Friday, 24 December 2010

HYPNOBOBS 14 - The Mezzotint by MR James


It's Christmas Eve and therefore time for another classic chiller. Join Mr Jim Moon by the fireside for some discussion of the work of Mr James and a reading of his classic tale The Mezzotint. 

For more James goodness, check out these articles.

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Thursday, 23 December 2010

Do you have a favourite Christmas or holiday season film which you normally watch at this time of year?

Film Intel asked : Do you have a favourite Christmas or holiday season film which you normally watch at this time of year? Or is the holiday break just really an excuse to spend more time watching whatever the hell you want?!

Well, we have many favourite Christmas films! Firm favourites are as follows and in no particular order…

1) Scrooge (1970) - no Christmas is compete without a version of Dickens’ classic (or two), and though the Alastair Sim version is perhaps the best of ‘em all, this musical version is great fun. Albert Finney is superb as Scrooge and who couldn’t love a movie with Alec Guinness as Marley AND gets to sing a number flying through the air surrounded by chained spectres! Plus in this version we get to see Scrooge go to Hell

2) Stalking Santa (2006) - discovered this one just last year - a mockumentary detailing one man’s quest to prove the existence of Santa. Nicely festive and very funny plus it’s narrated by William Shatner - what more do you need!

3) The Snow Queen (2005) - this is a BBC TV movie adaptation of a musical version of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic winter and it’s pure genius. Beautiful music and brilliantly played but what really impresses is the visual style - live action characters in a world created mixing traditional animation and CGI - imagine a Dave McKean illustration come to glorious wintry life and that’s pretty much what this version looks like. A real feast for the eyes, ears and heart!

4) Miracle on 34th Street (1947) - perhaps the definitive film about Santa Claus and the definitive portrayal of the man himself from Edmund Gwenn. Simply magical!

5) The Signal Man (1976) - No festive season is complete without dipping into my archive of the BBC’s Ghost Stories For Christmas short films. And this version of another Dickens classic is a great favourite featuring the late great Denholm Elliot giving a mesmerising performance as the titular character. Truly haunting!

Of course there are many others and there’s nothing better than putting your feet up in front of the box and enjoying the kind of light frothy flicks that normally you’d be too cynical to indulge in! Merry Christmas!

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Wednesday, 22 December 2010

THE NATURE OF THE BEASTS - The Ghosts of MR James Part II


As we observed in the first episode of this little series on MR James, ghosts have been haunting literature for a very long time. Even the tale of Athenodorus recounted by Pliny the Younger and Tacitus may well have been circulating in the oral tradition for a good many years before our redoubtable Classical gentlemen recorded them. And some would even go as far to suggest that perhaps a ghostly tale was one of the first stories spun by the flickering light of a campfire in the long night following humanity’s dawn. And this a quite reasonable proposition when one considers the wealth of material in the anthropological field which shows us time and time again that the faiths of so called primitive tribes often are built upon the giving of reverence and necessary appropriations to the ancestors. Henceforth in a culture that so readily acknowledges the spirits of dead, it is not without logic to suggest that tales told for entertainment may well feature more than the occasional ghost.

However, when one looks upon the diverse manifestations of the spectral through our culture and traces it’s line back through the woods of antiquity, another insight presents itself. Though this may sound somewhat alarming to some of you, it is clear that that throughout the long centuries humanity has been haunted by not one, but two sets of ghosts. For there is are distinct difference in ghost stories that suggests two species of spectres, and this was a separation that MR James, being a learned man well versed in ancient history and literature, was well aware of. In an article which appeared in London Evening News on the 17th of April 1931, entitled Ghosts – Treat Them Gently, he writes –
The story that claims to be “veridical” (in the language of the Society of Psychical Research) is a very different affair. It will probably be brief, and will conform to some one of several familiar types. This is but reasonable, for, if there be ghosts – as I am quite prepared to believe - the true ghost story need do no more that illustrate their normal habits (if normal is the right word), and may well be as mild as milk.

The literary ghost, on the other hand, has to justify his existence by some startling demonstration, or, short of that, must be furnished with a background that will throw him into full relief and make him the central feature.
And obviously being extremely mindful of these structural differences in the stories of hauntings, James arranged the details of his tales very carefully. As we saw in Part I, one of the reasons his ghostly fictions are so successful is due in part to the skilful way he subverts and bends the conventions of the typical fictional ghost.

