"The Residence at Whitminster"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James
This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919. I'm blogging about them "as I go".
When a strange youth is sent to Whitminster for tutelage, he brings something dark with him-- and that darkness will linger for more than a century.
First, a reaction to the brief foreword to the entire collection of stories. James writes deprecatingly of his tales (and the wisdom of publishing sequels in general), but finishes up with this: "So not a great deal is risked, perhaps, and perhaps also some one's Christmas may be the cheerfuller for a storybook which, I think, only once mentions the war."
I found this interesting because it brings home so strongly the time in which this book was published. It's easy to forget when these stories were written. James' short stories are so often set further in the past (or feel somehow timeless) that it came as a bit of a shock to realize that he must have written much (if not all) of this collection during World War I. It also emphasizes how all-encompassing WWI felt for those who'd lived through it. Of course we know, abstractly, that all "major" wars were much on people's minds as they were fought, but with our long, relatively low-casualty, drawn-out modern conflicts, in which daily life continues much as it always has (unless you personally know someone who's fighting), we may not realize (or always remember) just how consuming war can be to the average civilian. That little comment-- "only once mentions the war"-- speaks volumes of the exhaustion people must have felt at the close of WWI-- how eager they were to put it behind them and at least temporarily forget the pain and loss. So many of them truly believed that they had just endured through "the war to end all wars"-- and they'd paid so steep a price, who could blame them? When you remember how brief their hard-won peace would be, you're thankful that they had no inkling of what lay ahead. (If you're feeling fatalistic, it also makes you wonder what the next decade or two has in store for us-- whether future generations will someday say of us, "if they'd only known"...)
Gee, but I'm cheerful this morning!
All the result of a particularly delightful combination of lovely "digestive issues" and being woken in the very small hours by a bratty dog. But it's Friday, and it's not World War I at the moment, so we won't complain too much.
Hm. So. I was going to give a reaction to this story, wasn't I?
It was fine. There are creepy moments, certainly. Shall I list some of them?
-- We learn that the young lord coming to stay at Whitminster is named Saul. Never a good sign. Why would you name your kid "Saul"? What, was that the only thing left at the Name Store, the day he was born?
-- When news comes that young Frank is on the verge of death, the others run to his bedside. But not Saul: "Lord Saul stopped for a moment where he was. Molly, the maid, saw him bend over and put both hands to his face. If it were the last words she had to speak, she said afterwards, he was striving to keep back a fit of laughing." (That gives me a shiver. Nothing supernatural about it-- and all the more frightening because of that!)
-- The sawflies. Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. ...Yuck. I have no great fondness for bugs, as a group. A large number of insects congregating mysteriously in a room gives me a major case of the creeps.
-- The description-- or rather the thought-- of walking through a dark room at night and feeling a book "twitched" out of my hand. ~shiver~ ...Oh, and then being mauled by a giant bug. (Nooooo!)
-- The description of a maid coming out of "the sawfly room": "Why, her cap and her hair, you couldn't see the colour of it, I do assure you, and all clustering round her eyes, too." (Aaaaack!! No, no, no-- not clustering around her eyes, I beg of you!)
-- The ghostly face pressed up against the villager's window! The thought of being watched-- or at least visually sought-- by something sinister... So, so creepy.
There were other eerie/scary moments, but the ones listed above stood out for me.
James' obsession with framing his stories as "documented" or "discovered" does tend to weaken them, I think. He loves telling us that he found this part of the story in such-and-such a place-- and garnered that part of the story from another source. "I rather guess these thoughts of his than find written authority for them," he admits, at one point. Look, man. We know the story is fictional, and that's okay. You don't have to dress it up with all the trappings of legitimacy, ok?
Weird Word o' the Day: "mickle"
...As in "a talisman of mickle might". It is just familiar enough that I know I've seen/heard it before, but it's not a word I see everyday. It's kind of catchy, though... "mickle might"...
Take your humor where you find it:
"...Dr. Henry Oldys, whose name may be known to some of my readers as that of the author of a row of volumes labelled Oldys's Works, which occupy a place that must be honoured, since it is so rarely touched, upon the shelves of many a substantial library." Oh, snap! (As they say...) Dr. Oldys just got served!