There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

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


graceful


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



Jay

27 March 2021



Illustration by Jorge Gonzalez

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