I used to love watching episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone when I was young. I had this idea not so long ago that I would watch them all from the beginning once again. The show made it through four seasons in the early 1960s, and entertaining as it may have been when I was very young, it didn't quite hold up to the same scrutiny as viewed through the eyes of the adult I've become. It's a bit unfair to be critical, but somehow the shows seemed awfully hokey, though the premises were good, and I am sure there are still many classics episodes that would be as enjoyable now as they were then.
In one of the really early shows a character is haunted by the ghost of a man who appears in a painting. Strangely the painting changes and becomes more eerie--with each new painting, the ghost comes closer, and Boo! he comes knocking on the door. A true haunting, and no doubt when I was young it was probably pretty terrifying. In M.R. James's "Casting the Runes", which is in Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories, the first of two volumes of collected ghost stories by James, there is a similar thing going on here. In the James story, however, it's what is on the page of a manuscript that is so terrifying, a page which you don't want to be in possession of if you care to live a long and healthy life.
I've read M.R. James before--he seems to be the quintessential writer of ghost stories. Although he lived a long life--died in the 1936 at the age of 73, I always think of him as being a Victorian writer. Reading about him is fascinating. M.R. (Montague Rhodes) James led an interesting life. A lifelong bachelor, he was not only a distinguished scholar of medieval manuscripts and early Christianity, but he was a professor and administrator at Cambridge University and Eton College, and he also managed to write ghost stories in his spare time. It's his ghost stories that he is known for today. He was a busy man, and I loved this description,
"How exactly James found the time for all this work, let alone the writing of ghost stories, was a puzzle to friends and colleagues alike, especially when one considers James's other interests--his devotion to Dickens, P.G. Wodehouse, and Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories; his interest in card games and crossword puzzles; and of course, the abundant conviviality he showed to friends, students, and almost any others who came within his horizon."
He also traveled widely, which served him well in his writings. In 1892 he took his first bicycle tour of the Continent, and later he took at least one trip a year to France where he studied Medieval cathedrals, visiting nearly all those there were to see.
James would often read drafts of his stories to friends and collegians, usually at Christmastime. Although his earliest couple of stories had been published in magazines, he probably wouldn't have considered publishing them in book format had not a friend wanted to do the illustrations for them. It seems as if James's work can be seen as a bridge between Gothic novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries to a more modern tradition of ghost stories. Writers of Gothic novels liked to set their tales firmly in the Medieval period, but James wrote about more contemporary subjects. James used an "antiquarian background" (or as the editor describes it--he wanted to create a "patina of verisimilitude"--I love the way that sounds) in his tales. His stories usually are set in a small village or seaside town, or an abbey or university, involve a gentleman scholar (no doubt his stories were somewhat autobiographical) and there is usually a discovery of an antique book or artifact that is in some way supernatural or menacing.
Books play a role in "Casting the Runes", a story which is considered by many as one of his best. This is a story of the supernatural rather than a ghostly haunting. It's what happens when a man with wicked intentions uses a book, in this case an alchemical text, to destroy (or murder) his enemies.
". . . and now his book seemed to me to be a very sinister performance indeed. One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of 'casting runes' on people, either for the purpose of gaining either their affection or of getting them out of the way--perhaps more especially the latter. . . "
The book belongs to Mr. Karswell, who at the beginning of the story is the subject of a series of letters between members of a scientific association who have declined to invite Karswell to read his paper to the group. A similar affront years earlier resulted in the death of a man who reviewed Karswell's book to poor notice. It's Mr. Edward Dunning who nixed the idea of Karswell coming to read his paper calling it "perfectly hopeless." Karswell is a man easily angered and vengeful, too.
Strange things begin happening to Dunning. He sees graffiti-like inscriptions referencing John Harrington, the author who reviewed Karswell's book, who died under unusual circumstances. One day in the library of the British Museum a man hands Dunning a paper which he believes Dunning dropped. Dunning gratefully accepts it not realizing at first that it's Karswell who has given it to him--a paper that bodes ill for Dunning. Upon talking to the brother of John Harrington and the realization that Karswell has put in motion his devious plan to murder Dunning as well, the men discover that three months to the day when Karswell hands the men this paper, something terrible will befall them.
Just like the painting in the Twilight Zone episode with the premonition of what's to come, so too the paper in the men's possession gives warning of what's to come.
"One was a woodcut of Bewick's, roughly torn out of the page: one which shows a moonlit road and a man walking along it, followed by an awful demon creature. Under it were written the lines of the 'Ancient Mariner' (which I suppose the cut illustrates) about one who, having once looked round--
And turns no more his head,
Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread.'"
The great thing about this story is it has a bit of a bite that you won't expect. Dunning with the aid of John Harrington's brother turn the tables on Karswell. As with the previous stories by James that I've read this one was wonderfully atmospheric and nicely crafted, but it has the added pleasure of being suspenseful as well. It has all the makings of a good movie, and it has indeed been adapted to the big screen as Night of the Demon. Ever since I first bought this set of James's stories I've wanted to read through them all. One more weekend to go, and I might just pick out another of James's stories to finish off this year's RIP reading season.