Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Two Jameses (3): "Two Doctors"

[M. R. James: A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)]

Would it be fair to say that the present-day mania for zombie movies is based on some kind of visceral fear of overpopulation?

Consider, for a moment, those times when you find yourself looking out over a crowd of human beings and feeling almost unable to conceive of each of them as harbouring a world of complex emotions and thoughts like you (and your soulmates and friends).

Hence all that stuff about "they don't feel it like we do" (because it would be so horrible if they did). Hence, too, the slavering mass of reanimated corpses which seems to spring up so readily in the contemporary imagination.

I know that I've already speculated that the vogue for vampires is based on their perfect complexions and inability to put on weight (which makes them alluring role models for more than just teenagers, I'm sorry to say). This idea probably sounds almost equally frivolous, but it isn't really.

I mean, what other theory can you advance to account for it?

I know that it might seem as if I've been maundering on about ghosts and ghost stories (and various examples of each by the two Jameses), but all this is gradually drawing to a point, I'm glad to say.

I fear that it's a point that I can only make by doing a bit of textual analysis (what we used to call "close reading"), though, so I propose to look through one particular story by M. R. James with a certain amount of attention to detail.

The story in question is called "Two Doctors", and it comes at the end of his strangest and most inaccessible book, A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)

Note the date of first publication, for a start: straight after the First World War. Note, too, that it's quite a thin volume, with fewer stories than either of its pre-war predecessors:

There's something a bit thin and apologetic about the preface, too:

"Not a great deal is risked" is a rather roundabout way of launching a new book into the world - far less weighty than that comment about sequels being "not only proverbially but actually, very hazardous things." What on earth is that supposed to mean? In what way are they "hazardous"? To one's reputation? One's mental health?

Perhaps ... some one's Christmas may be the cheerfuller for a story-book which, I think, only once mentions the war.

That last remark certainly fits the whole atmosphere of psychic distress so noticeable at the end of that appallingly wasteful war, with its slew of publications by spiritualists and eminent divines attempting to substantiate communication with loved ones on the Other Side ...

So, first of all, you'll notice that there is no story in the book called "A Thin Ghost."

The textual justification for the title in fact comes towards the end of the story above, "The Residence at Whitminster," with its "cruel child" Saul who becomes (apparently) a strange insect-like ghost felt only once, in passing, in the dark:

"A withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost" [pp. 45-46]

All the stories in the book are interesting. The first three, about (respectively) a scrying glass, a haunted diary, and a vampire, have been frequently reprinted. The second-to-last, "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance," uses the iconography of the Punch and Judy show to great effect, though at times the story becomes almost too allusive to grasp - almost in the manner of late Kipling, strange stories such as "They" or "Mrs Bathurst."

It's the last story I want to talk about here, though: "Two Doctors." It's pretty obvious even to the casual reader that it's constantly teetering on the edge of ceasing to be a "story" in the conventional sense altogether.

Is there more to it than that, though?

[Full text available here.]

It is a very common thing, in my experience, to find papers shut up in old books; but one of the rarest things to come across any such that are at all interesting. Still it does happen, and one should never destroy them unlooked at.

[Compare the opening of HJ's “The Turn of the Screw”:

"The story's written. It's in a locked drawer - it has not been out for years. I could write to my man and enclose the key; he could send down the packet as he finds it."

"Then your manuscript--?"

"Is in old, faded ink, and in the most beautiful hand." He hung fire again. "A woman's. She has been dead these twenty years. She sent me the pages in question before she died."

he opened the faded red cover of a thin old-fashioned gilt-edged album.

Here the assumption seems to be that the story is interesting because it's been concealed so sedulously from the world up till now.]

Now it was a practice of mine before the war occasionally to buy old ledgers of which the paper was good, and which possessed a good many blank leaves, and to extract these and use them for my own notes and writings.
["MRJ is describing his own habits at this point", according to Rosemary Pardoe's useful set of annotations to the story (first published in Ghosts & Scholars 15 (1993), and available online here [henceforth marked RP]).

Note, too, the one "mention of the war” referred to in his preface above.]

One such I purchased for a small sum in 1911. It was tightly clasped, and its boards were warped by having for years been obliged to embrace a number of extraneous sheets. Three-quarters of this inserted matter had lost all vestige of importance for any living human being: one bundle had not. That it belonged to a lawyer is certain, for it is endorsed: The strangest case I have yet met, and bears initials, and an address in Gray’s Inn. It is only materials for a case, and consists of



statements by possible witnesses. The man who would have been the defendant or prisoner seems never to have appeared. The dossier is not complete, but, such as it is, it furnishes a riddle in which the supernatural appears to play a part. You must see what you can make of it.

The following is the setting and the tale as I elicit it.

Dr. Abell was walking in his garden one afternoon waiting for his horse to be brought round that he might set out on his visits for the day.
["The similarity between Quinn and Abell, and Cain and Abel, is probably not coincidence, although in "Two Doctors" it is Abell/Abel who is the murderer" [RP].

