Of the thirty pieces that comprise The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, no less than thirteen use ritual magic and the related practices of divination, witchcraft, Pagan cults and the evocations of demons as the core of their plots. If we exclude from the total a few appended pieces which, enjoyable as they are, strike a lighter than usual note, we find that one half of his major works of fiction are devoted to these themes, a not insubstantial total.
It is curious that this aspect of MRJ's output has not attracted closer critical attention. This may be due in part to a confusion as to his own views on the subject. MRJ observed that the technical terms of occultism, if not carefully handled, call into play irrelevant faculties. Imagination alone, he suggests, should be sufficient. Nevertheless, the injudicious use of technical terms and the deft employment of accurate background information are two very different things, and James knew the value of the latter. He admits modestly that he sought to make his spirits behave "in a way not inconsistent with the rules of Folklore". But this tells us little of his methods or the depths of knowledge employed.
Critical treatment of MRJ's tales, in England at least, remains on a light and often superficial level. The general view is summarised by Julia Briggs, who sees the ghost stories as a literary exercise, delicate edifices of suspense to entertain young people, and as a "bagatelle for an idle hour". The Biblical references are, she suggests, academic jokes, or the means of supplying "spurious authenticity" to the plots. The implications of what he wrote apparently "never disturbed him".(1)
Doubtless such a view will commend itself to many. There is something appealing in the image of a great man turning occasionally from events of pith and moment to toss off a cultured and clever tale. It must be said, too, that James himself did little to contradict this. However, I must confess that I cannot square this view with the evidence. These "mere bagatelles" stand comparison with works by writers who devoted their lives to the study of the occult, and have continued to exert a powerful influence on generations of readers. Also it is my experience - and that I am sure of many others - that in supernatural fiction above all other genres, the superficially clever soon palls. In exploring this contradiction, of which most critics seem unaware, we may find that bagatelles can be a little deeper than they appear.
The dominant themes of MRJ's occult fiction, the continuing power and influence of ancient ritual, and the often questionable dividing line between such practices and their Christian counterparts, are evident in the earliest of the tales, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book". The malevolent spirit is in fact a demon originally evoked by the Canon to reveal, among other secrets, the location of treasure. To this end Alberic could have turned to any one of a number of magical texts. The Book of the Goetia of Solomon the King alone lists among its seventy-two demons, nine who are capable of telling "Where treasures be hid", and all, the tome warns, are dangerous if not controlled. Even the distinctly 'whiter' system akin to yoga, The Sacred Magic of Abramelin, contains a magic square to evoke a demon for the same purpose. There are echoes of "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" in the warning that accompanies this square. The user may find and take possession of treasure, "provided it be not magically guarded". However, it would not have been necessary for the Canon to resort to such works. The means lay within his own Church. Many priests from the fourteenth century on became specialists in discovering treasure by prayer and incantation. Magical masses were said for this purpose, some expressly Satanic, but others throwing a lurid light on the Pagan hinterland within the Church. In the seventeenth century, when Alberic was born, seemingly innocent masses were actually said before congregations, invoking and inverting the demon-banishing powers of Saint Cyrian or Saint Ambrose, to reveal treasure.(2) Another source of MRJ's inspiration might well have been an apocryphal document he had studied in the 1890s; a magical book dealing with the fifty-eight demons conjured by Solomon with the aid of a magic ring. More will be said about this book in due course.
"Lost Hearts" employs an altogether wider frame of reference. The villainous Abney is an expert in the religious beliefs of the later Pagans, a major source of theory and practice for students of magic. He owns an original group of Mithras slaying the bull, and has a complete library on the Mysteries of Orpheus, Mithras and the Neo-Platonist School. The Mithraic cult statue foreshadows in great detail Abney's intentions. In the ritual it symbolised, life sprang from the spilled blood generated by the sacrificial act. The rites of Mithras were a quest for immortality and equality with the luminous gods. Devotees attained to the celestial banquet, the earthly counterpart of which was a sacramental communion compared by Tertullian and Justin Martyr to the Eucharist. The prevalent theme was triumph over death in nature and the soul.(3)
The Abney library must have been a fascinating one. He owned all the current works pertaining to the Mysteries. Abney got his just deserts before the publication of Thomas Taylor's Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries, but his shelves would surely have held that great scholar's Sallust on the Gods of the World, with its appendix devoted to five hymns to the Pagan gods by the Neo-Platonist Proclus (much used by modern magicians), and the Arguments of the Emperor Julian against the Christians; such argument, in Abney's case, falling on far from deaf ears.
