Friday, 2 January 2009


-- The Woman in Black

Sorry to keep giving you recommendations for things to watch, but nip over to the BBC iPlayer site for Mark Gatiss' Crooked House, a bloody terrifying - and very amusing - Christmas homage to M. R. James and Hammer Horror. It's also only available for another 24 hours.

The blurb tells us:

When schoolteacher Ben unearths an old door-knocker in the garden of his new home, the curator suggests it may come from the now-demolished house, reputed to be haunted.

Ben prompts the curator to tell him stories about the house's past: a corrupt Georgian businessman finds something unexpected in the woodwork of his new home, while a 1920s young couple's happy engagement party is spoiled by the spectre of a ghostly bride.

Back in the present, Ben finds himself in dark and dangerous waters.

I watched it alone, in the dark, and as a result passed a somewhat fretful night, so be warned if you are of a nervous disposition.

* * *

I'm a great fan of the so-called 'English Ghost Story' - I'm sure hundreds of PhDs have been written on the tradition, but it might be something for a slim volume at some point in the future. I'm especially interested in the fact that, like the detective novel, the classic ghost story is a strange paradox: it depends on surprise, the unexpected, and yet its conventions are highly specific. Indeed, quite often one can see the outline of the story snaking out in front of you from the first line, which provides a great deal of the delicious pleasure of following the plot to its ambiguous conclusion.

I'm of the opinion that M. R. James's superb ghost stories in particular provide very practical career advice for the prim, timid Oxbridge don. For example, if looking over unusual papers in, say, the library of a provincial cathedral, be sure to get home before it gets dark, and if you should glimpse glowing red eyes or hear eldritch howling by the Chapterhouse, go the other way. A working knowledge of the more sinister parts of the Bible is to be recommended, especially the bits about lamiae, satyrs, Lilith, that kind of affair. Avoid Felixstowe, and the East Anglian coast in general. Do not under any circumstances buy unusual manuscripts from continental gentlemen, especially if the seller seems anxious to get rid of them and/or insists that you accept a crucifix with your new purchase. Furthermore, never touch the disturbingly-carved snuffbox/binoculars/fob-watch of your host, the country squire with a reputation for necromantic experiments; and if your homely auberge near Toulon features loathsome stenches, sudden chills or whiffs of brimstone, then scarper, pronto. Given that I am a prim, timid Oxbridge don, I have taken this advice to heart. I have no desire, you see, to be sitting at high table, white-haired at 35 and trembling when I pass the port, whilst the Regius Professor of Greek scoffingly asks me to recount the story of my encounter with the hideous ghoul of Wittenham Clumps. So there.

James famously set himself a rigid list of qualities to aim for - for example, the ghost must be malevolent, never friendly or funny, and sex must be kept firmly out of the story. As the opening to his 'A School Story' shows, he could conjure up a creepy atmosphere with extreme economy:

Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days. 'At our school,' said A., 'we had a ghost's footmark on the staircase. What was it like? Oh, very unconvincing. Just the shape of a shoe, with a square toe, if I remember right. The staircase was a stone one. I never heard any story about the thing. That seems odd, when you come to think of it. Why didn't somebody invent one, I wonder?'

'You never can tell with little boys. They have a mythology of their own. There's a subject for you, by the way--"The Folklore of Private Schools".'

'Yes; the crop is rather scanty, though. I imagine, if you were to investigate the cycle of ghost stories, for instance, which the boys at private schools tell each other, they would all turn out to be highly-compressed versions of stories out of books.'

'Nowadays the Strand and Pearson's, and so on, would be extensively drawn upon.'

'No doubt: they weren't born or thought of in my time. Let's see. I wonder if I can remember the staple ones that I was told. First, there was the house with a room in which a series of people insisted on passing a night; and each of them in the morning was found kneeling in a corner, and had just time to say, "I've seen it," and died.'

'Wasn't that the house in Berkeley Square?'

'I dare say it was. Then there was the man who heard a noise in the passage at night, opened his door, and saw someone crawling towards him on all fours with his eye hanging out on his cheek. There was besides, let me think--Yes! the room where a man was found dead in bed with a horseshoe mark on his forehead, and the floor under the bed was covered with marks of horseshoes also; I don't know why. Also there was the lady who, on locking her bedroom door in a strange house, heard a thin voice among the bed-curtains say, "Now we're shut in for the night." None of those had any explanation or sequel. I wonder if they go on still, those stories.'

'Oh, likely enough--with additions from the magazines, as I said. You never heard, did you, of a real ghost at a private school? I thought not; nobody has that ever I came across.'

'From the way in which you said that, I gather that you have.'

'I really don't know; but this is what was in my mind. It happened at my private school thirty odd years ago, and I haven't any explanation of it.

The brisk forward movement of plot is essential to the supernatural tale - which is why the short story form is very suitable - and this must not be overwhelmed by the literary equivalent of dry ice machines fogging the place up with too much atmosphere. Susan Hill's The Man in the Painting of last year fell into this trap, despite her superlative 1983 novel The Woman in Black. Hill flung in every convention of the genre - winding Cambridge streets and amiable old dons with terrible secrets, cathedral precincts of a foggy midnight, and sinister country houses - and rather forgot about the plot, which turns on the idea of a man-eating painting. As L. P. Hartley said, the ghost story is 'certainly the most exacting form of literary art, and perhaps the only one in which there is no intermediary step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.' The Man in the Painting is a flop, alas.

But here is an example of what the BBC used to do really well: Christopher Lee playing M. R. James himself, just reciting a story to a collection of undergraduates. It was obviously dirt cheap to make, and yet it is sumptuous and frightening: sinister choral music, guttering candles, blood-red port being poured into glasses, Lee's fatherly but faintly sepulchral tones. The Beeb did a number of these in the mid 70's - Lee just reading James's 'Number 13' was a good deal creepier than the recent pathetic live-action version with Greg Wise, which was hopelessly patronising to the viewer and buggered about with James's perfect plot.

Alas that my rooms are not like that: I've got quite a yen on to sit in a velvet smoking jacket, steepling my fingers and drinking madeira by candlelight whilst frightening undergraduates half to death.

1 comment:

Siobhan said...

I don't suppose you know where I could get a copy of "50 Berkley Square"? I've been looking for it ever since I returned from London in 2004.

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