It's certainly notable that we first encounter "Abel" in a garden, from which state of calm he is abruptly transported by his servant's resignation.]

As the place was Islington, the month June, and the year 1718, we conceive the surroundings as being countrified and pleasant. To him entered his confidential servant, Luke Jennett, who had been with him twenty years.
[Note the lawyer-like particularity of time, place, and personnel. The figure of twenty years may also prove significant to our reading of the story. Henry James died in 1916, during the First World War, approximately twenty years after the publication of "The Turn of the Screw" (1898). M. R. James's first ghost story, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book was written in 1894 and printed soon after in the National Review" (The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1931): p.ix).]

“I said I wished to speak to him, and what I had to say might take some quarter of an hour. He accordingly bade me go into his study, which was a room opening on the terrace path where he was walking, and came in himself and sat down. I told him that, much against my will, I must look out for another place. He inquired what was my reason, in consideration I had been so long with him. I said if he would excuse me he would do me a


great kindness, because (this appears to have been common form even in 1718) I was one that always liked to have everything pleasant about me.
[The editorial intrusion here seems unusually heavy-handed: nor is it quite clear whether it's "liking to have everything pleasant about me" or "doing me a great kindness" which appears (to MRJ) anachronistic for 1718.]
As well as I can remember, he said that was his case likewise, but he would wish to know why I should change my mind after so many years, and, says he, ‘you know there can be no talk of a remembrance of you in my will if you leave my service now.’ I said I had made my reckoning of that.

“‘Then,’ says he, ‘you must have some complaint to make, and if I could I would willingly set it right.’ And at that I told him, not seeing how I could keep it back, the matter of my former affidavit and of the bedstaff in the dispensing-room, and said that a house where such things happened was no place for me.
[What is this "matter of the bedstaff"? In a conversation about this story at the SFF website (henceforward SFF), "The Judge" replies to "Fried Egg's" perplexity on the subject as follows:
Firstly, I checked out 'bedstaff' to see if that gave a clue - apparently it's a wooden pin that used to be stuck at the side of a bed to stop the bedclothes slipping ...
There's a good deal more about bedclothes and pillows later in the story.]

At which he, looking very black upon me, said no more, but called me fool, and said he would pay what was owing me in the morning; and so, his horse being waiting, went out. So for that night I lodged with my sister’s husband near Battle Bridge and came early next morning to my late master, who then made a great matter that I had not lain in his house and stopped a crown out of my wages owing.
[His reluctance to spend the night there is not unmotivated, as will later become apparent.]

“After that I took service here and there,


not for long at a time, and saw no more of him till I came to be Dr. Quinn’s man at Dodds Hall in Islington.”

There is one very obscure part in this statement, namely, the reference to the former affidavit and the matter of the bedstaff. The former affidavit is not in the bundle of papers. It is to be feared that it was taken out to be read because of its special oddity, and not put back. Of what nature the story was may be guessed later, but as yet no clue has been put into our hands.
[Whether the "nature" of the story really "may be guessed" is (as you will see) extremely debatable.

Rosemary Pardoe is of the opinion that "'Two Doctors' is MRJ's weakest and most difficult story." she sees this statement, along with the earlier one that "The dossier is not complete, but, such as it is, it furnishes a riddle in which the supernatural appears to play a part. You must see what you can make of it" as "a kind of apology for the fact that the tale is so confused." [RP].

Whether this "confusion" is accidental or deliberate remains to be seen, however.]

The Rector of Islington, Jonathan Pratt, is the next to step forward. He furnishes particulars of the standing and reputation of Dr. Abell and Dr. Quinn, both of whom lived and practised in his parish.

“It is not to be supposed,” he says, “that a physician should be a regular attendant at morning and evening prayers, or at the Wednesday lectures, but within the measure of their ability I would say that both these persons fulfilled their obligations as loyal members of the Church of England. At the same time (as you desire my private mind) I must say, in the language of the schools, distinguo.
["I distinguish." [RP].]
Dr. A. was to me a source of perplexity, Dr. Q. to my


eye a plain, honest believer, not inquiring over closely into points of belief, but squaring his practice to what lights he had. The other interested himself in questions to which Providence, as I hold, designs no answer to be given us in this state: he would ask me, for example, what place I believed those beings now to hold in the scheme of creation which by some are thought neither to have stood fast when the rebel angels fell, nor to have joined with them to the full pitch of their transgression.
["Dante placed the creatures in the anteroom of hell, endlessly pursuing a shifting banner and stung by wasps and hornets (Divine Comedy, Canto III, lines 34-69). But according to Celtic tradition these not-quite-fallen angels became fairy folk (The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs [Pantheon 1978]." [RP].]

