Tag Archives: Supernatural Literature

On the Respective Worldviews of M.R. James and S.T. Joshi

The reputation of S.T. Joshi as the preeminent scholar in the study of weird fiction has always puzzled me. Although the man’s work ethic cannot be disputed, his tendency to view every weird author through the prism of H.P. Lovecraft taints his writing with a frustrating bias, whilst his doctrinaire atheism and positivism renders him incapable of fully engaging with some of the most important authors in the field. One might argue that his philosophical stance is scarcely worse than Arthur Machen’s militant anti-materialism, but their two projects are entirely different. Machen was a mystic and Neo-Romantic polemicist whilst Joshi aspires to sober academic criticism, hence it is rather hypocritical for him to condemn somebody like Machen for an obdurate ideology when Joshi is guilty of similar intransigence.

Nowhere are Joshi’s faults more manifest than in his interpretation of the work of M.R. James. His failure to fully appreciate James’s achievement has been extensively rebutted in the collection of essays, Warnings to the Curious (which Joshi himself graciously edited), but despite the instructive title of that volume, none deal with what I perceive as a dominant theme in James’s stories, one that is problematic for Joshi’s analysis on two fronts.

Joshi’s criteria for what makes successful weird fiction proceeds from the contention that “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions… All the authors… evolved distinctive world views, and it was those world views that led them to write the sort of literature they did…each writer’s entire output is a philosophical unity.” I think this assertion at least is uncontroversial. The force of the work of masters such as Blackwood, Machen, Aickman, Lovecraft and Ligotti undoubtedly derives from the fact that their fiction is not merely an exercise in form or a collection of signifiers, but the expression of irreducible philosophical convictions. It is essentially propaganda, a vehicle by which to communicate their own unique metaphysical systems.

However, Joshi pointedly excludes M.R. James from this select group on the grounds that “It is simply not possible to derive a general philosophy out of James’s stories. They are simply stories; they never add up to a world view. The tales are all technique, a coldly intellectual exercise in which James purposely avoids drawing broader implications.” Nor is Joshi alone in this assessment. In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan writes “James’s fiction is self-enclosed in that it rarely refers to any system of ideas or values outside the confines of the plot… If there is any theological ‘premise’ in James, it is never developed and it is certainly not clear”; whilst Julia Briggs, in her unsurpassed study Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story, opines “James maintained an attitude of critical detachment which seems to have been the exception rather than the rule… It is as if the implications of what he wrote never disturbed him, and he enjoyed writing them purely as a literary exercise”.

However, in these judgements I believe that Joshi and the others are mistaken, for whilst James might be less didactic than some of the other names mentioned here, even a cursory study of his canon reveals a distinct philosophy which profoundly influences the thrust of his narratives. Of course, my argument is not helped by James himself, whose own rare pronouncements on the significance of his ghost stories are distinctly deflationary. In the preface to Ghosts and Marvels, he writes “Often I have been asked to formulate my views about ghost stories… Never have I been able to find out whether I had any views that could be formulated”, a stance later reiterated in the preface to his Collected Ghost Stories where he remarks, “Questioners ask if I have any theories as to the writing of ghost stories. None that are worthy of the name or need be repeated here”.

Yet given James’s acclaimed restraint in his fiction, it is hardly surprising that he should exhibit similar reticence in his public statements. Such coyness suggests an admirable desire to conceal the mechanics of his creative process from his audience lest the impact be diminished (if only more artists were familiar with such discretion today). Moreover, it is not the case that James even needed to be consciously aware of the philosophical underpinnings of his work. It is impossible to imagine that the world view of an artist will not always reveal itself in their output. Having said this, I do believe that James was fully cognisant of the attitudes which informed his tales and his refusal to engage with any questions regarding their foundation primarily represents an ongoing effort to avoid didacticism and allow the stories to speak for themselves.

It is therefore my contention that James’s fiction, much like that of Machen and Blackwood, embodies an assault against materialist and positivist philosophies and especially their insidious creep into the realm of academic scholarship. In this regard the title of his story “A Warning to the Curious” might be regarded as an epigram for his entire corpus. This is not to say that James was opposed to the spirit of academic inquiry – quite the opposite, he was after all a devoted antiquarian himself – but that such study must maintain a healthy respect for the sanctity of its objects. He seeks to portray the sort of doctrinaire scepticism characteristic of positivism as an irrational impulse, which in ignoring any fact that does not agree with its aggressively reductive outlook is in serious danger of ignoring, maybe even destroying, the things that make a symbol significant in the first place.

