Hauntology: Ghosts of Futures Past by Merlin Coverley (2020)
Archive Fever: MR James
Of all the many writers today associated with hauntology, whose works are routinely name-checked in any discussion of the subject, it is perhaps MR James (1862-1936) who recurs most persistently, his spare and reassuringly formulaic tales of haunted antiquarians and antiquarian hauntings repeatedly invoked in support of a peculiarly English tradition of ghostly imaginings. Writing in 2015, in an article entitled 'The eeriness of the English countryside', Robert Macfarlane states: 'We do not seem able to leave MR James behind. His stories, like the restless dead that haunt them, keep returning to us: re-adapted, reread, freshly frightening for each new era.'110 The reasons behind James's enduring legacy are twofold, Macfarlane suggests: firstly, his long-acknowledged mastery of the eerie, 'that form of fear that is felt first as unease, then as dread, and which is incited by glimpses and tremors rather than outright attack'; and secondly, his understanding of the uncanny forces – 'part-buried sufferings and contested ownerships' – which underlie the landscape, and the English landscape in particular. 'James's influence, or his example', Macfarlane concludes, 'has rarely been more strongly with us than now. For there is presently apparent, across what might broadly be called landscape culture, a fascination with these Jamesian ideas of unsettlement and displacement. In music, literature, art, film and photography, as well as in new and hybrid forms and media, the English eerie is on the rise.'111
MR James is most commonly associated with the coastal landscapes of East Anglia, the setting for several of his best known stories, amongst them 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' (1904) and 'A Warning to the Curious' (1925), both of which were later the subject of memorable adaptations for television, and it has been through such reworkings of his stories that James's work continues to reach a new audience. It was a series of adaptations directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark as part of A Ghost Story for Christmas (1971-77) which were to prove the most influential of these, not only in maintaining James's reputation but in bringing the desolate landscapes of the East Anglian coast to life. Indeed, such has been the success of these and later versions of James's work that his stories are now inseparable from their visual counterparts, the two forever entwined in the popular imagination, with the consequence that many of James's tales have now established an uncanny afterlife of their own. This has resulted in a curious inability to place James's tales within their allotted timescale, one matched by a similar difficulty of categorisation within the tradition of the ghost story itself, of which James's stories are often regarded as foundation texts. For as several commentators have remarked, while the structure of James's fiction is unarguably emblematic of the classic ghost story, the ghosts themselves are altogether different from their disembodied Gothic predecessors:
In inventing a new type of ghost, he departed considerably from the conventional Gothic traditions; for where the older stock ghosts were pale and stately, and apprehended chiefly through the sense of sight, the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish and hairy – a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man – and usually touched before it is seen.112
HP Lovecraft, writing here in 1925, was an enthusiastic admirer of James's tales, to the extent that his own stories often mimic their structure, in which empirical common sense falters and finally crumbles in the face of an encounter with the supernatural. As well as Lovecraft, both China Miéville and Mark Fisher have also questioned the status of James's ghosts, arguing that 'demon' might in fact be a more accurate designation.113 If the term 'ghost' is too anachronistic a term for James's distinctly tactile creations, then it is similarly misleading to regard James as foremost a writer of landscape, for he is equally at home in a more domestic setting, within the country houses, churches, guesthouses and railway stations in which his stories are so often staged.
There is, however, one setting that is recurrent throughout his fiction, that of the library or archive.