“As was suitable, my first answer to him was a question, What warrant he had for supposing any such beings to exist? for that there was none in Scripture I took it he was aware. It appeared – for as I am on the subject, the whole tale may be given – that he grounded himself on such passages as that of the satyr which Jerome tells us conversed with Antony;
["In Jerome's "Life of St Paul the Hermit", he recounts how St Antony encountered a satyr while journeying to visit St Paul. This "dwarfish figure...its nostrils joined together, and its forehead bristling with horns: the lower part of its body (ending) in goat's feet" wants nothing more than for Antony to intercede for him and his tribe with God. Jerome adds "And this, lest any hesitation should stir in the incredulous, is maintained by universal witness during the reign of Constantius". For an English translation, see The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell (Constable 1936), p.33." [RP].]
but thought too that some parts of Scripture might be cited in support. ‘And besides,’ said he, ‘you know ’tis the universal belief among those that spend their days and nights abroad, and I would add that if your calling took you so continuously as it does me about the country lanes by night, you might not be so surprised as I see you to be by my suggestion.’ ‘You


are then of John Milton’s mind,’ I said, ‘and hold that

Millions of spiritual creatures walk the earth
Unseen, both when we wake and when we sleep.’
["Milton's Paradise Lost, Book IV, line 677." [RP].]

“‘I do not know,’ he said, ‘why Milton should take upon himself to say “unseen”; though to be sure he was blind when he wrote that. But for the rest, why, yes, I think he was in the right.’ ‘Well,’ I said, ‘though not so often as you, I am not seldom called abroad pretty late; but I have no mind of meeting a satyr in our Islington lanes in all the years I have been here; and if you have had the better luck, I am sure the Royal Society would be glad to know of it.’
["The premier scientific society, founded in the 1660s, was by the early 1700s much concerned with classification of species; hence the Reverend's quip about the Society's interest in satyrs." [RP].]

“I am reminded of these trifling expressions because Dr. A. took them so ill, stamping out of the room in a huff with some such word as that these high and dry parsons had no eyes but for a prayerbook or a pint of wine.

“But this was not the only time that our conversation took a remarkable turn. There was an evening when he came in, at first seeming gay and in good spirits, but afterwards as he sat and smoked by the fire falling into a musing way; out of which to rouse him I said pleasantly


that I supposed he had had no meetings of late with his odd friends. A question which did effectually arouse him, for he looked most wildly, and as if scared, upon me, and said, ‘You were never there? I did not see you. Who brought you?’ And then in a more collected tone, ‘What was this about a meeting? I believe I must have been in a doze.’ To which I answered that I was thinking of fauns and centaurs in the dark lane, and not of a witches’ Sabbath;
["Abell was clearly not a lone dabbler, but a member of some sort of coven. This distinguishes him from MRJ's other black magicians." [RP].]
but it seemed he took it differently.
“‘Well,’ said he, ‘I can plead guilty to neither; but I find you very much more of a sceptic than becomes your cloth. If you care to know about the dark lane you might do worse than ask my housekeeper that lived at the other end of it when she was a child.’ 'Yes,’ said I, ‘and the old women in the almshouse and the children in the kennel. If I were you, I would send to your brother Quinn for a bolus
["A pill." [RP].]
to clear your brain.’ ‘ Damn Quinn,’ says he; ‘talk no more of him: he has embezzled four of my best patients this month; I believe it is that cursed man of his, Jennett, that used to be with me, his tongue is never still; it should be nailed to the pillory
["The pillory was a wooden device in public places where offenders would be restrained at the neck and arms. It was common for blasphemers to have their tongues nailed to the crosspiece." [RP].]


if he had his deserts.’ This, I may say, was the only time of his showing me that he had any grudge against either Dr. Quinn or Jennett, and as was my business, I did my best to persuade him he was mistaken in them. Yet it could not be denied that some respectable families in the parish had given him the cold shoulder, and for no reason that they were willing to allege. The end was that he said he had not done so ill at Islington but that he could afford to live at ease elsewhere when he chose, and anyhow he bore Dr. Quinn no malice. I think I now remember what observation of mine drew him into the train of thought which he next pursued. It was, I believe, my mentioning some juggling tricks which my brother in the East Indies had seen at the court of the Rajah of Mysore. ‘A convenient thing enough,’ said Dr. Abell to me, ‘if by some arrangement a man could get the power of communicating motion and energy to inanimate objects.'
["A power which Abell himself would appear to have, judging from his movement of the poker. This may also go some way to explaining the mystery of the bedstaff in the dispensing-room ..." [RP].]
‘As if the axe should move itself against him that lifts it; something of that kind?’ ‘Well, I don’t know that that was in my mind so much; but if you could summon such a volume from your shelf or even order it to open at the right page.’


“He was sitting by the fire – it was a cold, evening – and stretched out his hand that way, and just then the fire-irons, or at least the poker, fell over towards him with a great clatter, and I did not hear what else he said. But I told him that I could not easily conceive of an arrangement, as he called it, of such a kind that would not include as one of its conditions a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make;
["The loss of one's soul." [RP].]
to which he assented. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I have no doubt these bargains can be made very tempting, very persuasive. Still, you would not favour them, eh, Doctor? No, I suppose not.’