The purpose of his studies was, as we might have surmised on seeing his choice of statuary, "enlightenment of the spiritual faculties" and "ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings who control the elemental forces of our Universe". Abney quotes as an example of such attainments Simon Magus, an apt choice for a student of the Mysteries, for he was, in the eyes of his Syrian disciples, the founder of Gnosticism.
Abney's method of attaining these ends is human sacrifice involving cannibalism. To the ancients this had two main purposes: identification with the sacrifice, and through him the deity petitioned; and absorption of the life-force. It does not escape James that Abney's act is the selfish annexing of what was considered a religious rite. The Pagans usually set aside the heart and offered it to the God. Seeking to assume God-like powers, Abney devours it himself.
"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" gives us an East Anglian setting, and a whistle found in the ruins of a preceptory built by the Templars, ostensibly a Christian Order accused of worshipping idols and trampling the cross. A building of similar design, attributed to the Order in Brittany, still displays a statue of their idol Baphomet in a monstrous form, with horns and wings. While walking away from the ruin after making his discovery, Parkins finds himself imagining just such a figure outlined against the sky. That night he cleans and blows the whistle, a rash experiment that results at first in nothing more sinister than a howling wind. In conversation next day the Colonel remarks that Parkins has whistled up the wind according to a belief prevalent in Denmark, Norway and the Yorkshire coast. This reference to places connected with Norsemen is very significant. Guerber (4) tells us that in medieval times the Pied Piper was identified with the Norse God Odin, the shrill note of the pipes with the 'whistling' wind, and the rats with the summoned spirits of the dead.
Can we be sure that such links are not coincidental? Fortunately we can, for the young MRJ enthusiastically recorded the acquisition of Sabine Baring-Gould's Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, and among many fascinating subjects (including some material on the Antichrist, who will emerge again when we confront Count Magnus), we find there a chapter on the Pied Piper, in which the links with Odin's wild hunt, and the identity of names of the soul with words signifying wind, are dealt with at some length. It was from this source, I am sure, that "Oh, Whistle" was born.
It is a world-wide belief, from New Guinea to Greenland, that the wind indicates the presence of a demonic being. In the Middle and Far East, to whistle is still to invite molestation by the 'storm fiend'. Whistling was considered particularly inauspicious on or near the sea, and especially at night. Until comparatively recent times in East Anglia, the setting for the story, hunters out after dark would never whistle for their dogs for fear of calling up a local 'fiend'; (5) and MRJ, I would suggest, utilises the traditional method of escaping such a spirit when accidentally summoned, to introduce a typically understated piece of irony. The being that manifests in Parkins' bedroom is apparently blind, and has to grope around for him. He moves to evade it, and lets out a cry, thereby giving away his position. Had Parkins been less of an 'old woman' and listened to the Colonel when he spoke of old traditions, instead of interrupting him, he might have learnt that the proper response is to throw oneself face down, mouth to the ground, and keep still. The spirit would then have passed on without finding him, and he would have been spared the worst part of his experience.
"Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance" tells of old mischief (again Pagan magic), stirred up by the opening of a maze built by his uncle's grandfather. Here MRJ is particularly adept in his employment of magical traditions, for there are three major aspects of maze symbolism,(6) and he gives us resonances of them all; with a more recent fourth, Christian theological use as a parable, thrown in for good measure.