Time and time again in James’s stories we see intellectually arrogant protagonists, over-confident in their own superior rationality, blunder into an act of desecration which brings dire consequences down upon them. This is often despite receiving warnings as to the potential consequences of their actions which they proceed to blithely ignore. Professor Parkins in Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad is the archetypal character in this respect, declaring “I freely own that I do not like careless talk about what you call ghosts. A man in my position… cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects… I hold that any semblance, any appearance of concession to the view that such things might exist is equivalent to a renunciation of all the I hold most sacred.” This is not scientific scepticism, the suspension of judgement awaiting further evidence, exemplified by James’s own attitude towards the possibility of the supernatural (“I am prepared to consider the evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”). Rather, Parkins exhibits that rigid certainty in the tenets of materialism which is ultimately as much a matter of faith as any theological conviction.

The motif of protagonists punished for their intellectual vanity recurs in several of James’s most characteristic stories including Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, Count Magnus, The Stalls of Barchester and of course, A Warning to the Curious. As Simon MacCulloch recognises in his essay The Toad In the Study, “James’s protagonists tend to be cultivated, intelligent representatives of an ordered, fatally limited world view, a brittle civilisation based on rationalism and distinctive human value.” The source of terror in James’s stories comes not only from the implacable malignance of the revenants, but often the impact they have on the belief systems of the characters and it is implied that the irruption of these embodiments of chaos is the inevitable consequence of an inflexible, mechanistic understanding of the universe which refuses to acknowledge the possibility of the unknown. It is very telling that S.T. Joshi prefers to believe that “these hints are vague and, in the end, harmlessly jocular”, for reasons we will come to later.

It is clear that James was especially troubled by the implications of unyielding rationalism for concepts of sanctity and faith, the very kernel of which is a healthy appreciation of Mystery. The idea that faith is synonymous with certainty is a fallacy, erected as a straw man by the New Atheists and sustained by debased models of religious thought such as fundamentalism and evangelism. Rather, uncertainty and an apprehension of the unknown are fundamental conditions of faith and the areas it designates as “sacred” or “holy” are symbols of this acceptance of all that is beyond our comprehension and provide us with an ongoing connection to this awareness. To deny the significance of such symbols, or to undermine them by regarding them purely in terms of their material components, is to deny an essential aspect of the human condition. When the blinkered rationalism of James’s protagonists causes them to violate some sacred object or place, it represents a transgression against the human community which invested them with meaning in the first place. As a result they must be chastised by a confrontation with the full weight of the unknown forces which they so glibly refused to acknowledge and which other, wiser men recognised the irreducibility of.

In his essay A Warning to the Curious: Victorian Science and the Awful Unconscious in M.R. James’s Ghosts Stories, Brian Cowlishaw argues, “James indicates that digging into the past/unconscious is a mistake… To dig into the past is to transport oneself back in time to a more superstitious, savage state of humanity and to uncover terrible things better left buried. If James’s antiquarians would only let sleeping ruins lie, they would remain safe.” However, I think this is rather disingenuous and would be a strange attitude for James to exhibit. He was after all an antiquarian himself and certainly had no intention of “letting sleeping ruins lie”. His concern was more to show that the past was not merely a dead thing, the remains of which could be trampled over in a rush to loot its secrets. It’s wisdom and remembrances should be treated with appropriate respect or else we will be suddenly and forcefully reacquainted with knowledge the modern world cannot integrate.

You also have to wonder if James might have been taking aim at his own impulses, the ghost stories serving as a necessary counterweight to his own scholarly activities, maybe even an exorcism so to speak. His protagonists invariably echo his own passions as a medievalist, and James was no doubt conscious of the dangers of such pursuits if followed to extremes. As Julia Briggs observes, “Curiosity has its academic and obsessive aspects; perhaps James’s experience of the former gave him some insight into the latter.” Such obsession threatens to turn innocent scholarship into an endeavour to assimilate all knowledge of a subject so thoroughly that the integrity of the object of study itself is forgotten or ignored.