“This is as much as I know of Dr. Abell’s mind, and the feeling between these men. Dr. Quinn, as I said, was a plain, honest creature, and a man to whom I would have gone – indeed I have before now gone to him for advice on matters of business. He was, however, every now and again, and particularly of late, not exempt from troublesome fancies. There was certainly a time when he was so much harassed by his dreams that he could not keep them to himself, but would tell them to his acquaintances and among them to me.
["I assumed the dreams were procured in some way by Abell as part of his supernatural powers - after all, if you want revenge, it isn't enough to kill the person quickly, you want them to suffer for some time. A dream of digging up any swaddled corpse would be unpleasant, but to have an image of one's own dead body is, I'd have thought, much worse." [SFF].]
I was at supper at his house, and he was not inclined to let me


leave him at my usual time. ‘If you go,’ he said, ‘there will be nothing for it but I must go to bed and dream of the chrysalis.’ ‘ You might be worse off,’ said I. ‘ I do not think it,’ he said, and he shook himself like a man who is displeased with the complexion of his thoughts. ‘I only meant,’ said I, ‘that a chrysalis is an innocent thing.’ ‘This one is not,’ he said, ‘and I do not care to think of it.’

“However, sooner than lose my company he was fain to tell me (for I pressed him) that this was a dream which had come to him several times of late, and even more than once in a night. It was to this effect, that he seemed to himself to wake under an extreme compulsion to rise and go out of doors. So he would dress himself and go down to his garden door. By the door there stood a spade which he must take, and go out into the garden, and at a particular place in the shrubbery somewhat clear and upon which the moon shone, for there was always in his dream a full moon, he would feel himself forced to dig. And after some time the spade would uncover something light-coloured, which he would perceive to be a stuff, linen or woollen, and this he must clear with his hands. It was always the same: of


the size of a man and shaped like the chrysalis of a moth, with the folds showing a promise of an opening at one end.

“He could not describe how gladly he would have left all at this stage and run to the house, but he must not escape so easily. So with many groans, and knowing only too well what to expect, he parted these folds of stuff, or, as it sometimes seemed to be, membrane, and disclosed a head covered with a smooth pink skin, which breaking as the creature stirred, showed him his own face in a state of death.
[This "chrysalis" seems a little more than just a prevision of his own body wrapped for burial -- there's something very phallic about the imagery of that membrane-wrapped "head covered with a smooth pink skin", and the "state of death" referred to could as easily be orgasm as death.

"Why [after all] was Dr. Quinn having dreams about digging up a chrysalis of himself? Was he a regular purchaser of goods stolen from mausoleums? Why introduce that concept at all? Dr. Abell had a grudge against Dr. Quinn for supposedly stealing his patients and therefore I suppose a motive for killing Dr. Quinn. What did stolen bed furnishings have to do with anything?" asks "Fried Egg" on the SFF site.

All this evidence about bedclothes, soiled, aristocratic or otherwise, reminds one of that other legal cause célèbre of the late 1890s: the Oscar Wilde trial (much of which hinged on the evidence of hotel servants about the state of the bedclothes in various hotel rooms ...]
The telling of this so much disturbed him that I was forced out of mere compassion to sit with him the greater part of the night and talk with him upon indifferent subjects. He said that upon every recurrence of this dream he woke and found himself, as it were, fighting for his breath.”

Another extract from Luke Jennett’s long continuous statement comes in at this point.

“I never told tales of my master, Dr. Abell, to anybody in the neighbourhood. When I was in another service I remember to have spoken to my fellow-servants about the matter of the bedstaff, but I am sure I never said either I or he were the persons concerned, and


it met with so little credit that I was affronted and thought best to keep it to myself. And when I came back to Islington and found Dr. Abell still there, who I was told had left the parish, I was clear that it behoved me to use great discretion, for indeed I was afraid of the man, and it is certain I was no party to spreading any ill report of him. My master, Dr. Quinn, was a very just, honest man, and no maker of mischief. I am sure he never stirred a finger nor said a word by way of inducement to a soul to make them leave going to Dr. Abell and come to him; nay, he would hardly be persuaded to attend them that came, until he was convinced that if he did not they would send into the town for a physician rather than do as they had hitherto done.