He eschews making any resolution too neat and is careful as to exactly which areas of his ghost’s shadowy background he chooses to illuminate. And given that these tales were penned in order to be read aloud, often upon a Christmas night, the often conversational tone of the prose, lends the stories the veneer of a witness account; almost as if James himself were presenting us with the curious but entirely real facts of a case history. Indeed several later tales, notably Two Doctors, do read as oblique mysteries in which the sharp witted reader may connect the facts of the incident and construct their own order of events.

But despite this borrowing of constructions from the mystery genre, James never felt compelled to create a detective figure, for when such a fellow appears in supernatural fiction the tendency is to give some knowledge of the intimate workings of the supernatural world. As he remarks in his Preface to More Ghost Stories of An Antiquarian -
I feel that the technical terms of “occultism”, if they are not carefully very handled, tend to put the mere ghost story (which is all that I am attempting) upon a quasi-scientific plane.
While other writers such as HP Lovecraft and William Hope Hodgson, would create their own elaborate mythologies and arcane laws that govern the supernatural in their tales, or Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen were drawing upon real world occult traditions, James always felt that it does not do to explain your ghosts even by invoking invented mystical or psychic rationales. The danger is presenting a too complete a picture of the mechanism of a haunting is that it is only a short distance in the reader’s mind from “So that is what it is!” to “Oh so that’s all it is!” and thus all the eerie uncertainty and the fears that proliferate in the vacuum of the unknown are swiftly lost and not be to recovered.

All of which may give us some indication of why the ghosts that populate James work are quite so enigmatic. Aside from often having origins shrouded in the necessary amount mystery to make them effective, the various forms their manifestations demonstrate perplex in themselves. For a defining feature of the Jamesian spectre is its scant regard for appearing in the usual ethereal version of a human being.

Indeed, it may come as something of a surprise to many readers but when one examines and tabulates the diverse hauntings contained in James’ canon, a curious thing becomes apparent – only but a handful feature what we may recognise as the usual ghost, that is the reappearing image of a person since deceased. Now this may appear to be something of a foolish claim to anyone familiar with the thirty five tales that James wrote, but allow me to elucidate.

At this junction, the reader unfamiliar with the entirety of the James canon is advised that several following remarks may be considered what young jackanapes these days refer to as ‘spoilerific’. Proceed at your own risk!

Firstly we must disregard After Dark in the playing Fields and A Night in King’s College as these two short whimsical pieces do not feature ghosts, and though they have their charms, do not properly fit into the category ghost stories at all. So then to begin in earnest with the remaining texts, we have several tales that feature supernatural agencies, which while they may be from the other side of the veil, are not derived from human souls. In around ten stories (there are several which are indeterminate, readers understandably may wish to subtract or add to this figure according to their own interpretations), we have entities or forces summoned by magic. Witchcraft, sorcery and all manner of folk magic was a frequent component in the background to James' tales (and the curious reader may explore this matter further here).

In Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, The Ash–tree and Casting The Runes, The Fenstanton Witch, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, and Two Doctors we have the products of sorcery making themselves manifest and demons called forth to plague the living. Additionally in Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas we have things that may be some form of elemental, that act as formidable guardians to their attendant items.

I have no clue what exactly are the strange creatures that are found in An Episode of Cathedral History or the precise nature of the diminutive hooded companion of Count Magnus but suffice to say we may conclude they are not, nor ever have, been human.

Next we must recall that in some three more tales, The View From a Hill, A Neighbour’s Landmark, and The Malice of Inanimate Objects, the strange goings-on appear to be directed by a restless human ghost but we never actually see or hear of the phantom manifesting into visibility. We may also add into this category those tales of human ghosts that reveal themselves in oblique fashions; the four following stories all feature unusual phenomena related to deceased persons. The A Haunted Doll’s House has it’s poisoned patriarch returning as a frog-like spectre, and The Diary of Mr Poytner hints at a similar post mortem transformation with its furry phantasm, though considering the agency by which this hairy figure is called forth some readers may wish to place this story among the magical beings category. An Un-common Prayer-Book largely features the work of unseen hands until the finale when a guardian apparition appears as something like an unfurling dusty roll of flannel. And An Evening’s Entertainment has the dead dabblers in the dark arts are linked with the appearance of some curious flies and reportedly appearing as odd patches of hovering mists.

To this count we may conceivably add Number 13 in which the shadow of a phantom is seen, but perhaps more properly this should be understood as a tale about a ghostly room. Although the recent BBC4 adaptation makes a good deal more of the occupant, the original text is more concerned with the curious phenomena of a lost room that returns at times than the malefic machinations of its resident.