James's ghost stories have tended to be treated quite separately from his academic interests, not least by James himself who dismissed them as little more than idle entertainments; but his own antiquarian and archival pursuits supply the foundations to many of his stories, in which the intellectual curiosity of a lone male archivist or historian leads to horrifying consequences. James's own academic background was predominantly in the fields of palaeography, biblical and apocryphal studies, and much of his life's work was devoted to cataloguing the manuscript collections of the college libraries of Cambridge University. He may be regarded then, with some justification, as a potential victim of 'archive fever', a condition Simon Reynolds has described as 'the occupational ailment of librarians who spend too long in the stacks, a derangement afflicting academics and antiquarians as they test the limits of the human brain to digest information.'114 Here, Reynolds draws upon Jacques Derrida's Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1996), a characteristically opaque account of the nature and function of the archive, in which he explores what it means to be 'en mal d'archive' or 'in need of archives', an obsessive craving comparable to an addiction:
It is to burn with a passion. It is never to rest, interminably, from searching for the archive right where it slips away. It is to run after the archive, even if there is too much of it [...] It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for a return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. No desire, no passion, no drive, no compulsion, indeed no repetition compulsion, no "mal-de" can arise for a person who is not already, in one way or another, en mal d'archive.115
At the root of the word 'archive' is the double meaning of both 'commencement' and 'commandment' and, as Reynolds explains, the concept is 'deeply entangled with ideas of origin and order, authenticity and authority.'116 Derrida identifies something sinister behind this nostalgic compulsion for endless repetition which lies at the heart of the archival impulse, tracing it back to the Freudian death drive, Thanatos, a regressive, primal instinct, more elementary than the pleasure principle, Eros, with which it coexists. Archive fever is then embedded within us, lying dormant but ready to present its symptoms in response to our compulsion to exert control over the past, an ailment clearly at work in James's antiquarian encounters but one increasingly expressive of our own condition, as we are submerged beneath an unprecedented deluge of information:
'Archive fever' is a good term for today's delirium of documentation, which extends beyond institutions and professional historians to the Web's explosion of amateur archive creation. There is a feeling of frenzy to all this activity; it's like people are slinging stuff 'up there' – information, images, testimonials – in a mad-dash hurry before some mass shutdown causes all our brains to burn out simultaneously. Nothing is too trivial, too insignificant, to be discarded [...] The result, visible above all on the Internet, is that the archive degenerates into the anarchive: a barely navigable disorder of data-debris and memory-trash. For the archive to maintain any kind of integrity, it must sift and reject, consign some memories to oblivion. History must have a dustbin, or History will be a dustbin, a gigantic, sprawling garbage heap.117
'The structure of the archive is spectral', Derrida writes, 'It is spectral a priori: neither present nor absent "in the flesh," neither visible nor invisible, a trace always referring to another whose eyes can never be met'; a ghostly presence, oppressed by the ever-expanding weight of the past, the archive is haunted by that which is missing or excluded.118
This spectral presence permeates James's fiction in which texts appear to acquire a malign agency, appearing, disappearing and returning, seemingly at will: in 'Number 13' (1904), for example, an indecipherable vellum document is found beneath the floorboards of a haunted room; 'The Diary of Mr Poynter' (1919) is found to contain a curious insertion within its pages; in 'Casting the Runes' (1911) Karswell's malicious spells are delivered on slips of paper which must be returned to their sender if the curse is to be undone; the removal of 'The Uncommon Prayer-book' (1921) from its rightful setting releases its malignant guardian; the sale of 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' (1895) conceals an unholy provenance; and a chance find in the library reveals the secret of 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance' (1911). Throughout James's work, texts of various sorts – Bibles, prayer-books, diaries, manuscripts, documents and notes – are used to deliver their invariably maleficent, and often fatal, message. Yet James's tales reveal an ambivalence towards these texts, whose understanding comes at a high cost and which must invariably be both read and destroyed.119 Nowhere is this ambivalence displayed more clearly, and the archive haunted more feverishly, than in 'The Tractate Middoth' (1911).