“I believe it may be proved that Dr. Abell came into my master’s house more than once. We had a new chambermaid out of Hertfordshire, and she asked me who was the gentleman that was looking after the master, that is Dr. Quinn, when he was out, and seemed so disappointed that he was out. She said whoever he was he knew the way of the house well, running at once into the study and then into the dispensing-room, and last into the bed-
["Lance Arney (... "An Elucidation (?) of The Plot of M.R. James's 'Two Doctors'", in Studies in Weird Fiction 8 (Necronomicon Press, Fall 1990), pp. 26-35) assumes that Abell put some sort of magic spell on Quinn's bedclothes. This may be the case, but the fact that Abell visited the dispensing-room before the bed-chamber suggests that he could have reinforced the spell in a chemical manner, so that Quinn would experience sufficient discomfort to necessitate the purchase of new bedding." [RP].]


chamber. I made her tell me what he was like, and what she said was suitable enough to Dr. Abell; but besides she told me she saw the same man at church and some one told her that was the Doctor.

“It was just after this that my master began to have his bad nights, and complained to me and other persons, and in particular what discomfort he suffered from his pillow and bed­clothes. He said he must buy some to suit him, and should do his own marketing. And accordingly brought home a parcel which he said was of the right quality, but where he bought it we had then no knowledge, only they were marked in thread with a coronet and a bird.
["I see Quinn as being directed to buy the bedclothes from the fence by Abell's powers - since this is seen as something strange by Quinn's servants. I assume that more than just the pillow is bought in order for James to show us the fine thread of the linen itself with its embroidered coronet. And it is the stolen pillow - with its deep filling of soft, noble feathers - which suffocates Quinn after it has (presumably) been manipulated by Abell." [SFF].]
The women said they were of a sort not commonly met with and very fine, and my master said they were the comfortablest he ever used, and he slept now both soft and deep. Also the feather pillows were the best sorted and his head would sink into them as if they were a cloud: which I have myself remarked several times when I came to wake him of a morning, his face being almost hid by the pillow closing over it.

“I had never any communication with Dr. Abell after I came back to Islington, but one


day when he passed me in the street and asked me whether I was not looking for another service, to which I answered I was very well suited where I was, but he said I was a tickle­minded
["mercurial." [RP].

I suspect that there's a little more to his choice of words, though. Abell is, after all, "tickling up" his victims by playing with them before he seal the deal. Jennett has escaped the bedstaff, but Quinn will not escape the bedclothes.]
fellow and he doubted not he should soon hear I was on the world again, which indeed proved true.”

Dr. Pratt is next taken up where he left off.

“On the 16th I was called up out of my bed soon after it was light – that is about five – with a message that Dr. Quinn was dead or dying. Making my way to his house I found there was no doubt which was the truth. All the persons in the house except the one that let me in were already in his chamber and standing about his bed, but none touching him. He was stretched in the midst of the bed, on his back, without any disorder, and indeed had the appearance of one ready laid out for burial. His hands, I think, were even crossed on his breast. The only thing not usual was that nothing was to be seen of his face, the two ends of the pillow or bolster appearing to be closed quite over it.
["In a sense, ... there was no need for James to introduce the pillow and other bedclothes from the mausoleum. Quinn could have been suffocated by Abell's powers pulling up the ordinary blankets around him or something. But the idea of using the winding sheet of a corpse as the victim's bed linen, and its pillow as the murder weapon adds a frisson to the story." [SFF].]
These I immediately pulled apart, at the same time rebuking those present, and especially the man, for not at once coming to the assistance of his master. He, however, only


looked at me and shook his head, having evidently no more hope than myself that there was anything but a corpse before us.

“Indeed it was plain to anyone possessed of the least experience that he was not only dead, but had died of suffocation. Nor could it be conceived that his death was accidentally caused by the mere folding of the pillow over his face. How should he not, feeling the oppression, have lifted his hands to put it away? whereas not a fold of the sheet which was closely gathered about him, as I now observed, was disordered. The next thing was to procure a physician. I had bethought me of this on leaving my house, and sent on the messenger who had come to me to Dr. Abell; but I now heard that he was away from home, and the nearest surgeon was got, who however could tell no more, at least without opening the body, than we already knew.

“As to any person entering the room with evil purpose (which was the next point to be cleared), it was visible that the bolts of the door were burst from their stanchions, and the stanchions broken away from the door-post by main force; and there was a sufficient body of witness, the smith among them, to testify


that this had been done but a few minutes before I came.
[Presumably by the servants, rather than by any supernatural intruder, since Abell's powers of psychokinesis would presumably be sufficient to manage Quinn's death.]
The chamber being moreover at the top of the house, the window was neither easy of access nor did it show any sign of an exit made that way, either by marks upon the sill or footprints below upon soft mould.”

The surgeon’s evidence forms of course part of the report of the inquest, but since it has nothing but remarks upon the healthy state of the larger organs and the coagulation of blood in various parts of the body, it need not be reproduced. The verdict was “Death by the visitation of God.”

Annexed to the other papers is one which I was at first inclined to suppose had made its way among them by mistake. Upon further consideration I think I can divine a reason for its presence.