So then you may think that this would leave us a grand total of fifteen tales – less than half – featuring what we may describe as typical fiction ghosts who may count themselves as descendants of Athendorus’ chained spectre. And sadly, you should be wrong to do so, for only a small fraction of these may be properly classified in this manner.

The spirits to be found in Lost Hearts, The Rose Garden, Rats, and A Vignette all feature what we may consider the typical literary ghost – the spirits of the unquiet dead reappearing in human form. Also we have a human spectre in Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance but unlike the more traditional spirits in the preceding three tales, the unwelcome visitant in this story is a post mortem survival engineered it would appear through the arcane arts.

Additionally The Residence of Whitminister although this story has the ghost of Lord Saul appearing in the usual fashion of a traditional haunting, it also boasts other less well defined and distinct non-human spirits, not to mention some unusual insects; it’s human phantom is far from the focus of the spectral mayhem related in this tale. Considering the variety of manifestations in this text, some may wish to place it with the products of magic group.

Similarly we should note that The Haunted Doll’s House also features some human spirits in its replay of the haunting. However as we clearly have a central ghost wreaking revenge, I had elected to place this story in the human spirit appearing in non human aspect category.

But hold fast sir, I hear you cry, what of the remaining nine? Does not The Mezzotint have a dire figure walking abroad? And what if not a ghost of the lost crown’s last guardian is tormenting and pursing Mr Paxton in A Warning To the Curious? And though my memory may be growing dimmer with each passing year, surely Mr Moon yours is clouded by an excess of port, for is there not a quartet of dead lurking in Wailing Well?

Well, on one hand it is true that these remaining tales do feature the returning human dead, however strictly speaking the figures in these tales cannot be exactly classed as ghosts. Rather than the typical insubstantial phantoms, the dead in these tales are horribly physical in their manifestations; they are not just appearing after death, but are actually bodily rising from their graves in order to go about their business. Therefore technically speaking what we have in this nine stories are not spooks and spectres but an older form of the returning dead, the revenant.

So what are revenants? Andrew Joynes in his excellent volume Medieval Ghost Stories (Boydell 2001) defines them thus –
revenants are dead people who come back in a recognisable physical form, but profoundly altered in that, for the most part, they are now enemies of the living
Hence these are not spirits but reanimated cadavers walking abroad, and unlike our usual phantoms which may have the same varieties of temperament as the living, they are exclusively malevolent. And they are peculiar to English folklore in the Middle Ages, although as Joynes points out they are probably a British development of the earlier Scandinavian tradition of the draugr and indeed it would appear that cultural trappings aside tales of the English revenant and the Northern European draugr appear to be depicting the same species of undead being.

As they are violent and very corporeal, some writers have identified them as a native English variety of the vampire and others as an obscure branch of the zombie family. However as they appear to be possessing intelligence and rarely if ever feast upon the blood of the living, this writer does not feel that the revenant may be classed as a variant of either of these two more well known forms of the risen dead.

And James was undoubtedly familiar with the revenant traditions in the history of these isles. In An Evening’s Entertainment, the opening paragraphs make clear that he has pursed the genre of supernatural fiction which he so admired as far back as written records would allow –
We hear, indeed, of sheeted spectres with saucer eyes, and – still more intriguing – of “Rawhead and Bloody Bones” (an expression which the Oxford Dictionary traces back to 1550), but the context of these striking images eludes us
Furthermore, in 1922 James published a piece entitled Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories in the English Historical Review. This little collection of tales collected from various sources – after all, James was a considerable authority on medieval texts - includes some reports of revenants, proving beyond doubt that he was familiar with this now largely forgotten folkloric being. The reader is advised to also recall that James had travelled widely in Scandinavia – as evidenced in Number 13 and Count Magnus - and it is unlikely that he was unfamiliar with the associated similar traditions of the draugr.

As we have observed earlier, James avoided using either the arcane systems of the occult traditions and the psychical theories of the paranormal investigators of his day. But in his preface to The Collected Ghost Stories of MR James (1931) he did remark –
I am not conscious of other obligations to literature or local legend, written or oral, except in so far as I have tried to make my ghosts act in ways not inconsistent with the rules of folklore
Now as we also saw in the first part of this article, James has no use for “the friendly ghost” who in legends delivers warnings or reveals secrets. And neither did he have much truck with the neat resolutions usually found in folklore – his ghost’s origins are often nebulous. Nor do we receive a conclusion where the spirit is laid to rest – an increasingly common feature the further back into history one traces the ghost story.

