"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Pleasantly uncomfortable: Ways of the fiction of M. R. James

"Alfred Hitchcock has often said that terror and suspense grow not out of shock and surprise, but out of thickening inevitability...."

The below are my underlinings and rephrasings from repeated readings of Chapter III of Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood by Jack Sullivan (1978).

balance between uneasy vagueness and grisly clarity

tilts the balance in favor of the unseen

unsettling flashes of clarity emerge from the obscurity

indirect context

filter the story through levels of editors and narrators

narrative fabric of considerable complexity

paraphrases and direct quotations

strangely impersonal

indirection, ambiguity, and narrative distance

more convincing when suggested or evoked

ambiguous and puzzling

aggressively deflationary attitude

use every available verbal resource to avoid calling attention to themselves

emptiness and restlessness on the part of the characters

materializing out of a void in people's lives

endless process of collecting and arranging

not villainous, merely bored

spare and unadorn­ed

terse and controlled

ruthless paring down of incidents and characters

constant editing-out

a frequent light touch

frequent impatience with the inevitable stereotypical horror scene

his own vari­ations

whether he can play a spooky enough variation on the basic theme to make us turn up the lights

a programmatic, somewhat artificial use of understatement, innuendo, and precisely orchestrated crescendo

concern with technique

old forms of supernatural evil are still respectable, still viable, if seen through different glasses

landscape [transforms] itself in sinister, ever-changing ways


ominous forebodings

saturated with nostalgia, yet never propagandistic

emptiness of the present and richness of the past are implied by the distinct absence of the one and overwhelming presence of the other

oldness is invariably a deadly trap

immediate contact with death

implicit analogy between digging up an art object and digging up a corpse

evil is something old, something which should have died

in trouble by opening almost anything

futility of the entire antiquarian enterprise

ascetic brevity and clarity

gap between tone and story

style is distinguished by a detachment, an urbanity, and a certain amount of Edwardian stuffiness.... entirely at odds with the nastiness of the plots

contradiction between scholarly reticence and fiendish perversity becomes the authenticating mark of the antiquarian ghost story

sophisticated literary techniques are a form of exorcism in a world filled with hidden menace

to convert [menace] into a pleasant ghost story is to momentarily banish it

unwillingness of the narrators to face up to implied horrors makes the stories all the more chilling and convincing

[disguised] unpleasantness

Narrative coolness

dark center is enclosed, and occasionally buried, by several layers of supernatural apparatus

anticipated climax, the final revelation,  less compelling than the means of arriving at it

disarmingly straightforward rather than metaphysical

art object acts not as a mere catalyst, but as the substance of the experience

eccentricity of the mode of perception

wry, typically understated conclusion discourages the reader from using the story as a brief for any demonic precept

brisk parallelism

more like dark enigmas than finished works of fiction

a riddle in which the supernatural appears to play a part

sly cross references are another indication of the self­ referential character of James's fictional world

narrative posture assumes an audience of connoisseurs, an elect readership which can extrapolate a plot from a sentence

fiction [of considerable power] succeeds in creating a universe of its own which can be apprehended only through careful, thoughtful reading

surfaces are potent and suggestive

far more innovative than he pretends to be

radical and puzzling use of subtlety to evoke ghostly horror 

readers tend to associate supernatural horror in fiction with hyperbole, capitals, promiscuous exclamation marks, and bloated adjectives

ghosts materialize not so much from inner darkness or outer conspiracies as from a kind of antiquarian malaise

his fiction shows how nostalgia has a habit of turning into horror

Alfred Hitchcock has often said that terror and suspense grow not out of shock and surprise, but out of thickening inevitability

one step ahead of the character so that the dreams and premonitions are as eerie as the apparitions they announce


27 March 2021

Illustration by Jorge Gonzalez

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