M. R. James and Collected Ghost Stories [excerpt]
This article has been published on the OUP Blog. It begins:
In the following excerpt from Collected Ghost Stories by M. R. James, Darryl Jones discusses how the limitations of James’s personal, social, and intellectual horizons account for the brilliance of his ghost stories.
“The potential that ideas have for opening up new worlds of possibility caused James lifelong anxiety. Thus, his research, phenomenal as it was, tended habitually towards apocrypha, ephemera, marginalia —towards forgotten and perhaps deliberately irrelevant subjects. James was happy to acknowledge this himself. As a schoolboy, his autobiography records, he became fascinated by ‘blobs of misplaced erudition. . . . Nothing could be more inspiriting than to discover that St Livinus had his tongue cut out and was beheaded, or that David’s mother was called Nitzeneth.’ In 1883, the first paper James delivered to the Chitchat Society in Cambridge (to whom he first read a number of his important early stories) was entitled ‘Useless Knowledge’. Amongst the very greatest of his scholarly achievements is his 1924 Oxford edition of The Apocryphal New Testament, a collection of marginal or excluded scriptural texts whose intrinsic worth, James admitted, was highly dubious. The irresistible pull of the irrelevant for James was frequently remarked upon by his colleagues and contemporaries. His revered tutor at Eton, H. E. Luxmoore, noted the way in which James ‘dredges up literature for refuse’; Edmund Gosse, the great Edwardian man of letters, and lecturer in English at Trinity College Cambridge, remarked on ‘those poor old doggrell-mongers of the third century on whom you expend (notice! I don’t say waste) what was meant for mankind’; A. C. Benson believed that ‘no one alive knows so much or so little worth knowing’.