Indeed the entities found in James’ work are so varied and possessing so many different forms, his comments about abiding by the rules of folklore may seem perplexing to some. However one needs to delve into the canon of medieval ghost stories in order to see the connections and find the folklore to which he was referring.

But while he may have jettisoned the Middles Ages theology that underpins many tales of haunting from this period, with the troublesome spirits being souls trapped in Purgatory and requiring prayers and Christian burial in order to go on to their eternal rest, other elements he has retained. For example, as can be seen in Twelve Medieval Ghost Stories, the medieval phantom was prone to shape shifting, appearing in a variety of baffling forms rather than the stereotypical ethereal apparition. Clearly the stories in our second mooted category – human ghosts appearing in non human formats – are drawing from this protean aspect of the spectres detailed in medieval manuscripts. (Further discussion of the influence of medieval ghost stories in James work may be found in this excellent article at the Ghosts & Scholars website).

However the strongest connection is his ghosts’ antipathy toward the living which has an obvious precedent in the lore of the English revenant and the Scandinavian draugr. But in addition to the disposition towards physical violence and general spite towards the living, we do have bona fide appearances of revenants in his stories.

There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard is explicitly about a corpse making its way out of the earth in order to pay a thief a nocturnal visit, and the quartet of “bad ‘uns” in Wailing Well are obviously revenants too – persons too evil to lie quietly in their graves who instead roam a small patch of land and hunt down any who would venture into their territory.

The gaunt figure that stalks through The Mezzotint too is likely to be one of this medieval English undead. Observe the way what the characters deduce is the hanged poacher crawls into the manor house and abducts a child – clearly the modus operandi of a reanimate corpse bereft of the traditional ghost’s ability to pop in and out of the ether.

Note too the curious details of Dr Rant’s burial in The Tractate Middoth - James was the master of which facts to include and what to omit for maximum effect, and therefore as he made a point of informing us that the old clergy man had insisted he was entombed in his ordinary clothes and seated in a brick room of his own design, these facts are surely pertinent. And indeed, from what we may term the physical evidence which accumulates in this story, we may assume that it is not the restless shade of Dr Rant but his ambulatory remains that stalk and assault the dastardly Mr Eldred.

Similarly the particulars of a burial are highlighted in The Experiment. As in There Was a Man Dwelt By A Churchyard, James takes care to point out that the deceased party is not interred in a difficult to escape coffin or casket and that the two miscreants in this tale turn themselves over into the hands of the law, preferring hanging than risk a more prolonged justice at the hands of the reanimated old Squire.

In A School Story and A Warning To The Curious
too it is the little details James gives us that indicate the presence of a revenant. While there is a good deal of the work of unseen hands in the main body of both tales it is the particulars of the resolutions that are important to our case here.

In the former, the fact the body of the missing teacher is much later discovered in an old well locked in an embrace with another skeleton heavily suggests that the other party had left its hidden grave in order to bodily carry off Mr Sampson. And in the second, the memorable detail that the footprints of William Ager show signs of decomposition suggest that the old farmer has physically risen from his resting place in order to carry out the family duty to guard the lost crown Paxton has discovered.

Finally we have Martin’s Close and The Story of A Disappearance and An Appearance, which sees the victims of murder most foul rising again to mete out revenge. Now arguably these events in these tales may not be the work or revenants but again the specifics of the manifestations do point to a more corporeal from of the returning dead than your usual insubstantial spooks. In The Story of A Disappearance and An Appearance it is notable that the mystery figure not only physically attacks the Punch & Judy man but actually chases him through the streets and across the fields to the murder site. Note too that the figure appears exactly as the murdered uncles does complete with its head swathed in cloth.

And in Martin’s Close, the murdered Ann is not only seen rising from the pond where her body is discovered but actually hides in a cupboard at one stage. All of which suggests a physicality that is more than ghostly – your average spectre tends to vanish when in a sticky spot rather than hastily conceal themselves and leaving tell tales ends of garments poking out of the crack in the door.