Labyrinths or mazes were favoured places of initiation in the ancient cults of India, Persia, Egypt, Greece and the Americas, invariably associated with a deity concealed at the centre of their passages. In the case of solar cults this would take the form of a globe, with the passages representing the movement of the planets. Mr Humphreys finds that the globe at the centre of 'his' maze displays not astronomical but Satanic symbolism. Following the paths of a maze was a means of ritual invocation akin to dance. (Arthur Machen in "The London Adventure" gives details of a story he never completed, in which a girl walks the paths of an ancient maze and evokes its malignant influence). Humphreys inadvertently does much the same thing, but something worse than the resulting mental confusion yet awaits him.
Another use of maze designs was as a trap to hold demonic forces in check. Humphreys' uncle clearly thought that his grandfather's troublesome spirit was securely bound as long as he tore up the inscribed stones and closed the maze, but he reckoned without his nephew's inquisitive nature. Employing the magical rule that some direct link is necessary between the victim and the pursuing spirit, MRJ ensures that it is not actually seen until Humphreys has entered the maze, laid his hand on the globe and walked out again.
Maze designs were also used like Mandalas or Yantras. Concentration upon their designs, following the path to the centre with the eye, induced a trance state accompanied by psychic visions. It is while following the plan of the maze in just such a way that Mr Humphreys experiences his terrifying vision of the dark centre, and learns what lies within the globe.
In Pagan teachings, the maze also symbolised the illusions of the lower world through which man searches for his soul. MRJ echoes this with his much-praised Christian parable. And here, as we shall see, there is the possibility of an intriguing link with another tale, "A View from a Hill".
Here we have a fine example of MRJ's inventive variations on real magical practices. Mr Fanshawe borrows a curiously heavy pair of binoculars, and sees visions of the landscape as it was many years before. Their creator, Baxter, has constructed them by a mixture of alchemy and necromancy, utilising the corpses of hanged men.
The belief that the body of a man killed in the full flush of his strength by strangulation was a receptacle of magical powers, was held by many people ancient and not so ancient.(7) Hanged men's teeth and hair were considered particularly efficacious, and even touching such a corpse could produce miraculous 'cures'. (Thomas Hardy used this tradition to powerful effect in "The Withered Arm".) Such beliefs can be traced back to the ritual hangings in groves sacred to the Norse God Odin. The major centre of this practice, Upsala, was visited by MRJ in 1901. It was here, too, that he saw the compact with the Devil signed in human blood which he mentions at the end of "Number 13". Baxter's incorporation of the brew of flesh and bones into so innocuous an object as a pair of binoculars is a totally original touch, but it has a firm foundation in myth and magic.
This brings us to the possible link with Mr Humphreys' maze. It occurs to me that James, widely read and intrigued by the quaint, may have been familiar with Komensky's "The Labyrinth of the World", through which a pilgrim quests, resisting temptations as he goes. At one point in the narrative his guide equips him with a pair of lenses, "falsifying spectacles", that show foul as fair and black as white. Only when the pilgrim turns to Christ does he rid himself of their effect, gaining in return "sacred spectacles" which reveal "surprising wonders". The link is undeniably tenuous, but having seen what MRJ made of a legend of the Pied Piper, we could well imagine the concepts of the labyrinth and the 'distorting lenses' laying like seeds in his fertile imagination, to bring forth in due season two of his most original tales.
The Norse connection is again evident in "Count Magnus": an alchemist and worshipper of Satan whose Scandinavian origins seem to have inspired his outward appearance, and that of his familiar. The Count first appears figured on the side of his own sarcophagus, watching a particularly unpleasant hunt, from the brow of a hill. He travels in a cloak and wide-brimmed hat, holding a staff, and this is the form adopted by Odin, Lord of the Hunt, when wandering abroad. Odin is often referred to as Grimnir, the hooded, and in this form seems to be linked with squat, hooded beings called the Genii Cucullati.(8) Magnus's familiar is squat and hooded.
