that got me chuckling.
Among the maelstrom of Jamesian storyflow Parkins is at the preceptory in no time and finds a strange piece from a small artificial hole among the buried stones and mounds. On his way back to the Inn he notices someone walking far behind in the groyne-infested beach, and this someone is given a bit more attention than for any random beach stroller.
Upon cleaning and testing the piece, strange whistle, Parkins hears only strange sound of it, and also a sudden furious gust of wind against the window which opens and candles are snuffed out, not to mention a white glint of some ‘seabird’s wing’. Plot thickens, that is, at least for reader but Parkins gets us tearing hair by passing the thought ‘…Might have made fanciful people feel quite uncomfortable.’
Still it is the night of inconvenience for professor and he thinks of having some ‘fatal disorder’ due to the fact that he hears constant tossing and rustling from the direction of extra bed. What’s worse, he closes his eyes and without sleeping he has a vision of something chasing a man among the groynes in the beach. That something is a hovering ‘pale, fluttering draperies, ill-defined’.
Whoa! Here we are, at the roots, at the buried seed of the tree of horror genre, at the very source of any icon or symbol and metaphor describing haunting: Fluttering draperies! Friends of axes, chainsaws, Aliens and little darkhaired girls from well shall run laughing away to blog or tweet ‘Ya’ll not believe this, I met a linen sheet “Boo!”‘!’; and us friends of antiquarian hauntings feel a bit uncomfortable and embarrassed.
Come on, it’s the feeling, the overall plot and the style. Honest readers stop and honest readers continue and those poor students have to read it to the end and perhaps have nice toga party and John Belushi visits as the linen ghost(but I don’t think ‘Animal House‘ did read Montague Rhodes).
I would think the academic seriousness of the professor deserves the antagonist most classic; my opinion is that it is the chuckle behind Montague Rhodes’s pen. Still behind the humor grows a tragically scary atmosphere for the professor.
Carrying the story on, the maids of Inn ask professor Parkins if he wishes extra blankets, since the other bed was messed up but our hero explains it with careless unpacking on it. The story is conveyed into links where colonel Wilson mentions about the nocturnal gust of wind and, unaware of Parkins’s findings, continues: ‘Someone had been whistling for it’. The old soldier recalls a proverb that originates via nice reference to the history of Nordmen of Norway, Denmark and Yorkshire. Professor refuses any superstition and reaches lecturer’s position explaining the behavior of wind. Colonel learns about the Parkins’s whistle and expresses his worry upon using a ‘thing that had belonged to a set of Papists’.
Returning to the Inn, they are almost knocked down by a scared boy who talks about a frightening figure in the ‘front winder’ of the hotel, clearly Parkins’s window. Indeed the extra bed’s clothes are messed up again and the hotel personnel is unaware. Parkins introduces the whistle to the colonel who recommends ‘…Chuck it straight into the sea’ and says the backbone phrase of the tale ‘…With you it is the case of live and learn.’
This from an old soldier, who has served the odd edges of the Empire, bites more effectively than any logic from the professor.
Withdrawing to spend one more night, the professor proves to be more than a theorist and, resenting the bright moonlight, replaces missing curtains with patchwork of railway rug(a bag-to-blanket oddity), safety pins, umbrella and a stick. After a hour of sleeping the arrangement collapses and awakens Parkins, who gets more disturbed about the rustling and shaking and possible movement in the room.
The narrator attacks with first person take and a sudden confession about a similar dream ‘thirty years ago’. So, might it be that Montague Rhodes based this on a dream?
Nevertheless, a figure sitting up in the previously empty extra bed starts the revolution in most logical head. Still Parkins takes mundane means and tries to grab the stick from collapsed patchwork to defend himself. The horror and the odd fun is revealed about the uninvited guest as it moves into offensive, covered by linen and thus blind, groping all over until hears the professor’s moves.
As this is funny for any modern reader, the inexplicable grows in poor professor. The guest sounds merely about some odd creature who uses linen to have any effect, otherwise it would be ignored in most funny comedy! And when Parkins has to face its face, it’s ‘crumpled linen’.
Professor is saved by in-rushing colonel who has heard the noise and comes in time to see a glimpse of the uninvited before it collapses to a heap of bed linen. Colonel stays the rest of the night sleeping wrapped in the rug. Rogers arrives in the next moring and colonel visits the beach to throw the whistle far into the sea. The later ‘smoke of a burning ascending from the back premises of the Globe’ indicates that the extra bedclothes were not arranged back into use.
Of course, the Imperial colonel recollects ‘not very dissimilar occurrence in India’; furthermore, he explains that ‘its one power was that of frightening’ and ‘the whole thing served to confirm his opinion of the Church of Rome.’
As for the ‘live and learn’ for poor professor, Montague Rhodes gets to his point and ‘views of certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.’ Nerves had suffered and ‘the spectacle of scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.’
Supposing the reader has appetite for antiquarian horror stories, I can only say that seemingly dull narrative is masterminded to contain embellishment by shocking a dull scholar’s world in seemingly funny way; the dry story turns from professor Parkins’s own material into swansong for seriousness towards logic and mundane things. It is that similar fresh breath that one wishes turning the modern consuming world to see more into kilometres deep and lightyears wide world, away from our own navels.
If you didn’t famish in the way down here, feel free to comment.