Of course we may add to this tally of nine revenants a further tale – Count Magnus. Though we have already filed his hooded familiar in the magical category, there is still the matter of the Count himself. We should note that Mr Wraxhall’s troubles begin when he leaves the eponymous aristocrat’s tomb unlocked, foolishly disregarding the local lore he had gathered which suggests the Count’s mausoleum is kept secured because of his habit of walking abroad rather than resting in peace. All evidence points to the Count being a revenant and it is therefore unsurprising considering the confusion between vampires and revenants that this tales frequently makes an appearance in anthologies devoted to the legendary blood sucker, despite there being no evidence of James’ Count indulging in the activities we associate with Stoker’s.

Naturally some may dispute these evidence of revenants in James stories, and cite, for example, Lost Hearts where there is a good deal of physical violence. However the vengeful children in this tales appear as they did when they died rather than displaying the ravages of the grave which would indicate to me that they are spirits. And indeed a note in Mr Abney’s notes makes it explicit that we are dealing with “the psychic portions of the subjects”.

And of course yet others may well assert that drawing such distinctions between, familiars, spirits and revenants is an activity analogous to the proverbial follicle bisections, arguing that ‘ghost’ is a term to cover a multitude of supernatural sins. However I feel that in acknowledging the different varieties of hauntings James has to offer, the reader gains an enhanced appreciation of this gentleman’s literary talents. And that when one looks analytically at the phenomena that arises in James’ tales, one gains (I hope) a greater understanding of the evolution and heritage of the humble ghost story itself.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

HYPNOBOBS 13 - The Box of Delights


With Christmas fast approaching it's time for some festive fare and Mr Jim Moon takes a journey into THE BOX OF DELIGHTS...

Direct download - HYPNOBOBS 13 - The Box of Delights

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Friday, 17 December 2010

THE PRESENCE OF MORE FORMIDABLE VISITANTS - The Ghosts of MR James Part I



Among the many great estates of the imagination, it has long been one of my own personal preferences to make frequent visits to that shadowed portion of the lands of fiction where the great manors and chases of the ghost story are to be found. Taking up residence as it does in the hinterlands that the curious wanderer discovers between the grimy ghettos of horror and the lofty dreaming spires of literature, the humble ghost story offers to the visitor a myriad of delights; not only may one find a wealth of edifices constructed by the hands of the great and good of the literature but also the ghost story proffers to the learned eye a plethora of imaginative architecture whose styles and influences may be traced back far into the antiquarian past.

But despite the notable additions to this cultural landscape designed by great authors such as Dickens, Hardy, and Kipling, not to mention the spectral contributions found in Shakespeare, the mantle of the greatest teller of ghost stories does not fall upon the shoulders of one of classic literature’s alumni. No gentle reader, that accolade must be awarded not to one who merely dabbled in spooks and spectres and midnight things, but to one whose canon was devoted to the pursuit of raising pleasing terrors. Now my own personal feeling on the matter is very clear; if indeed one may single out just one author to receive the title of master of the ghost story, then this should be bestowed upon Montague Rhodes James.

And while some may dispute my own nomination for this honour, proposing candidature for notable names such as Mr Algernon Blackwood, Mr Sheridan Le Fanu, or Mr EF Benson, it must be acknowledged that James is, at the very least, a titan of equal power and influence, and that among the three score and five tales he penned lies some of the finest exercises in supernatural fiction ever written.

Previously I have remarked before upon the remarkable legacy of this learned gentleman, and indeed have gone as far to continue the tradition of reading his tales aloud as part of the Christmas festivities here in the benighted halls of Hypnogoria Towers. And as many have remarked before, I have reiterated their opinion that one of the many reasons why the good Doctor’s tales have endured so long and have been an undoubtedly considerable influence upon the landscapes of the imagination, is his innovative and original conceptions and deployments of the ghosts themselves.

Now it should be noted that this in no mean feat as the ghost story may trace its line of descent back to the earliest forms of literature. And as any student of the architecture of the ghost story will know, many of the haunted houses and regions where phantoms walk are constructed with forms and tropes dating back to classical antiquity. Indeed the template for many stories detailing a haunting is a tale told in Roman times, reported by many ancient scribes including Tacitus, and perhaps best recalled in the letters of Pliny the Younger. A fine translation of the original text may be found here, however a brief synopsis will be presented for the sake of convenience...

There was a certain house in Athens beset with the dread apparition of an old man bound in fetters. And although the house was an attractive property, none could bear to live with the nocturnal disturbances for very long. However a philosopher named Athenodorus took up residence, and indeed just as the stories told, when night had fallen, the sound of chains was heard and the image of the distressed fellow appeared.