In his quest to document the religious sentiment of the medievals, James must often have found himself, like his characters, disturbing papers, artefacts and sites which were once treated with reverence. It has often been said that it is impossible to reconstruct fully the cosmology of the pre-modern mind and perhaps as he picked through their relics with that critical detachment integral to the academic project, James wondered just to what extent they might have perceived his actions as sacrilege or blasphemy. His stories certainly suggest that he was troubled by the question of whether an antiquarian is really all that much better than a grave-robber. After all, the notion that intellectual enrichment is somehow a nobler motive than financial reward is largely an arbitrary judgement.

From his published writings, it’s hard to imagine that S.T. Joshi would have any such qualms and this is primarily why he cannot perceive any worldview in James’s work. That worldview is so entirely beyond anything Joshi can empathise with that he simply cannot hope to grasp it, and as James does not spell it out like Machen and Blackwood are wont to do means that it eludes him entirely (which is a damning indictment of his skill as a literary critic as much as a philosopher). As can be observed in his critique of Arthur Machen, whilst Joshi may insist that the work of the most successful writers of weird fiction forms “a philosophical unity”, wherever that philosophy diverges substantially for his own, he displays egregious blind spots.

Anybody unsure of the exact composition of Joshi’s own belief system need only read the first lines of his book God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, where he boldly states “Either there is one god, multiple gods or none. Either there is such a thing called the human soul or there isn’t… That the essential doctrines of many of the world’s major religions are matters of truth or falsity is itself a fact around which no amount of sophistry or special pleading can get away from.”

It is clear from this expression of simplistic binary thinking that Joshi is not somebody comfortable with concepts such as ambiguity and uncertainty. To such a mentality, everything in the world can, and indeed must, be broken down into its atomistic components, dissected and catalogued, forced into artificial taxonomies of our own creation until it makes sense to whatever ontology is currently in fashion. The notion that some things should be regarded as sacred and inviolable because they might, just might, embody all that transcends human understanding, must be entirely alien to him.

Nor would it be much use to appeal to Joshi’s respect for the sentiments of the community who originally invested these symbols with meaning, because it is sadly obvious that he has no such respect. His work is shot through with an uncomfortable misanthropy, doubtless informed by his heroes such as H.P. Lovecraft and H.L. Mencken. Just witness a further extract from the introduction to God’s Defenders, in which he asserts “People are stupid. The fundamental fact of human history is that people in the mass are irredeemably ignorant.”

Perhaps if this attitude was confined to his contributions to the self-congratulatory constituency of the New Atheism we could overlook it as a regrettable but trifling self-indulgence. However, when it starts infecting works of criticism that are frequently regarded as definitive – largely because there is little room in the publishing industry for contenders – then it must be exposed as the root of a systematic bias.

In Supernatural Horror In Literature, H.P. Lovecraft states as a self-evident truth that “occult believers are probably less effective than materialists in delineating the spectral and the fantastic, since to them the phantom world is so commonplace a reality that they tend to refer to it with less awe, remoteness and impressiveness than do those who see in it an absolute and stupendous violation of the natural order.” However, this is nothing more than dogma on Lovecraft’s part, for there is no evidence to support such a claim. In the classic period of weird fiction, Lovecraft’s materialism was the exception rather than the rule. M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Robert Aickman, Sheridan Le Fanu, Edith Nesbit, Walter de la Mare, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, E.F. Benson, May Sinclair, Gustav Meyrink and others were all to some extent believers in what might loosely be termed the supernatural.

If Joshi is correct in saying “weird writers utilise the schemas… precisely in accordance with their philosophical predispositions”, it follows that any constructive critical study of the fiction of such writers must make an effort to engage with those philosophical predispositions, on an imaginative level at least. From the dubious conclusions of his criticism in volumes such as The Weird Tale (with the exception of his chapter on Algernon Blackwood) and the evidence of screeds like God’s Defenders: What They Believe and Why They Are Wrong, I submit that Joshi’s attempts in this direction are negligible.