The Count is an alchemist - the works listed are a judicious mixture of real texts and titles so like extant treatises as to strike a convincing note - but this is not the sole source of his power. He has undertaken the Black Pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Antichrist, the city of Chorazin, where he made worship to Satan. Chorazin has no clear history. From Jerome we learn that it lies at the north end of the Sea of Galilee, and that it was, even in his day, deserted. The meaning of its name is uncertain (but I am struck by the similarity between Chorazin and Choronzon, a demonic being conjured by Dr John Dee the alchemist, and later by Aleister Crowley, both of whom are linked, as we shall see, with MRJ). The epithet 'Black' Pilgrimage is a particularly sinister joke at the expense of the reader. Besides the obvious inversion of its Christian counterpart (as in Black Mass), there is a secondary meaning, far from metaphorical, that would have been recognised by all who had undertaken that hazardous journey. On turning off from the caravan route that ran past the Sea of Galilee to Damascus, and following the short paved road to the ill-famed city, how must the "singularly ugly" visage of Count Magnus have twisted into a smile to see that the walls, columns, ornamentation, indeed the entire stonework of Chorazin, was carved out of black basalt!(9)
Perhaps the most famous tale utilising the Western tradition of magic is "Casting the Runes", in which, I would suggest, MRJ uses a real magician as the basis for his villain Karswell. The intriguing and much-maligned Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, has cropped up, more or less disguised, in the fiction of authors as diverse as Dion Fortune, Somerset Maugham and H.R. Wakefield (twice). One of Wakefield's two Crowleyan tales, "He Cometh and He Passeth By", clearly owes a great deal to "Casting the Runes". MRJ's character is not so broadly drawn as the others, but there are clues. Karswell buys Lufford Abbey and becomes known as the Abbot of Lufford, just as Crowley bought Boleskine House and became known as the Laird of Boleskine. Karswell invents a 'new religion', just as Crowley proclaimed his Law of Thelema, which he said would supersede Christianity. Like Crowley, Karswell has a sinister reputation as a man both dangerous and mischievous. But James adds a subtler touch to this. A friend of mine once asked the late Dr John Cleary-Baker, a distinguished investigator of the unexplained who had met, and performed an act of magic with Crowley, how he would sum the man up. Cleary-Baker respected Crowley's intelligence, occult erudition and powers, but he had to acknowledge the darker side of his character. "Put it this way," he said; "I wouldn't trust him with my children."
I can never read of the 'treat' laid on by Karswell for the neighbourhood children without remembering those words.
If my contention is correct, how was MRJ's attention drawn to The Beast? Crowley certainly figured in a great many newspaper reports, mostly of a sensational kind, including a couple of court cases concerning his magical practices, and was the subject of a biography by Captain J.F.C. Fuller with a title that might have attracted notice - The Star in the West.
But the connections between the two men were considerably closer than this. MRJ, who made a point of meeting and mixing with students, and had a reliable memory for names, might well have met Crowley! In 1895, during MRJ's time at Cambridge, Crowley came up to Trinity. His Classics tutor was Dr A.W. Verrall, who seems to have taken to the young man and lent a sympathetic ear when he refused to attend the Political Science lectures of the Moral Science Tripos. Crowley showed some natural facility in Latin and Greek and was even then a striking figure, dressing in the flamboyant style of the 'Decadents', and publishing poetry in the manner of Swinburne. According to Pfaff, Dr Verrall was one of the men with whom MRJ came into close contact.(10) Whether he remembered the name or not, there is good reason to suppose that the symbology of Crowley's Cult, as it emerged in print, would have caught the attention of MRJ given his life-long interest in Apocalyptic writings, for it centred on the Beast 666 and the Scarlet Woman from the Book of Revelations.(11)
To all but the more cynical among us it may seem unlikely that the self-effacing, celibate, Christian James would find the extrovert, profligate, Pagan Crowley so interesting that he would learn about him and use him as a character in one of his best tales, but let us bear in mind that Dr Montague Summers, who shared MRJ's fundamental religious beliefs and taste for the unusual, kept a huge dossier on Crowley and told the poet C.R. Cammell that everything concerning him should be preserved, because he was one of the few original and really interesting men of his age. Tantalisingly, MRJ's link with Crowley does not end there, for Sir Gerald Kelly, who painted MRJ's portrait, had once been Crowley's brother-in-law! It would be nice to think that MRJ gathered some tips on the Beast from his one-time friend, but alas, the meeting occurred long after "Casting the Runes" had been published.
