Saturday, October 12, 2013

“There will be Guests at the Hall”

“From ev'ry dark nook they press forward to meet me;
I lift up my eyes to the broad leafy dome,
And others are there, looking downward to greet me
The ash grove, the ash grove, again is my home.”
(The Ash Grove, lyrics by John Oxenford, 1873)

Regarding the British author M.R. James, Lovecraft praised his “almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life…” and summarized three principles used by James for writing effective horror:  1) put the setting of the story in familiar, modern locations so that readers can relate more easily to it, 2) ghosts and other spectral phenomena should be clearly evil and not good in intent, and 3) the story should avoid any ‘pseudo-science’ or technical occult lingo.   Tellingly, Lovecraft finishes his famous essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature with a discussion of the work of M.R. James, an author he highly admired.

The Ash-Tree (1904) by M.R. James is often found in anthologies of classic horror short stories.  The style and structure of the narrative is similar to that of H.P. Lovecraft, though it was written more than a decade before Lovecraft began to publish his first stories.  The language is less ponderous and archaic than Lovecraft’s, but his favorite fictional device of having a character sift through historical documents and journal entries to uncover a centuries old horror is used effectively.  The narrator in The Ash-Tree speaks with the voice of a disinterested, detached antiquarian as he pores over old manuscripts and family letters—the dry, unhurried tone accentuates the unfolding horror.

Though technically a ghost story, the manifestation of spiritual evil takes a form and a size that is more monstrous than ghostly.  And it has a lot of legs. The narrative relates the history of three generations of a wealthy English family.  They have resided in Castringham Hall, an edifice dating back to the seventeenth century.  Until recent times, there was next to the house an ancient ash tree. 

Centuries ago, an ancestor was instrumental in getting a local witch hanged.  In fact he personally saw to it, having one time observed the woman on his property “at the full of the moon, gathering sprigs from the ash-tree near my house.”  Just before the woman is executed she utters some words that appear meaningless at the time:  “There will be guests at the Hall.”

The narrator discovers that this ancestor and his grandson, both of whom occupied a certain room in the mansion with a view of the tree, died in their beds of unnatural causes.  In fact they died of supernatural causes emanating from the tree.  Leaving the window open in this room is a bad idea.  Beneath the tree, which is eventually burned down, is found a single grave and the source of the horror.

Some might argue that the use of a dispassionate narrator, busy reviewing the historical evidence, is injurious to the emotional impact of a short story.  Lovecraft often used this convention, the intent of which may have been to lend credibility and realism to the story—in a sense to say ‘I know you will not believe this and I am doubtful myself but these are the facts as recorded and you may draw your own conclusions.’  In fact, since James precedes Lovecraft by about a decade as the creator of the antiquarian investigator type, it seems likely Lovecraft borrowed this notion from James to feature in many of his stories. 

However, while Lovecraftian scholar-investigators tend to be phobic and hysterical, characters in stories by M.R. James exude rationality and fortitude in the face of terror.  Paradoxically, the absence of intense emotion seems to amplify the experience of horror in a James story.  He is a master of what some call “quiet horror”.  With Lovecraft on the other hand, readers may be more concerned about the mental health of the narrator, (and the author), than the horror he is fleeing from. 

In The Ash-Tree, there is some playfulness among all the books and documents.  As a foreshadowing device James uses the superstitious practice of the ‘drawing of the sortes’, (Sortes Sacrae).  This is a Christian divination system still in use today:  the Bible is opened randomly to a page and a verse randomly picked—it is supposed to contain an important prophetic message for the reader.  One character obtains a line from the book of Luke:  “Cut it down!”  Another character receives the grimly accurate but unhelpful message: “Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.”

The Ash-Tree and other stories by M.R. James should be considered mandatory reading for horror enthusiasts and for aspiring horror writers.  Also recommended is his story Casting the Runes (1911), from which the classic 1957 horror movie The Night of the Demon was made.

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