James's works abound with the use of scholarly apparatus, those notes, translations and other bibliographical devices designed to add a semblance of authenticity to his tales, but 'The Tractate Middoth' must be one of very few stories to employ library classmarks within its pages. Opening within 'a certain famous library', the story sees the librarian, Mr Garrett, sent in search of an obscure volume: 'Talmud: Tractate Middoth, with the commentary of Nachmanides'. And yet the book resists his attempts to locate it, for someone, something, appears keen that this particular book should not be consulted. Seeking out this volume, Garrett experiences an unpleasant shock, for 'there's something wrong in the atmosphere of the library', 'a sort of unnaturally strong smell of dust' and at its source:
I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. [...] He turned round to let me see his face [...] I didn't take in the lower part of his face. I did see the upper part, and it was perfectly dry and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone there were cobwebs – thick.120
The story offers both an illustration of archive fever as well as a potential cure, for in a pattern familiar to so many of James's stories, our librarian decides upon a short holiday to recover from the shock of his unpleasant encounter, taking a train to Burnstow-on-Sea (Felixstowe) in Suffolk. Needless to say, however, the ghostly presence at the heart of James's story cannot be so easily eluded, and the malignancy which pervades the archive follows in Garrett's wake. On the train to Burnstow, Garrett meets a fellow passenger who, through an uncanny coincidence, reveals to him the story of her own search for a missing book, hidden in which is the will to a lost estate, her only clue being a slip of paper on which five numbers are printed. These Garrett recognises as the classmark of the Tractate Middoth, for this passenger, Mrs Simpson, is the cousin of John Eldred, the patron of the library who first instigated Garrett's search for the book. While the former wishes to locate the will, the latter seeks to destroy it, in accordance with the instructions of their malicious uncle, the clergyman Dr Rant, who died 20 years earlier, bequeathing the book and its puzzle to his heirs. Cutting short his holiday, Garrett returns to the library only to find that Eldred, unwilling to risk an encounter with the book's cobwebbed guardian, has had the book delivered to his home. Garrett follows the book by train hoping to induce Eldred to give it up to him, before pursuing his quarry on foot and finally witnessing his death at the hands of a shadowy form which embraces him just at the moment at which he attempts to tear out the book's fly-leaf, on which the missing will is written. Returning the following day to the site of Eldred's demise, Garrett finds 'a thick black mass of cobwebs, and as he stirred it gingerly with his stick several large spiders ran out of it into the grass.'121 The story ends with Mrs Simpson inheriting the estate and with Garrett marrying her daughter.
James's tale contains all the familiar elements one is accustomed to finding in his stories: the donnish bachelor and the bookish environment; the haunted object and the ghostly encounter; the train journey and escape to East Anglia; the pursuit and horrifying dénouement. But what is also apparent here, as throughout his work, is a tension between the interior and the exterior, between the domestic and the familiar on the one hand, and a malevolent landscape on the other. Discussing James's work in The Weird and the Eerie (2016), Mark Fisher notes the tension between these boundaries: 'For James, the outside is always coded as hostile and demonic. When he read his ghost stories to his Cambridge audience at Christmas, the glimpses of exteriority they offered no doubt brought a thrill to his listeners, but they also came with a firm warning: venture outside this cloistered world at your peril.'122 Fisher employs this distinction in his analysis of the weird and the eerie, arguing that while both categories are 'fundamentally to do with the outside', the latter 'seldom clings to enclosed and inhabited domestic spaces; we find the eerie more readily in landscapes partially emptied of the human.'123 But as 'The Tractate Middoth' illustrates, while these landscapes may be imbued with malevolence, they are also the customary retreat of academics and archivists seeking respite from what are often equally haunted interiors. It would appear that the ghosts or demons which populate James's stories have little respect for boundaries, and while the few inhabitants of James's sparsely populated landscapes often appear outnumbered by their ghostly counterparts, so too are his churches, libraries and guesthouses no barrier against the encroachments of the supernatural. In what Adam Scovell has identified as the 'chief meme' of James's stories, 'even when stories remain stubbornly in dusty rooms, libraries and churches; the outside still somehow always seems to find its way in.'124 And as the library housing the Tractate Middoth demonstrates, the reverse is also true, and what is inside always seems to find its way out.