When "poor Mr Dunning" arouses Karswell's wrath by advising against acceptance of his paper, "The Truth of Alchemy", the mode of revenge is runic magic. In one of his books on the runes, Michael Howard refers to "Mr James's famous story", and while conceding that the structure of the tale is "neat", adds that death runes would not be so easily "controlled" as James suggests, because great care was needed to "restrain" their powers.(12) This hardly does justice to MRJ. It is precisely because the demonic power cannot be controlled or restrained that Harrington and Dunning make no attempt to do either, but re-direct it by returning the slip of paper to Karswell, creating the link that renders him victim of his own plot. This is sound magical sense.
The passing back and forth of runes to the unsuspecting, which creates such tension particularly at the culmination of the tale, is a definite break with tradition. Runes were cut into leather, or carved on metal, wood or stone, none of them easily handed over without exciting suspicion. Paper is an ideal medium and can be deftly slipped into a programme or a sheaf of notes. As if to compensate for this deviation from ancient practice, MRJ goes out of his way to mention an unnecessary and seemingly innocent detail: the presence of the colour red in the formation of the lettering. As the "Grettir Saga" among others informs us, the runes were magically charged by outlining the letters with blood. Its presence, real or symbolic, provides an authentic touch, and suggests another link between Karswell and Crowley. While there is no mention among Crowley's voluminous published works of his using runes, he did employ blood as a source of power when anointing and charging talismans. If one were to look for a method of magical attack that was at once original in a fictional sense and consistent with Karswell's Crowleyan character, runes could hardly be improved upon.
The technique of scrying, or crystal gazing, described in "The Residence at Whitminster", is traceable in its entirety to both Egyptian and Hebrew sources. The Egyptian version is recorded in the "Leyden Papyrus", a magical work dating from the third century AD, though the material contained is clearly of much earlier origin. Its Hebrew equivalent, perhaps inspired in part by a reference in the Talmud to "Princes and Rulers of all shining objects and crystals", gives more complete details of the choosing of a male child, the anointing and placing of a crystal in his hand. He would then see figures who came in answer to an invitation recited by the querent. It is a practice which has become a staple of magic, used by both the sculptor Cellini and Count Cagliostro, and is evidently still used today in the Middle East.(13)
Lord Saul's invocation involves the classic mode of summoning the dark powers, the slaughter of a black cock; and the resulting manifestations point to Beelzebub as the demon petitioned. Dr Oldys's subsequent encounter with a monstrous insect constitutes the only appearance of the Lord of the Flies in supernatural fiction (up to that time), to conform completely with the accounts of the major demonologists.
Such observations could be multiplied and extended almost indefinitely, but we still have much ground to cover, so for the present the given examples must suffice.