It relates to the rifling of a mausoleum in Middlesex which stood in a park (now broken up), the property of a noble family which I will not name. The outrage was not that of an ordinary resurrection man. The object, it seemed likely, was theft. The account is blunt and terrible. I shall not quote it. A dealer in the North of London suffered heavy penalties as a receiver of stolen goods in connexion with the affair.
["How Abell engineered matters so that Quinn would buy the bedding from this particular dealer is one of the unexplained mysteries and frustrations of the story." [RP].

"... the Middlesex mausoleum belongs to a noble family. This suggests to me ducal - which also suggests crowns/coronets, which links up to the very fine bedding with its coronet and bird. A mausoleum means the noble bodies are entombed rather than buried, so it's possible one was coffined with the bedding. The not-quite resurrectionists ransack the tomb (resurrectionists were body-snatchers - they removed new corpses to give to medics for dissection practice/research) and steal what they can, and Quinn then buys the bedding from the North London fence who gets convicted later." [SFF].]

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So, is "Two Doctors" just a terrible story? "His weakest and most difficult," says Rosemary Pardoe; while "Fried Egg" at the SFF site, concludes his long Q & A session about it by saying "Thankfully he doesn't always leave that much for the reader to fill in the blanks because he would find me wanting!"

It's true to say that all truly original writers are forced to create and train their own ideal readers. An MRJ-trained reader can easily fill in a lot of the dots and hints in the story. The fact that there's little there but hints and allusions does strain his method to its utmost limits, though. In that sense the story (like the whole book, really) could be said to be "experimental" - designed to test his method to its breaking point.

The "test" is to see if his readers will (or even can) construct a story out of so little material. Lance Arney, Rosemary Pardoe, and the "Judge" at the SFF site, prove that it is possible to disentangle a narrative from these hints and evasions. Have they missed the larger point of "Two Doctors," though?

After all, what other famous ghost story, concerned with two ghosts (male and female), two children (male and female), and one governess, similarly tests its reader with evasions and complicated levels of framing and obfuscation?

It seems to me only too probable that Henry James's death, in the middle of the war, would have reminded his greatest rival in the "paranormal" line, of the almost ridiculous extremes to which the former had taken the "psychological" type of ghost story.

Might that not have prompted him to attempt a similar extreme in his own, more "traditional" vein? "Two Doctors," after all -- two authorities -- two (if you like) Jameses ...

The materials of the actual story are sordid enough:
  • a bedstaff
  • a chrysalis
  • a poker
  • a monographed pillow & sheets

Most of these are phallic or at least suggestively bedroom-related in nature. The fact that all the relationships in the story are male does tempt one to read it in terms of the Oscar Wilde scandal (almost contemporaneous with "The Turn of the Screw" -- the title itself containing a suggestively sexual choice of words).

Or is that yet another decoy? Edwardian ghost stories do almost insist on being read in terms of repressed sexuality - perverse or otherwise. "Two Doctors" refuses to commit itself beyond the suggestive on this level just as every other.

In their very triviality, though, the tendentious bric-a-brac on which this story hinges also seem to recall H. G. Wells's famous denunciation of HJ's methods in his wartime cri-de-coeur Boon (1915):
His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle. … It is leviathan retrieving pebbles. It is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost even at the cost of its dignity upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den. Most things it insists are beyond it but it can at any rate modestly and with an artistic singleness of mind pick up that pea …”

I doubt that Monty's story will ever attract the almost feverish thirst for closure so characteristic of interpretations of Henry's "Turn of the Screw" almost from the moment of its publication. In its own pared-down, economical way it seems to me almost as interesting a story, though.

I read it as a metafiction, a story about the process of its own reading, its own "construction" out of the blank leaves of an old ledger, Borgesian avant la lettre. The ghosts in "The Turn of the Screw" may or may not be real, the governess may or may not be psychotic, but the relations between Drs Abell and Quinn (reversed Cain and Abel, as Rosemary Pardoe notes) will continue to defy reduction even to so simple a set of questions as that ...

Is Abell intended to be read as Monty, striking his greatest rival dead from a distance (or rather, encouraging him to choke himself in the snobbish clouds of his own verbiage)? Or is it the other way round? Is it the unscrupulous psychologist, intent on causing movement-at-a-distance who chokes the innocent, undesigning Quinn in his own bed?

One thing's for certain, the actual materials of the story itself will never be sufficient to enable us to decide.

[Benjamin Britten: The Turn of the Screw (2003)]

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Two Jameses (2): Henry James

When I said, in my previous post, that the Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M. R. James, scared me when I first read them, I was telling the truth, but not really the whole truth.

The truth is that I'd already heard one of those stories, one dark evening in a campground when I pestered my mother to tell me a ghost story before we went to sleep, and she'd obliged with a rather abridged version of "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad" - it was that which really terrified me (perhaps it had something to do with the flapping tent and the pitch darkness outside, too). I had the greatest difficulty in getting to sleep at all that night, and the fear of that disturbingly material spectre has never quite left me.

