Nightfeather: Ghosts is the title of this year’s Christmas ghost story, which I begin telling today and will finish on or before December 24. What’s it about? Well, ghosts, of course. And a strange young woman named Sanderson, who has problems of her own. Followers of this blog should recognize one of the ghosts in the story, but the rest are newcomers. So please start reading at chapter 1, entitled, “In which our protagonist is introduced, while she is not on good terms with the world.”
Don’t be too impatient for the ghosts, though. I’m following some of the rules for ghost stories set down by M. R. James (1862 – 1936). Montague Rhodes James, to give him his full name, was a scholar of the Apocrypha, church history, and medieval manuscripts. And he wrote ghost stories. In fact, the only fiction James ever wrote for publication were ghost stories, and he is considered the first Twentieth Century master of the ghost story. By his own account, he would write these and read them around Christmastime to his friends at Cambridge and Eton, keeping up the old tradition of Christmas being a season for ghost stories. They were compiled into four slim volumes in his lifetime.
James’s interest in ghost stories was not limited to his own, no. We owe him a debt for rescuing the ghost stories and other supernatural stories of J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814 – 1873) from obscurity. Le Fanu’s name not ring a bell? He wrote one of the first great vampire stories, “Carmilla” (which I’ve mentioned elsewhere), as well as the creepy novel Uncle Silas. James dug through years of old forgotten periodicals to find forgotten stories by Le Fanu, which he helped popularize by compiling a collection entitled Madam Crowl’s Ghost and Other Tales of Mystery (1923).
James had definite ideas about how ghost stories should be composed. In general, he was one for suggesting horrors, rather than depicting gore. And sex? No, for James sex ruined the mood. (He died a bachelor.) While I am not following James in every particular, there are two rules of his I am following for this story.
I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you might meet or hear any day. (Taken from the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, published in 1911.)
Let us be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage. (Taken from the introduction to Ghosts and Marvels, a 1924 collection of stories edited by V. H. Collins.)
As it will be seen, I do not follow James’s advice in every point. Neither did he. In fact, his advice isn’t consistent from one telling to another, and neither was his practice! Perhaps he kept in mind that greatest of rules: sameness produces boredom.