It has been suggested that MRJ was not interested in the nature of his spirits or the mechanisms of hauntings, only in the effects he could create. But it would be nearer to the truth to say that he avoided spoiling the structure of his tales by parading his knowledge in too blatant a form. This was, I think, what he meant when he warned against the injudicious use of technical terminology. Instead, he employed his remarkably wide frame of reference subtly, spinning a web of apparently unconnected events to create a dubious half-light in which things are never quite what they seem. This is a difficult technique, relying as it does upon the working of elegant yet convincing variations on real practices. Such methods soon expose an incomplete understanding of the underlying rationale of magic, but James's style never once let him down, never did violence to the traditions he echoed. At times it borders on the uncanny. At the time when "The Ash-tree" was published, the form of the familiars who fulfil the witch's curse must have seemed a typically Jamesian invention for the sake of horror (and what horrors they are!). Only in the last ten years has research revealed the hitherto unsuspected degree of reverence given in Pagan cults to spider symbolism.(14)
What I have termed the dubious half-light of MRJ's tales is never more evident than in his depiction of the part played by the Church and its ministers in the continuation of Pagan influences, represented by Biblical quotations with their disturbing secondary meanings, and by the Abbot or Canon revealed to be guilty of proscribed practices. Here too, MRJ was reflecting a very real state of affairs of which his studies in the history of the Church must have made him well aware. The early Christian assimilation of Pagan deities, sacred rites and festivals, is too well recorded to require detailed description here, and we have already encountered the Treasure-Mass, but this is merely a dip into deep waters. From the sixth to the twelfth centuries, ordinances had to be passed forbidding idolatry and witchcraft, but the punishment was only a penance and often was not enforced. One thirteenth century priest who led his parishioners in a dance before a phallic image was given no more than a reprimand! Suffice to say that for a long while Christianity and Paganism were uneasy bedfellows. Even when the gods of the old religion were made the devils of the new, an insoluble theological problem remained. Deny the existence of the Devil and one calls into question the goodness of his Divine opposite. "Sine Diabolo Nullus Dominus."
I may be accused of digression at this point, but one should remember that the decade immediately preceding the publication of MRJ's first collection saw the growth of the Decadent Movement, with its call for a reappraisal of good and evil, its obsession with diabolism and the nature of the Holy. Critics have studied Machen in the light of this period, but no one to my knowledge has seen fit to consider the equally powerful works of his contemporary, James, in this way. Perhaps this is due, if I may coin a phrase, to the 'bagatelle complex': On no account must James's work be taken 'seriously'. This is a great pity, as he could scarcely have remained unaware of the movement. It even penetrated his own University in the flamboyant form of Crowley among others, and in his own way MRJ reflects the primary concerns of the age as well as any supernatural writer, and more intelligently than most.
It should also be borne in mind that this period in MRJ's life saw the final decision not to take Holy Orders, an end towards which upbringing, parental influence and natural gifts alike had conspired to direct him. There is evidence that he had considered eventual ordination a likely thing, yet as the time approached he suffered uncharacteristic depressions, and even admitted that he was near to "losing the spiritual sense".(10) The decision was a momentous one, and exactly why he did not see fit to enter the Church remains, as Pfaff rightly says, one of the major questions about MRJ's life. It would be presumptuous to suggest that we could answer this question, but any consideration of it ought to take into account personal tendencies revealed by certain subjects upon which he had exercised his mind during the previous decade. Despite the insistence of his tutors that his interest should not turn into 'esoteric byways' he was, between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, gathering notes on sphynxes, curious symbols appended to certain saints, and whether or not Stonehenge was intended for serpent worship (which may have led him to the Reverend John Bathurst-Deane's monumental The Worship of the Serpent, a study of Pagan ritual and mythology). He enthuses over the ghosts, vampires and wood-nymphs in Walter Map, and devotes rather more time than his tutors may have wished to three works that are central to the study of magic: Hermes Trismegistus, The Orphic Hymns and The Transformation of Apuleius. It was at this time that he delivered a paper on "The Occult Sciences" to the Eton Literary Society,(15) using as source material De Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal (which contains a drawing of Beelzebub as a gigantic fly, contributing a little, perhaps, to "The Residence at Whitminster").