In addition to this distinction between interior and exterior, Fisher also characterises the weird and the eerie in terms of presence and absence: 'the Weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong. [...] The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a failure of absence or by a failure of presence. The sensation of the eerie occurs when there is something present where there should be nothing, or if there is nothing present when there should be something.'125 Both categories seem applicable to James's work, in which an array of found objects – a whistle, a crown, binoculars, and myriad texts – carry a powerfully weird charge, but are invariably located within an eerily desolate landscape, characterised by a largely absent population. In 'The Tractate Middoth' these two categories coexist within the library, in which the weirdly demonic presence of Dr Rant is accompanied by an eerie gap in the shelves – a book which ought to be present but is not. The archive itself is something of a challenge to Fisher's distinction, for as Derrida claims, it is by its very nature spectral, neither wholly present nor absent, visible nor invisible, and yet as he also acknowledges, the archive is inevitably haunted by what it excludes. This is certainly true of the Tractate Middoth itself, which is eerily absent throughout, seemingly always one step ahead of its pursuers; but more often in James's work the reverse is true, and libraries and archives are haunted not by what is missing but by what they unexpectedly reveal, a book or manuscript that is present where none was expected, an unexplained addition which has evaded classification and whose discovery heralds an unexpected series of events.126
While James's work has been widely considered in terms of the weird and the eerie, it has received far less attention in terms of the third category in this critical triumvirate, the uncanny. In fact James's work has been discussed surprisingly little in Freudian terms, surprising because as even a cursory glance at his work would indicate, one cannot help but feel that Freud would have found ample material here for analysis. Indeed, when one considers the narrowly circumscribed nature of James's Edwardian existence, a life bounded by the twin institutions of Eton and Cambridge, reflected in works populated almost exclusively by similarly donnish figures overwhelmed by forces inexplicable to them, one can only conclude that his fiction has been spared a form of interpretation to which it seems particularly vulnerable. Of course, it has been impossible to overlook the symbolic language of so many of James's stories with their dark wells and cavities, crumpled bedsheets and linen, and above all the hairiness of his shockingly tactile creations, seemingly so eager to embrace their victims.127 But the first writer to risk the outrage of James's loyal readership by exposing his work to a Freudian reading, was one who has since been accorded a major role in the history of hauntology, Nigel Kneale. Kneale's work will be discussed in the following chapter, but it was his brief introduction to the Folio Society edition of James's work in 1973 that risked consternation amongst James's supporters:
Yet the paradox of James's fiction is that whereas the elaborate documentation was always wholly invented, the haunting horror may have been the truth – about himself, about his inner world.
In an age when every man is his own psychologist, MR James looks like rich and promising material. Such a story as The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, with its groping down a fetid well and the implications of its climax – but never mind, analysis becomes nonsense here, as irrelevant as smashing a pearl to get at the original particle of grit. [...] What went on behind Dr James's scholarly façade is no longer important. All that matters is what his imagination shaped it into and the way he wrote it down.
In his real world his closest companions were a cat and her kittens. In the other '... terrible bodies began to break out of the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with greyish hair ...' In despising rational explanations he was perhaps paying a kind of respect to himself. There must have been times when it was hard to be Monty James.128
Kneale's teasing introduction suggests that James's avoidance of rational solutions to his tales may have been a form of self-defence mechanism protecting him from laying bare his own inner motivations. Kneale acknowledges James's willingness to refashion the landscapes of his own nightmares into a 'wholly alien place' in which inanimate everyday objects 'stir into life beneath one's hand.'129 And as we shall see, the idea of a recovered object, alien in time and place, returning to disrupt the present, 'the Jamesian object' as one critic has described it, is a hallmark not only of James's and Kneale's work, but one of the most recognisable tropes of hauntology itself.130
In 1957, Jacques Tourneur directed Night of the Demon, his adaptation of James's 'Casting the Runes' (1911), thus inaugurating the history of folk horror in England. Folk horror will be the subject of a later chapter, but it is revealing of a movement more commonly associated with the 1960s and 1970s, that it is the Edwardian Monty James who should be regarded as its progenitor. Like hauntology itself, with which it shares a curious symbiosis, folk horror is a constellation of ideas and individuals that has proven similarly resistant to definition and categorisation. In his history of the movement and its recent revival, Adam Scovell names MR James, alongside Robin Hardy, Nigel Kneale and Alan Garner, as one of its key representatives.131 James sits rather awkwardly amongst this group, a revenant of an earlier age, returning to haunt an era which would no doubt have horrified him, although perhaps not in the manner his inclusion here might suggest. In some ways, however, James's adoption into this movement is curiously apt. Just as his presence here is chronologically disruptive, an anachronism characteristic of his fiction, so too is such temporal dislocation equally representative of the wider strategies of both folk horror and hauntology itself:
Folk Horror often mimics this idea of looking back, where the past and the present mix and create horror through both anachronisms and uncomfortable tautologies between eras. [...] whereby era and temporality are linked by esoteric, inexplicable events; things that unnerve through a sheer recognisability of darker ages that are beginning to reoccur. Folk Horror, the horror of 'folk', is out of time and within time, with strangers in the landscape who have survived the ravages of modernity.132
James's antipathy towards modernity has been well documented and one senses that he felt all future change was to be resisted or ignored.133 Time comes to a halt in his fiction; it stops within a perpetual present of close, fixed routine mapped out by train timetables and church services, an unalterable past and endlessly replayed present acting as bulwarks against an unwelcome future. Just as the landscapes of the English countryside are depicted as reassuringly impermeable to change, a timeless topography of country houses and comfortable hotels, so too are the institutions of club and college, church and library similarly immutable, symbolic of a world in which the past is catalogued and controlled, the future permanently on hold. Of course, what haunts James's stories is precisely that which eludes control, those remnants of the past which refuse to be domesticated and which return, repeatedly, to disrupt the present.
