I consider my dreamscape a rich source of some of the strangest and most wonderful imagery, copyright free and ready to plunder (unless of course you’ve just dropped off and watched a re-run of Casablanca in your head). I had a teacher at RADA, a marvellous Polish lady, Maria Fedro, elderly then, but she had in her youth danced for the great impresario Diaghilev’s famous Ballets Russes. I recall she used to tell us how she had imagined and then taught herself some of her greatest dancing roles through dreams. I somehow always understood this; I have often taken many of my most perplexing problems and difficulties to bed with me - and it never fails to astound me how many times I’ve woken up secure in the knowledge that I’ve reached an understanding of a previously unresolved difficulty, or workable solution to a problem. I think I’ve already shared on this blog how the basic idea for Niedermayer & Hart came to me in a dream when I was a teenager in Wales. Admittedly, the final published work bears little resemblance to the original premise, but that tiny seed, sown in the imaginings of the night, remains the source of its story.
And now onto the cause of my bad dream - Collected Ghost Stories by M R James.
Montague Rhodes James (1862 - 1936) was a distinguished mediaevalist scholar who during his lifetime published many works of academic significance. However, two generations on, he is best remembered, and deservedly so, as the master of the ghost story. He started writing tales in this form as an entertainment for his friends and colleagues, beginning in 1893 with Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. A tradition was subsequently acquired of reading a new ghostly tale to his chums each Christmas - the darkest period of the year seems to lend itself perfectly to such a practice. Imagine, after a shared festive meal, they adjourn to James’s candlelit study, and all but one of the candles having been extinguished, allowing James just enough light to read his handwritten manuscript, he begins. It must have been such a thrilling experience to be one of the first to hear him read a classic like Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad (certainly one of my favourites!), which was delivered in this way to friends and colleagues in December 1903.
Personally, I think the thing that makes James’s writing so memorable is what he doesn’t choose to tell us - he is economical with his descriptions and in this way he never ‘over-eggs the pudding’. His ghostly manifestations are almost invariably shrouded in a mist, half-seen imaginings, a spidery or tentacle-like arm, a hideously deformed face partly glimpsed through the corner of one eye, a pair of red eyes watching from the dense shadows of a cloister. James often narrates in the first person; however, he is generally telling us a story he was once ‘told’ by an acquaintance or is passing on something that once happened to a colleague. He adopts almost a documentary approach, and deliberately omits chunks of time that are not absolutely essential to the story he’s relating to us. I think this lack of embellishment in the storytelling is fundamental to the effectiveness of his style. We are never going to experience any passage written by James that sounds anything like this: “The ghoulish creature staggered out of the darkness, and where its eyes had once been there were now only gaping pits of raw flesh, oozing with greyish-green slime ...” He is much more likely to describe something along the lines of an impenetrably dense shadow that has inexplicably appeared beside a tomb from where his protagonist thinks he may have caught the tiniest movement or perhaps heard a small, dry, laugh. I know which of these two examples makes my hair go tingly!
If you’re looking for a gory thrill-fest, then M R James is probably not for you. These are stories to curl up with on a winter’s evening beside a cosy fireside while the wind outside is rattling at the window panes. The language is of its time, of course, however, James isn’t given to verbosity, and his stories skip along at a thoroughly enjoyable pace. When I read these tales I felt that James was simply having a great deal of fun and that he wanted to communicate this pleasure with me, his reader. I can highly recommend them.
Incidentally, another dark tale, my own story Niedermayer & Hart, is on a Kindle countdown deal at Amazon UK from Monday, 26 January, until Monday, 2 February. If you live in the UK you will be able to download a copy during this period for only £0.99. Here’s the link: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Niedermayer-Hart-M-J-Johnson-ebook/dp/B007BVA2AO