But being a man of learning, Athenodorus did not flee in terror but instead followed the ghost upon his nightly wandering and noted that the phantasm disappeared at a certain spot in the courtyard. The following morning, our hero summoned the authorities and the spot where the spirit had vanished was duly excavated, revealing buried bones swathed in chains. The remains of this fortunate were then given the proper funerary rites and a dignified burial and the hauntings ceased...

But also aside the laying of an unquiet soul, the foundation for the ghostly tales as a literary form was laid. For besides inspiring a chill of fear with the description of encountering forces from beyond the grave, the ghost story in structure owes as much to the mystery genre as it does horror fiction. And the tale of Athenodorus establishes this; unlike other macabre fiction where the conclusion of the tale reveals a final horror left to linger in the mind, the ghost story will usually offer a form of resolution where we discover to some reason or mechanism for the haunting.

It also enshrined the concept that ghosts appear in order to impart some message to the living, whether to right some wrong or give out a warning, and that their eternal rest is disturbed until they receive proper burial. And we see this structure repeated endlessly, with many of the famous ghosts of fiction adhering it, from Hamlet’s father to Jacob Marley and right up to the plethora of phantasms populating The Sixth Sense. I trust I need not give out further copious examples as this pattern is so widespread I am confident the reader may easily list dozens more.

However although it is true that many of James’ tales fall in line with this classical format, there is also considerable deviation from the standard template. While many show the aforementioned elements of the mystery, in that as when the tale concludes we discover something of the nature of the hauntings, not all end with neat resolutions which explain the origin of their spooks. For example, in one of Monty’s most famous tales, Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad, by the end we are no nearer discovering the nature or genesis of the being summoned by the whistle than at the outset, and similarly are in the dark as to its drives and purposes.

Also absent in many tales, is any laying of the ghost. Should any of the supernatural manifestations in MR James’s tales come to a close, it is more often because the protagonists henceforth steer clear of its area of influence than any end to the manifestations being engineered at the story’s finale. And when there is a ceasing of the supernatural outbreaks, it is frequently because the unearthly agencies themselves have expended their purpose; usually having administered some much need justice or wreaked a violent revenge.

And these two points also highlight two other of James’ innovations – firstly that his hauntings are often not centred about a certain place but manifest through a particular object. Old books, pictures objects d’ar and antiques are all prone to become what modern psychical researchers would term ‘trigger objects’ or our forefathers would deem as accursed. In the world accorded to Monty, one may not guarantee one’s safety by merely avoiding those places or dwellings that that are deemed spiritually leprous, as some seemingly innocent object may bring with it most unwelcome guests. And hence the reader does not possess the standard fall back position of claiming ‘well I should not be so damned fool as to venture to such benighted places!’ for even something as innocuous as a fabric design may call forth things one would not relish to scamper about your rooms as the incidents in The Diary of Mr Poytner illustrate.

But secondly and possibly more importantly, his ghosts are ferociously malevolent. As James himself remarked in his preface to this second collection More Ghost Stories of An Antiquary (1911) –
the ghost should be malevolent or odious; amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy stories or local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story

And how fearsome they are! They torment and terrorises the innocent and guilty alike, for there is no common moral backdrop to James’ canon. The usual rubrics of the horror tale are not in place here – what we may call the EC Comics morality that the guilty will meet very bad ends indeed is not a code of conduct that Jamesian ghouls particularly adhere to. Only around half of his tales feature an element of punishment in the hauntings, with assorted villains and scrupulous types discovering that justice has exceedingly long bony arms. However even in some of these cases, it is the ghost itself which is suffering, condemned to walk abroad for their misdeeds in life.

Hence in the larger proportion of the canon, the innocent are just as terribly beset with dire hauntings. In some cases, it is a matter of the sins of the father being visited upon his descendants – see for example The Mezzotint and The Ash-tree, but more frequently it is simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time, or unwittingly encountering an object which harbours unsuspected supernatural dangers.

And while a case may be made that that some of James’ characters commit the sin of delving too far and consequently disturb things from the unquiet past, it is, I feel this is a distinctly different matter. For example, Mr Dennistoun in Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book may be said to pay the price for his fervour in acquiring rare manuscripts or that Professor Parkin in Oh Whistle is penalised for his sceptical certainties, it is also clear that these fellows are not wicked men who fully deserve their terribly fates like Lord Saul in The Residence At Whitminister or the eponymous murderer in Martin’s Close. It is true that some like Mr Paxton in A Warning To The Curious or young Stanley Judkins in Wailing Well, may have failed to heed the warnings given but again these are not characters driven by malice or moral corruption and I am sure many of us would have similarly ignored the talk of frightful spectres and dread curses and carried on regardless too...