As his biographer Michael Cox comments, M.R. James “tended to distrust intellectual inquiry that was not rooted in a sensitive respect for tradition and orthodoxy.” This was, of course, partly an expression of James’s instinctive conservatism. However, the evidence of his literary output suggests that it was also the product of a profound awareness of the limitations of human knowledge in the face of higher mysteries, and the sacraments by which past societies assimilated this understanding. The intellectual vanity epitomised by doctrinaire rationalism is accordingly a trespass against both the unknown and the human community. It is an act of hubris which, as every Classicist knows, will surely be followed by nemesis.

This philosophy recurs throughout James’s weird tales and gives lie to S.T. Joshi’s assertion that “they never add up to a world view”. That he fails to recognise James’s philosophical manifesto is scarcely surprising when you consider that the man is a fine example of precisely the attitude James was warning against. You cannot help but think that if Joshi were a character in one of James’s stories he would be Parkins blowing the whistle, Paxton digging up the crown, Wraxall perversely repeating that dread phrase for the third time. And we all know what happened to them.

Briggs, Julia (1977) “Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Ghost Story”
Cox, Michael (1986) “M.R. James: An Informal Portrait”
James, M.R. (Ed.) (1927) “Ghosts & Marvels: A Selection of Uncanny Tales”
James, M.R. (1931) “The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James”
Joshi, S.T. (2003) “The Weird Tale”
Joshi, S.T. (2003) “God’s Defenders: What They Believe & Why They Are Wrong”
Joshi, S.T. (Ed.) (2007) “Warnings to the Curious: A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R. James”
Sullivan, Jack (1981) “Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood”


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An Appreciation of the Weird Fiction of L.T.C. Rolt

As we approach the centenary of his birth, the name L.T.C. Rolt is unlikely to ring many bells amongst the reading public. Yet for two small but distinct groups it surely ought to provoke an affectionate response; scholars of British industrial or transport history and more curiously, aficionados of weird fiction. It is a strange combination perhaps but one Rolt himself managed to unite in his single but highly acclaimed collection, Sleep No More, subtitled Railway, Canal & Other Stories of the Supernatural. This volume has remained out of print for some time although a reprint has been timed to coincide with the forthcoming anniversary, to be published not by specialist presses such as Tartarus or Ash Tree, nor the invaluable and more reasonably priced Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural range, but rather appropriately by the History Press, whose usual stock-in-trade is topographical non-fiction, including a great deal of industrial and transport history.

Rolt was a trained engineer and an enthusiast of all modes of transport. He was one of the first to own a narrow boat for pleasure, which took him the length and breadth of Britain’s canal network and we have him to thank for the preservation and ongoing recreational use of this system through his foundation of the Inland Waterways Association with the equally celebrated writer of weird fiction, Robert Aickman. Similarly, he restored and raced old cars, founding both the Vintage Sports Car Club and the Prescott Hill Climb, a famed motor racing course in Gloucestershire. Meanwhile, during the 1950s he managed the Talyllyn Railway in Wales and went on to write Red for Danger, a classic history of British railways, not to mention a still highly regarded biography of legendary civil engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. All passions which are reflected in his literature.

But unlike his friend Aickman, many of whose stories are really quite radical and unique, Rolt’s supernatural fiction is often placed within the Jamesian tradition. At first, this might seem somewhat incongruous as Rolt’s industrial background could not be more at odds with the fusty antiquarianism and anti-materialism of M.R. James. However, Rolt was a noted admirer of James’s work nonetheless and in some places, the comparison is very obvious indeed. There are a couple of stories in Sleep No More which deliberately emulate the style and milieu of the Jamesian ghost story, principally A Visitor at Ashcombe which tells the story of an uncanny mirror in a Tudor mansion house, and Music Hath Charms, which also resembles J. Meade Falkner’s The Last Stradivarius in miniature. Yet whilst both are finely crafted works in their own right, they are amongst the least interesting pieces in the book.