Nor were these interests limited to his adolescence. As Pfaff comments, MRJ was, in his Apocryphal studies, more interested in the Apocalypses than Gospels. This is allowed to pass without comment or investigation. Let us supply a little of both. Apocalypse is a transliteration of the Greek word for revelation, and all such writings claim to reveal hidden things seen in visions. Their language is symbolic, every element - animals, parts of the body, numbers, stars, colours and garments - requiring translation in the light of initiated knowledge. These obvious affinities with the Kabalistic symbolism of magic are not entirely coincidental. There is a Gnostic origin to much Apocalyptic literature, and there are clearly elements from those Mysteries - in this case Eleusinian and Phyrian - so dear to MRJ's fictional scholars.(6) More interesting still is the theory that they were written to reconcile the discrepancies between the early Christian and Pagan philosophies.(6)
This, I am aware, takes us a long way from the view that MRJ's ghost stories parody his investigations into Holy Writ.(1) Apocalyptic writers may have offered themes that had always appealed to him, in a 'respectable' form, and even helped to reconcile contradictory aspects of his own nature. If the stories reflect this, they performed a more important function in his emotional life than parody. Having ventured so far, I may as well risk outraging MRJ's shade still further by adding a pertinent observation from D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse (inevitably the Cambridge edition!), on the subject of the Christian fear of Pagan knowledge. As Lawrence points out, the instinctive policy has been, and still is, either suppression, destruction or denial. Publicly at least, MRJ favoured the last of these.
His understandably wary attitude is illustrated by the episode of the Apocryphal document, The Testament of Solomon, the magical book of the fifty-eight demons already mentioned in connection with "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book". MRJ appealed in a Guardian article for someone to edit the document properly, but was careful to forestall potential criticism by apologising profusely for "wasting" time on a "foolish, superstitious, corrupt and bad book". Yet when an American Biblical scholar took up the request, he gave "considerable help" in the collation and publishing.(10)
Dr John Dee, whose manuscripts in the Trinity Library he catalogued, was "always of interest" to James, though Pfaff is quite emphatic that it was only as a bibliophile that Dee interested James. But by coincidence, as A.E. Waite points out, this alchemist had about him "a cloud of necromancy and magico-Hermetic marvels".(16) Dee's greatest contribution to modern magic is "The Enochian Keys or Calls", a powerful system of evocation later used by Crowley. The demon evoked by both Dee and Crowley with the aid of the tenth of these 'keys' was Choronzon, whose name we have already encountered in connection with Count Magnus and Chorazin. Here 'coincidence' again raises its hooded head, for much of MRJ's work on Dee's manuscripts was undertaken in the Library of Trinity within a few years of Crowley studying there. Is there something still to be discovered about the links between these two men? In later years Crowley records a quite untypical but very Jamesian act - the reading of his own horror story, "The Testament of Magdalen Blair", to friends on Christmas Eve!
In "The Ash-tree" the source of the horror is first indicated by quotations drawn at random from the Bible, apparently a straight-forward appeal for guidance from Holy Writ. But James must have been well aware that sortilegium, or divination by sortes, was held in the eyes of medieval theologians to be a pestilential practice, scarcely better than witchcraft itself. What appears to be the power of the Church against that of magic, turns out on closer analysis to be magic against magic. We are hardly surprised when the final clue is supplied by the behaviour of a white cat. The most innocent things are often animistic portents, and this benign duplicity is surely something more than a tactic of confusion. It reflects contradictions that MRJ, even as an ecclesiologist, could not escape, for they find concrete expression in the Pagan-inspired gargoyles and grotesques of church architecture.
In such works as "The Mezzotint", "A School Story", "The Tractate Middoth" and many another, MRJ proved he could write superb ghost stories without an overtly magical theme. That he returned to it as often as he did, in such depth, both in his fiction and in his studies, suggests to me, if I might use the apposite word, fascination. This should not be overstated. So vast was his output that no single subject could be called a preoccupation, but his attitude to magic, whenever he came across it, resembles that of Wraxall in "Count Magnus": a mixture of attraction and repulsion in equal measure. Wraxall is attracted to the personality of Magnus, and the more 'evil' he finds him to be, the more attracted he becomes. That this does not occur completely on the conscious level is indicated by the fact that Wraxall actually finds himself chanting a spontaneous invocation of the Count's presence, which summons him from his deathless repose. Once summoned, he pursues Wraxall to the death, but it is not initially the Count and his familiar who seek out Wraxall. He brings about his own fate by seeking them! Again we feel an overwhelming sense of occult ritual investing objects and places with a power stronger than the will of the individual. Neither 'goodness' nor 'innocence' offer the slightest protection. There is here an inner tension to the occult tales that has surely contributed to their lasting effect.