So then as we draw toward the close of this first look at the beings that haunt the fiction of MR James, what conclusions are there to be drawn? In addition to the point we have duly noted above, we may discern a common strand or element in James’ treatment of this most venerable of story forms. And this shared trait is simply as follows: that by diverse methods James has elected to blur the cosy lines of the defining form we have inherited from accounts of the Athens haunting. And this bending and breaking of the typical rules of literary hauntings, open for the reader that curious door marked ‘uncertainty’, and while by its very nature none may know what lies beyond that portal, what is sure is that the draughts that issue from it are born of fear itself.

Simply living a proper and upstanding life is offers no protection from the denizens of the supernatural world, as just as there is not infallible natural justice, likewise James present an equally capricious and random supernatural world where ghostly ills may befall the pious and the wicked alike. Similarly good sense and wisdom, of the kind demonstrated by Athenodorus offer no margin of safety and in James’ fiction there is no sign of any of this Classical scholar’s descendants in attendance; his stories are bereft of ghost breakers like Hodgson’s Carnacki, mystical investigators like Blackwood’s John Silence and occult experts in the mould of Stoker’s Van Helsing. There are no white hat sages in evidence and equally there are not special incantations, prayers or relics to save the day and indeed your bacon. And finally nor will a good sense of geography and local lore steer one clear of spectral troubles, for Jamesian entities are not confined to obscure ruins or empty houses; one must be careful what one brings into the house for as Dr James observes in Stories I Have tried To Write “it may not be alone...”

COMING SOON - In Part II of this exploration of MR James, we shall be taking a closer look at the nature of the ghosts themselves.


Thursday, 16 December 2010

A Pictorial Interlude



As those of you who follow me on Twitter will know, this week I've been with the awful cold that's currently doing the rounds, and hence my latest article has been somewhat delayed!

However rest assured it will be here soon, and we'll be embarking upon an epic literary exercise in which we shall catalogue all the diverse manifestations of the supernatural in the works of MR James.

In the meantime though, here are a brace of pictures by artist Russ Nicolson, who some of you may remember for his illustrations of the original Fighting Fantasy books and 1st edition AD&D's Fiend Folio. Above his his superb rendition of James' Count Magnus and the horrible vision below is the dread apparition from Rats.

(You may click to embiggen both...)

Sunday, 12 December 2010

HYPNOBOBS 12 - Canon Alberic's Scrap-book



With Christmas just around the corner, the time is right for a ghost story or two. Mr Jim Moon takes a look at the work of MR James and reads one of his classic tales - Canon Alberic's Scrap-book...

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For more on MR James and Yuletide spectres, check this article Ghost Stories For Christmas.

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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

DICKENS' CHRISTMAS CAROL AS TOLD BY JACOB MARLEY (DECEASED)



Some have called it the greatest story ever told, and while one’s first reaction to such a claim may be outright scepticism, on reflection it’s hard to nominate another novel that has come anywhere close to the enduring appeal and cultural influence as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Not only has the tale of Scrooge been an integral part of all our Christmases for more than a century and a half, but this seasonal classic also has shaped our modern Yuletide in many ways. And certainly we can safely say that Mr Dickens’ has more than surpassed his modest aims outlines at the novel’s beginning –
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it
And while other enduring classics such as Alice In Wonderland and Dracula may claimed to exert a similar cultural influence, A Christmas Carol still tops them in that unlike Carroll or Stoker’s novels, Dickens’ story is one of the few works that is always faithfully adapted – largely because the story itself is so perfectly structured. Indeed as I have remarked before A Christmas Carol is one of the few works that is adaptation-proof; you really have work hard in order the break the charm and powers of the story.

Similarly unusual is the fact that this classic text’s first migration from page to other media was guided by Dickens himself. In December 1852, at Birmingham Town Hall, Dickens gave his first ever public reading and the work he chose for this event was A Christmas Carol. And this reading was so popular that it launched Dickens into a subsidiary career performing extracts from his works in theatres and public halls across the land. And the tale of Scrooge, Marley and the three ghosts of Christmas, remained a perennial favourite, with Dickens eventually penning a special version of the text specifically tailored to be listened to by an audience.