[M. R. James: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. 1904. (London: Pan Books, 1953)]

I must have already been obsessed with ghosts and ghost stories, though, to have insisted so vociferously on being told one before I could get to sleep. I remember making a hunt through my grandmother's books for anything faintly supernatural, and having to be fobbed off with Wuthering Heights (which does, admittedly, contain a number of apparitions and ghostly occurrences) ...

[M. R. James: More Ghost Stories. 1911. (London: Edward Arnold, 1924)]

Henry James is clearly on quite a different level of eminence than M. R. James. Nor are his ghost stories anything like so likely to turn up in paperback anthologies of spooky stories or horrific tales. The best known of them, The Turn of the Screw, is a bit too long for that, and the others, too, are a bit too "literary" for such treatment.

Luckily there's been a recent attempt to collect the best of his stories in this genre:

Ghost Stories of Henry James. Ed. Martin Schofield. Wordsworth Classics. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions Ltd., 2001.
  1. The Romance of Certain Old Clothes (1868)
  2. The Ghostly Rental (1876)
  3. Sir Edmund Orme (1891)
  4. The Private Life (1892)
  5. Owen Wingrave (1892)
  6. The Friends of the Friends (1896)
  7. The Turn of the Screw (1898)
  8. The Real Right Thing (1899)
  9. The Third Person (1900)
  10. The Jolly Corner (1908)

As you'll observe, the stories are heavily weighted towards the latter end of James's career, after the traumatic failure of his theatrical ambitions (culminating in the horrific first night of his play Guy Domville (1995), when he was literally booed from the stage) ...

The blurb to Schofield's collection claims that:

Henry James was arguably the greatest practitioner of what has been called the psychological ghost story. His stories explore the region which lies between the supernatural or straightforwardly marvellous and the darker areas of the human psyche. This edition includes all ten of his 'apparitional' stories, or ghost stories in the strict sense of the term, and as such is the fullest collection currently available. The stories range widely in tone and type. They include 'The Jolly Corner', a compelling story of psychological doubling; 'Owen Wingrave', which is also a subtle parable of military tradition; 'The Friends of the Friends', a strange story of uncanny love; and 'The Private Life', which finds high comedy in its ghostly theme. The volume also includes James's great novella 'The Turn of the Screw', perhaps the most ambiguous and disturbing ghost story ever written.

Interestingly enough, our two very different Jameses did actually once meet:

"The following month, August [1903], [M. R. James] was in Kent, bicycling with Percy Lubbock ... In Rye they met Henry James, a friend of Lubbock's. 'A very pleasant man, he is,' was Monty's verdict, 'talking just as he writes, with punctilious effort to use exactly the word he wants: looks like a respectable butler.'
- Michael Cox. M. R. James: An Informal Portrait. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983. p.123.

Henry would have been 60 at the time, Monty almost exactly twenty years younger.

The source of Henry's fascination with the occult probably lies in his very beginnings, though. His father (Henry James, Senior, almost as diligent an author as his two sons, William and Henry, Jr., though far less famous) suffered a strange cerebral disturbance in May 1844, when the family was living abroad in England, which dominated the rest of his life. He called it a "vastation" (in Swedenborgian parlance) and described it as follows:

... a perfectly insane and abject terror, without ostensible cause, and only to be accounted for, to my perplexed imagination, by some damned shape squatting invisible to me within the precincts of the room, and raying out from his fetid personality influences fatal to life.

Whatever actually happened that day by the fire, it converted him to a strange type of religious enthusiasm, and formed the subject of most of his subsequent writings.

Henry, then, grew up in a hothouse atmosphere of supernatural credulity and religious fervour (which possibly had some part in inspiring his brother William's psychological investigations into the subject in later life, culminating in his masterpiece The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902)).

None of this really accounts for the continuing fascination of The Turn of the Screw, though. Readers were beguiled by its strange atmosphere and curious dead-end maze of self-defeating meanings long before the publication of Edmund Wilson's essay suggesting that there are, in fact, no ghosts: only an incipient mental breakdown on the part of the unnamed governess.

Since then the debate has tended to be framed in terms of whether there are or are not actual ghosts haunting young Miles and Flora (Benjamin Britten declaring himself definitely in favour of there being real ghosts rather than suggestive stage absences in his 1954 operatic version).

Rather more interestingly, Leon Edel points out in his magisterial 5-volume Life of Henry James (1953-1972), the ages of the various endangered heroines in the works he wrote immediately after the debacle of Guy Domville seem to increase at a steady rate, as if charting some kind of internal psychological process of healing from the "obscure wound" of his public rejection:

Taking them in their sequence as he wrote them, we begin in the cradle with Effie, who is murdered at four (The Other House, 1896); she is resurrected at five (What Maisie Knew, 1897) and we leave her at seven or eight, or perhaps a bit older. Flora is eight ('The Turn of the Screw,' 1898) and the one little boy in the series, Miles, is ten: we are in the period of the child from eight to ten. Then we arrive at adolescence: the adolescence of an unnamed girl in a branch post office ("In the Cage," 1898). Little Aggie, in the next novel, is sixteen, and Nanda Brookenham eighteen when the story begins (The Awkward Age, 1899). With the writing of this novel, James completes the series. He wrote also a goodly number of tales during this time but the childhood sequence is embodied in the longer works ...
- Leon Edel. Henry James. The Treacherous Years: 1895-1901. 1969. New York: Avon Books, 1978. p.261

Once it's been pointed out, this sequence of ages is a bit difficult to dispute. Of course, while it implies a certain self-identification with his heroines, there's also an unmistakable fear of the feminine apparent in James's work at this time.

