Day of the Dead - M. R. James
For this service I was put on to a ghost story, written by the English, Victorian ghost story writer, at the turn of the 20th century: M. R. James. He stands out amongst ghost story writers because he abandoned many of the old gothic clichés, writing stories that were more ‘realistic’ and set within contemporary settings. And we’ll be hearing one of those stories later. Although he wasn’t from Suffolk, he moved here when he was three, when his father became the rector at Great Livermere, north of Bury St Edmunds. His heart was in Suffolk, and many of his subsequent stories, including the one we’ll hear, is set in Suffolk, in Felixstowe.
Although he’s most famous for his ghost stories, he was first and foremost an academic. He spent most of his life at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was an antiquarian, teaching medieval history, literature, and theology. He had a lifelong interest in particular with medieval churches – their furnishings, their architecture, etc. My understanding is, that given his high academic prowess, it was a source of some embarrassment that during his own lifetime, and certainly now, he is far better known for the ghost stories he wrote than anything else.
But it was there in Great Livermere, that parish church, in which one feels a sense of isolation, that his interest in history and the supernatural was shaped. The rural parishioners of his father in the early 1900s were a superstitious lot, primarily a people of the land. The church sits upon a threshold. On one side is the tilled farmland, and on the other the breckland, comprising of wide open sandy heath terrain. Thresholds or liminal places are deeply significant; the threshold between that terrain and this, between that realm and this one. Such thresholds feed a deeper awareness of the spiritual and the supernatural. Undoubtably, it was James’ interest in such thresholds which drove his passion for ghost stories, and also for churches. Because churches themselves are often thought of as being thresholds, or portals of a kind, sitting as they do outside of the day-to-day happenings of the real world. Spaces un-interrupted, in which those who dwell within them can discern those cords of meaning which stretch back through time, and root us to place. Places, in which we can discern apparent realities, glimpse them out the corners of our eyes, realities beyond our senses.
M. R. James, was certainly influenced by the Suffolk countryside he grew up in, but perhaps greater than that was the influence of his Christian upbringing. His father was an Evangelical Anglican clergyman, brimming with piety, and so, like most children who inherit such Christian conservatism, he feared for his own salvation, in his younger years being preoccupied with fearful apocalypses and the possibility of fiery damnation. It is believed that once, in the grounds of the rectory, he glimpsed a frightful figure, a white, ghostly, malevolent face through a crack in a fence. A memory he could not so easily shake off.
His whole life was in academia. Starting at Eaton College, he then went to King’s College to do his undergraduate degree. Then staying at the college, he moved up through every position from student, to Don, to head of the College as provost, before returning to Eaton in his final years to be the provost there until his death. A life of such serious academia did not afford him the privilege of believing openly in the supernatural. Such views would have certainly brought him unwanted derision. And so ghost stories offered him a safe domain to explore the inexplicable without having to state definitively if he did in fact believe. Many of his stories demonstrate an intimate understanding of the occult, arcane knowledge, and the outer reaches of his religious tradition. When he was asked if he did believe in ghosts - because of course all ghost story writers are asked if they believe in ghosts – he would always dodge the question. In fact, it’s one of the characteristics of James’ ghost stories, that they always allow for the possibility of an alternative explanation. Perhaps it was just all in their heads, or just a series of unlikely events.
M. R. James was very much a traditionalist, always resisting efforts to modernise the academic institutions he was part of. Resisting the change the modern world was insisting upon. Resisting, for example, the growing calls to award women at Cambridge degrees. But also resisting an increasingly mechanised view of the world, in danger of stripping everything of its mystery. This struggle is encapsulated within the abridged version of the story we just heard - ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to you, my Lad’. The main character, a young Prof. Parkins, is an overly confident Cambridge academic, who, during a golfing holiday at a fictionalized version of Felixstowe, has a terrifying encounter which shakes his prior-held certainties. Prof. Parkins represents a rationalistic and more contemporary mindset. But in discovering a whistle, he accidently invokes an elemental malevolent spirit, which punishes Prof. Parkins for his intellectual pride. For daring to believe that the world of the senses, the world of ‘scientism’, is all there is. James has a great sense of the inexplicable power of evil, which we overlook at our own peril. It relates back to this idea I was talking about last week, the totality, which contains forces at work we simply cannot know. It is hubris to believe that humanity has a command upon all such things.
But his stories did not prepare him for the evil in his life he did encounter. In two weeks time we’ll be marking the centenary of the horrific Great War. In 1914 when WWI broke out, M. R. James was 52 years old. He watched as many men from Cambridge went off to war, many friends of James who went off never to return. On the King’s College green a makeshift military hospital was erected. James would visit friends there, many people suffering from the ill-effects of war, mustard gas, and shell-shock. The war took a great toll on James. It displaced him into a world now very much alien to him. He carried that loss and despair the rest of his life, which can be discerned between the lines of his later works. The cautionary tale present in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll come to you, my Lad’, is a recurring theme in his work. Prof Parkins was certainly modelled on the kind of students James encountered at Cambridge, always ready to give a debunking explanation whenever a supernatural topic was touched upon. In the same way that ‘Oh, Whistle’ is open to different interpretations (was it all in Parkins head after all?), James wants us to keep the door open, to allow us when we encounter the inexplicable, or read strange mythologies, or enter mysterious places, to not simply dismiss them out of hand. The more creative option is to allow the mystery to reside within us, to allow for a range of interpretations. For we stand in the presence of mystery.
Save us, O Lord, while waking,
and guard us while sleeping,
that awake we may watch with Christ
and asleep may rest in peace.