If MRJ was, as I suggest, more interested in the occult than most people suspect, he could hardly be called an exceptional case. The study of magic by scholars and theologians amounts almost to a tradition in English literature, from Robert Burton (1576-1640), a clergyman and student of Christ Church, Oxford, who spent most of his life in esoteric studies; to Sabine Baring-Gould, author of a sixteen volume Lives of the Saints, who collected ballads, was deeply versed in Norse mythology, and produced a classic study of the werewolf. His Curious Myths of the Middle Ages contributed to at least one James tale, and his Strange Survivals contains enough material to inspire a whole volume of Jamesian horrors. At the extreme point of this tradition stands Dr Montague Summers, an authority on Restoration Theatre and Gothic fiction, who studied for Holy Orders, yet wrote and edited many classic works on witchcraft, demonology, vampirism and lycanthropy, amassing over the years a huge library devoted to these subjects. (Little wonder that he was an ardent admirer of MRJ's tales. He seems to have stepped straight out of one!)
There is evidently a body of opinion that sees MRJ as a kind of Magus, displaying an omniscience bordering on the supernatural.(10) This was due in no small part to the sheer presence of the man, which led one acquaintance to remark that he gave one the feeling that he "could, if necessary, conjure a demon out of a bottle".(10) Here we must tread carefully. It would be wrong to suggest that MRJ was, in any sense, a crypto-magician.
Montague Summers was ejected from the Christian Church under a cloud, and apparently performed at least one Black Mass,(17) with results so shocking that he subsequently set his face against nigromancy with a crusading zeal; but no such aura of brimstone, however tenuous, hangs over the other 'Monty'. He remained to the end an avowed Christian, embodying the feelings of Parkins to the letter: "A man in my position cannot, I find, be too careful about appearing to sanction the current beliefs on such subjects."
What we are faced with here is something altogether more subtle;
an undercurrent that ran deep, often obscured, its very existence publicly
denied by the man himself, but always discernible in his studies and quite
central to his fiction. The core of his personality will always remain,
as Pfaff says, impenetrable, but we remember Dr Oldys in "The Residence
at Whitminster" who, when confronted by the awful secrets of the press
and the chest of drawers, chose not to open them but to lock them away,
where they waited like "a jack in the box". MRJ found his own
way of raising the lid, in stories rarely if ever equalled. As lovers of
macabre fiction, I feel we should be eternally grateful that there was a
place in this good and gifted man's heart of hearts that was not entirely
on the side of the angels.
(1) J. Briggs, Night Visitors (Faber, 1977).
(2) H.T.F. Rhodes, The Satanic Mass (Arrow Books, 1973).
(3) E.O. James, The Origins of Sacrifice (J. Murray, 1937).
(4) H. Guerber, Myths of the Norsemen (Harrap & Co., 1914).
(5) E. & M. Radford, Encyclopedia of Superstitions (1975).
(6) M.P. Hall, The Secret Teachings of All Ages (Philosophical Research Society, 1978).
(7) M. Summers, A Examen of Witches (Trans., Muller, 1971).
(8) M. Howard, The Magic of the Runes (Aquarian Press, 1980).
(9) J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (1963).
(10) R.W. Pfaff, Montague Rhodes James (Scolar Press, 1980).
(11) A. Crowley, Magick (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1973).
(12) M. Howard, The Runes & Other Magical Alphabets (Aquarian Press, 1978).
(13) R. Ahmed, The Black Art (Arrow Books, 1971).
(14) J. Vogh, Arachne Rising (Hart Davis, McGibbon Ltd, 1977) [Yes, we are aware that this was a hoax!]
(15) M. Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait (Oxford, 1983).
(16) A.E. Waite, Alchemists through the Ages (Steiner Pub., 1970).
(17) M. Summers, The Vampire in Europe (Aquarian Press, 1980).
Copyright © 1984 Ron Weighell
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