Of course it wasn’t too long before theatrical adaptions began to appear and when cinema was born naturally A Christmas Carol was popular choice for bringing to the silver screen with at least five versions appearing before 1920. And later this pattern was repeated when radio and television were born. However the very first form of adaption has remained popular to this very day, with Patrick Stewart staging a one man show version in 1988 and even a version performed by Dickens’ great great grandson Gerald Charles Dickens.

Now this winter there is another one man production currently on tour in the UK, entitled Dickens’ Christmas Carol As Told By Jacob Marley (Deceased) , produced by Brother Wolf, this show has literature’s favourite spectre paying us a visit to recount the tale of his former partner Scrooge. Here’s the trailer…


With no set, minimal lighting and sound effects and but a single prop – a battered antique chair – writer and star James Hyland masterfully conjures up not only Mr Marley’s shade, clanking chains and all, but the entire cast of Dickens’ novel as he recounts the full story for us. Preserving much of the original prose, Hyland vividly brings to life all the wonderful characters we know so well in a breath taking performance, deftly switching roles in an instant.

And this is much more than just an animated read through of the text. To begin with, through his pitch perfect delivery of the lines and accomplished use of body language, Hyland really brings the book to life, with his power of his performance painting in the world of Scrooge and all who dwell in there upon the bare stage.

Although Hyland’s version of A Christmas Carol is exceeding faithful to text, there is a subtle difference. The very fact that this is the well loved story recounted by Marley’s ghost who is still doomed to wander the earth does add an unexpected and original twist to the proceedings. As Mr Hyland says in the Writer’s Notes in the programme –
My objective in adapting A Christmas Carol as a one-man show, told from the point of view of Jacob Marley’s ghost, was to emphasize the differences between na saved soul and one that is lost; Scrooge being the former, and Marley the latter. This contrast serves to highlight the themes of redemption and forgiveness by comparing Marley’s temporary liberation from his chains to that of Scrooge’s full reclamation of spirit; shining a light on the necessities of changing one’s outlook upon life, in regards to acknowledging and taking account for one’s fellow man, as well as adding a certain poignancy to the proceedings since Marley can never really escape his imprisonment and must continue to suffer in death, on account of his behaviour in life. Who better to tell a story of redemption than the spirit who regrets never achieving it for himself?


And I must say this conceit works beautifully throughout, from Marley’s atmospheric entrance where he is allowed to shed his chains in order to spin his yarn, to the heart warming grand finale we all love so well. So while we have a suitable reverent rendition of the old story, this production has a spin of its own that freshens up the tale.

Honestly folks, this is a brilliant rendition of the classic tale, As well as being rich in theatrics, the one-man show format also captures the spirit of Dickens’ own dramatic readings. So I highly recommend that you clicketh this link and see if the show is coming anywhere near you.

And if I have but one Christmas wish and there be any kindly spirits of the season listening to these words, and who possess the power to grant such things, then it is my sincere hope that at some point, some gifted soul will step forward to film this production for posterity.


Monday, 6 December 2010

HYPNOBOBS 11 - Video Nasties!



This week Mr Jim Moon takes a terrifying trip back to the 1980s! Battling through a mire of stay-prest slacks and rah-rah skirts, we explore the dawn of the Video Age and take a look at Jake West's Video Nasties - The Definitive Guide...

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Friday, 3 December 2010

You're casting your perfect film. You can pick one currently working actor and one currently working actress. Who do you go for and why?

Hmm tough choice! To begin with, let us take it as read that our perfect film would be some species of exceedingly strange and atmospheric cinema...

Now our ideal female lead is an easy choice - Lina Leandersson. As after her stunning performance in the modern classic Let The Right One In, we're desperate to see her in something else and we're quite sure she'd be brilliant in any role you throw at her... and not in a spooky Dakota Fanning way either!

Right now it seems she's busy at school and while we approve that she's concentrating on her studies , we just hope she doesn't vanish from the movies like Alakina Mann (the little girl in The Others) or go all Lindsay Lohan on us when she grows up!

Now for the male lead, that's tougher but we'll go for George Clooney. He's handsome in a golden age Hollywood kinda way, but and as versatile as legends like Redford or Gregory Peck - indeed we think the makers of the Omen remake really dropped the ball not getting Mr Clooney for the role of Robert Thorn. And if they'd partnered him with Naomi Watts as Damien's mother you'd have had a remake to rival the original....

But we digress...

Back on point, apart from being a charismatic performer and all round nice guy (by all accounts at least), we'd cast him 'cos we'd love to see him in a highly strange haunting movie!

Ask us anything