Like so many other Victorian and Edwardian ghost story writers (the high water mark of the genre), James's spectres seem to embody the more smothering and therefore terrifying implications of domesticity (the "face of crumpled linen" in M. R. James's "Oh whistle and I'll come to you" is one case in point - translated in a recent (2010) TV adaptation of the story into an actual wife, suffering from dementia in a nearby nursing home; some of E. F. Benson's ghost stories - "The Room in the Tower", for instance - are even more unequivocal).

A recent graphic adaptation of The Turn of the Screw, by Guido Crepax, sees it (somewhat predictably) as a parable of the governess's repressed sexuality:

[Henry James. The Turn of the Screw. Adapted & illustrated by Guido Crepax. 1989. Translated by Stefano Gaudiano. New York: Eurotica, 1995.

Most readers would see her as more threatening than kittenish as she manifests in the pages of the story, though perhaps Crepax is right to couple her directly with the seductive brunette Miss Jessel in the front and back cover illustrations to his version.

James had, after all, observed at close hand the ingenious way his invalid sister Alice used her illness as emotional blackmail in the long struggle for the sole attention of her companion Katharine Loring. He'd also been appalled by his own close friend Constance Fenimore Woolson's suicide in Venice in 1894. Whatever the truth of his relationship with "Fenimore," he regarded this act as a betrayal of their intimacy, and immediately rushed to Italy to secure any of his letters or other papers which might be found lying around among her effects.

Seen in these terms, then, the other James's admission "that, though I have not hitherto mentioned it, I have read The Turn of the Screw" might be seen as more the recognition of a kindred spirit than with any implication of disdain or bafflement.

More on that subject in my next post, though:

[Nicole Kidman in The Others (2001), Alejandro Amenábar's strange hommage to "The Turn of the Screw"]

Monday, January 02, 2012

2011 - Our Year in Review

[Jack & Bronwyn (27 August 2011)
[Photo: Katharine Jaeger]

Last year at about this time I put up a post about various of the projects Bronwyn and I had got involved with in 2010. This year I thought I might do the same -- a little anthology of the year's activities (& blogposts):

  1. February 17:

    [Massey University Vice Chancellor Steve Maharey launches 11 Views of Auckland, an anthology of essays about the city edited by Grant Duncan and myself, with a cover image by Graham Fletcher].

  2. May 20:

    [Scenes from The Puppet Oresteia, a collaboration between me and US-based UK artist Bill Ayton, goes live on online publishing site].

  3. June 6:

    [Bronwyn announces the completion of the Pania Press edition of Jen Crawford's poetry book Pop Riveter on her Mosehouse Studio blog].

  4. July 4:

    [Launch of my online edition of Leicester Kyle's collected poems, a dual index / text website which I fear I'll have to continue to work on for quite some time (though the texts of all the major books are now up in full)].

  5. July 8:

    [I give a paper entitled “A brief Poetics” at the Poetry & the Contemporary Symposium (Melbourne: Deakin University, 7-10 July)].

  6. July 12:

    [I give a paper called “The Twenty-Year Masterclass: Paul Celan’s correspondence with Gisèle Celan-Lestrange” at the Literature and Translation Conference (Melbourne: Monash University, Caulfield Campus, 11-12 July), a summary of my two-year project of translating all the dual-text poems included in Celan's letters to his wife].

  7. July 29:

    [Lopdell House's late Poetry Day reading in Titirangi coincides with the launch of Ila Selwyn & Lesley Smith's beautifully produced poetry anthology The Winding Stair].

  8. August 26:

    [Bronwyn's Lugosi's Children exhibition opens at Objectspace in Ponsonby Road].

  9. November 9-13:

    [Ian St George unveils our joint edition of Leicester Kyle's posthumous epic Koroneho at the William Colenso Bicentenary celebrations in Napier].

  10. November 27:

    [Michele Leggott launches Bronwyn's first book of short stories The Second Location, together with Scott Hamilton's new book of poems Feeding the Gods, at Objectspace].

  11. November 29:

    [Launch of the online Jacket2 NZ Poetry feature, edited by me].

  12. December 25:

    [Bronwyn's wonderful Christmas gift: a limited edition of my Britain's Missing Top Model poem as a Pania Press single].