'For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. "Thirty years ago", "Not long before the war", are very proper openings.'134 Written in 1924, these comments reflect James's preference for the late Victorian and Edwardian settings of so many of his stories. On occasion he retreats further into the past but James believed that it was the near and not the distant past that provided the most suitable time-frame for his work: 'It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost the harder it is to make him effective, always supposing him to be the ghost of a dead person. [...] Roughly speaking, the ghost should be a contemporary of the seer. Such was the elder Hamlet and such Jacob Marley.'135 His stories articulate a nostalgic longing for the past, but not any past, or indeed anybody's past other than his own. In this regard James shows himself to be faithful not only to the conventions of the ghost story but to the logic of hauntology, of which he must rightly be regarded as a progenitor. For as Dylan Trigg observes, hauntology is bound by precisely the same temporal discipline as James demonstrates in his fiction:
Exemplary of the logic of hauntology, M.R. James draws together a constellation of different eras in the same figure; namely, the figure of the spectre emerging from the sand on the Suffolk coastline [...] The gesture of imbuing an otherwise placid landscape with the phantoms of antiquity is central to hauntology. Only in the case of hauntology, the past is not a remote one but instead a time that has been compressed, dating back no more than thirty or forty years – that is, largely to the childhood of those who assign their own past as the site of haunting.136
Trapped or rather willingly interred within the landscapes of his own endlessly recreated youth, James was able to finesse the rules of his hauntological miniatures, establishing a template for future practitioners of the ghost story.137 So influential have James's stories since become, however, that his template for the future of the ghost story has effectively curtailed that future, his resistance to change so tightly encoded in his texts that they permit only repetition. Writing in 1977, Julia Briggs bemoaned the state of the contemporary ghost story, arguing that 'it has become a vehicle for nostalgia, a formulaic exercise content merely to recreate a Dickensian or Monty Jamesian atmosphere. It no longer has any capacity for growth or adaptation.'138 Of course, it is precisely this sense of the reassuringly formulaic that is, for many, the principal attraction of James's stories, their repetitions compelling us to return, repeatedly, to his re-enactments of an unchanging past. Today the ghost story retains the imperative James inaugurated more than a century ago, remaining, in the words of China Miéville, 'overwhelmingly, exclusively hauntological, their figures revenant dead in time out of joint.'139
Hauntology, I too dislike it!
Hauntology is the latest in Coverley's series of interesting and mercifully brief books about intellectual flavors of the month.
"Hauntology" began as a bit of rhetorical shorthand by the late obscurantist Jaques Derrida. Eventually a more mundane and useful role was found for the term as Marxism was eclipsed in 90s academia.
The examples Coverley provides of works by his hauntologists strike the reader as (at best) eccentric themes from creative writing class assignments.
Excerpts from a zine called "Savage Messiah" by someone named "Laura Grace (formerly Oldfield) Ford" seem to be the acme of this kind of amateur gibberish, subsequently canonized with a Verso edition. Coverly suggests "Savage Messiah" valorizes atomized dead-end riots as examples of popular protests against "Thatcherism."
Mark Fisher of "acid communism" fame is given pride of place in the book's final chapter. I suspect Fisher called himself a Marxist by misunderstanding: his brand of petty bourgeois social democracy cross-fertilized with fashionable academic jargon is not fundamentally different from the priorities of old New Left Review/Tony Benn Labour reformist Bernsteinism.
Fisher's vaunted and "courageous" 1970s political nostalgia is untouched by the weight of the victory in Vietnam against US imperialism, the Portuguese revolution, or the Irish civil rights movement. His 1979 is oblivious to victories in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Iran, and the intensifying antiapartheid struggle. Crucially: no mention of class, class dictatorship, or class struggle. In the end, Fisher is one more purveyor of pink whateverism.
Coverley's sections on Vernon Lee, Machen, Susan Cooper, and Alan Garner will be useful to new readers looking for guidance. So are the lists of recommended websites, films, and books.
28 January 2022