There is a far more instructive respect in which Rolt can be called an acolyte of James and that is in the way he employs Monty’s philosophy for the ghost story in a distinct yet equally authentically realised context, thereby being both true to the spirit of the tradition and revitalising it at the same time. As Mike Ashley argues in an article entitled Shadows of the Master for Ghost and Scholars, “Of the handful of imitators, Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives… Because of his ability to utitlise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing.” James was always determined that for greatest effect, the supernatural eruption should take place in familiar surroundings but what too many of his disciples forget is that for James and his original audience, the antiquarian environment was familiar and it was precisely that familiarity which lent his writing its force, whereas in the hands of others it’s employed more as a self-conscious affectation. Rolt succeeds because the industrial setting he evokes is one about which he is passionate and knowledgeable.

To anybody who lives amidst relics of the Industrial Revolution, the surroundings depicted in a number of Rolt’s tales should be very recognisable indeed and little evokes a sense of desolation and existential dread quite as effectively as decaying industrial architecture. It is something Susan Hill recognises when she writes, “No one has as well succeeded in capturing the air of dankness and dreariness of lonely canals on gloomy, misty late afternoons in winter.” Indeed, one of the finest stories in Sleep No More, Bosworth Summit Pound, concerns a canal tunnel and one wonders if it was partly inspired by Rolt’s own experiences the previous year navigating the derelict Standedge Tunnel, both the longest and deepest example in Britain, with Aickman and Aickman’s then paramour Elizabeth Jane Howard (who would also write a classic weird tale involving a canal, Three Miles Up).

We are also treated to ghostly incursions against the backdrop of old lead workings in The Mine, an iron plant in Hawley Bank Foundry, a remote railway tunnel in The Garside Fell Disaster and a motor racing course in New Corner, all locations which Rolt would understand intimately. He uses his insight to conjure an atmosphere every bit as rich and detailed as that of James’s dusty libraries and ecclesiastic monuments. However, one interesting concession Rolt does make to James’s more antiquarian concerns comes in the denouements to the latter two stories mentioned, in which the manifestations are the consequence of disturbing ancient holy sites, recalling the triggers for events in A Warning to the Curious or The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. For all his affection for the industrial landscape, Rolt understands that it is impotent in the face of encroaching nature and it is often our trespasses against older, incomprehensible forces which bring disaster down upon us.

A further respect in which Rolt follows the template laid down by James is the sheer, uncompromising malignancy of the supernatural agency. In his preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James insisted, “The ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” The apparitions in Sleep No More certainly fulfil these criteria, such as the subterranean demon disturbed in The Mine, “a human shape… terrible tall and thin, and it seemed to be a kind of dirty white all over, like summat that’s grown up in the dark and never had no light” and most who encounter these revenants come to a sticky end. Rolt shares James’s economy of language in these moments of climax, knowing just what to describe and what merely to insinuate. The conclusion of Bosworth Summit Pound is especially masterful in this respect.

However, I think it is somewhat disingenuous to regard Rolt purely as a follower of James or purely as a writer of industrial ghost stories. Certainly some of his best works falls into both categories but his range even within the limited confines of a single volume is really quite impressive. Rolt was not immune to the pantheistic mysticism which characterised the works of Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood, and a number of his stories reflect this. His particular fondness for the Black Mountains in Wales and particularly the Vale of Ewyas, site of the famed Llanthony Priory, informs The House of Vengeance and Cwm Garon. The latter is surely one of the best tales in the collection, ably communicating the mountain solitude throughout and culminating in a powerful intimation of atavistic dread as old gods waken and the protagonist comes to understand “There stalked through the valley something intangible, unearthly, monstrous and very terrible.”

The Shouting is another tale of which Machen in particular would be proud, combining an authentically folkloric feel with a disconcerting ambiguity, whilst Agony of Flame invokes a mysterious supernatural awe at a ruined castle on a lake in Ireland. Although Rolt’s more Jamesian stories tended to hint at origins for the hauntings, neither did he forget the value of ambiguity in the weird tale, perhaps mindful of a quote Robert Aickman once borrowed from Sacheverell Sitwell: “In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” Yet despite all these influences, Rolt retains his own voice. Certainly the most defining characteristic of his work remains the industrial environment into which he introduces his spectres, something which was still uncommon when Sleep No More was published in 1948, but he is no less convincing when exploring more natural landscapes and the reason you suspect his stories are so successful is because like all the best creators of weird fiction, he possessed an authentic vision. For him the weird tale was not just a literary exercise, but fundamentally an extension and communication of his world view and passions.


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