Walking with M.R. James
I’ve been reading too much M.R. James recently. Christmas, you see. In years gone by it’s been Dickens. I’ve a tatty volume comprising A Christmas Carol, The Cricket on the Hearth and The Chimes, and at some point during most Decembers of the last fifteen years, I’ve read all three. It’s the comfort of habit, part of a blind groping towards the light, a buttress against cold and guilt and loss in the depths of darkness.
This year I thought I’d like a change.
Christmas lends itself to ghost stories. It’s often foggy and dusk falls shortly after lunch; walks taken in the afternoon leave one feeling chilled rather than refreshed. Solitary evenings are long by the fire, as the embers die and the clock ticks. A decent book is the truest (and most economical) of winter companions, and this year I have an M.R. James compendium.
The famous BBC production of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ was my introduction to M.R. James. I saw it at a certain point in my development when I was young enough to be both frightened and fascinated by Hammer horror and Dennis Wheatley but also able to see through it, to understand on a certain level, while at the same time holding my breath and hiding behind a cushion, that it wasn’t really frightening at all. There was no significant threat to one’s overall equilibrium.
‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’ was different. It scared on a different plane. It reached areas of the psyche untouched by Dennis Wheatley. It found the uncanny in the everyday, reminding me of childhood terrors and fears I thought I’d overcome, fears of dark corners in the hallway, shadows in the stairwell, the skeleton of the breakfast kipper a bony reminder of ever-present Death. In vain we turn to the comfort of habit, the afternoon cup of tea, the buttered toast, the extra hot water bottle and the modest tot of brandy to ward off winter’s chill. In vain, because we know that after such a psychological encounter, these things will never be the same again.
I found ‘A View from a Hill’ almost as unsettling when I watched it the other night. I could relate to the setting, you see, and the general theme. I’m a walker, or rather, a rambler, really. I ramble and look, and sometimes I poke around. I find myself wandering in spooky places, sometimes. Frequently, now I come to think about it. Wandering, and wondering. Iron Age burial mounds in the middle of fields of stubble. Ancient, long-forgotten castles and ruined boathouses. Abandoned gardens. Aged ash trees and sycamores with outstretched branches. Crumbling graveyards and gallows hills. Looming Victorian churches, rarely used, their congregation scattered. Layer upon layer of Life and Death. Century upon century upon century.
I don’t usually get ‘the creeps’. I like to walk alone so I certainly don’t want to get ‘the creeps’. I’m fairly rational, or so I’d like to think. I don’t want to feel prevented from rambling, wandering or wondering, by my own psychology. Usually I’m looking for wildlife and a certain peace of mind, and usually, I find it. M.R. James has shaken my confidence in that regard.
That quick rustling among dry oak leaves – is it a blackbird, as I’d normally assume? A scurrying of small brown shapes low across a winter field, seen out of the corner of my eye – leaves again, surely, caught by an eddy of wind. Tall dark shapes standing among the trees like silent watchers. The cawing of rooks. A warning, another following presence, sensed. Shadows, surely only shadows. Surely…
Well, don’t read any more M.R. James, perhaps you might say. And perhaps you’d be right.
I wonder what sustained him. I wonder what shielded him from the Dark. I wonder what attracted him to the Dark? As I see it, as M.R. James recounted in A Warning to the Curious, you poke around in these arcane realms at your peril. You pull something interesting out of the ground – is it a random, strangely-shaped root, or bone (animal, or human?), or a whistle with a motto carved upon it, now you come to knock the earth off it a bit? Whatever you do – do not – do NOT - blow it.
Should you happen to find a pair of shiny binoculars, and should you happen to see something through them that other people cannot see, and which you yourself cannot see without the binoculars – dispose of them immediately. Either take them to Jessops to get the lenses fixed or bury them deep in an Iron Age burial mound – right by the silver Anglo Saxon crown.
There’s something about all this unsettledness that is at the same time reassuring. Rationality, or at least the arrogance of a certain type of rationality is punished by M.R. James and I think he’s right to do so. It’s good to take pause, to be reminded that there are more things in Heaven and Earth, and so forth, and to remember that the more you learn, the more you realise you know almost nothing.
Also published on Medium along with some other work.