But What Lurks Without? M. R. James vs. H. P. Lovecraft

It’s sort of strange how omnipresent H. P. Lovecraft is in horror conversations, even now. The legacy of his particular branch of weird is substantial — and, largely, a conversation we are saving for later on. Don’t worry, there is still a lot to say.

A less well-known figure holds a much closer place in my heart: M. R. James.

On the surface, it is strange to compare these two men. James was the father of the antiquarian ghost story. Lovecraft basically created the genre of cosmic horror. And yet, there really is a great deal of common ground. They were, in fact, contemporaries, and died within a year of one another (James in 1936, Lovecraft in 1937). Both wrote stories that took their sensibilities from earlier time periods. Both have had impacts on the horror genre that they never would have foreseen. Both were solitary men whose sexuality is a preoccupation of modern scholars. And, most importantly, both based their horror in a fear of the Outside, of the arcane, and of the forbidden.

Perhaps it’s best to start with some brief biographical notes.

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Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 in Goodnestone, Kent, England, though the family moved to Suffolk fairly early in his childhood. The countryside must have made quite the impression, as the houses and landscapes of Suffolk feature in several of his stories. However, as Darryl Jones points out in his introduction to the 2011 OUP edition of Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James’ life and work were much more clearly defined by the realms of academia than by anywhere else:

On ‘a rainy day in September 1873’, young Monty was deposited by his father in Temple Grove school, East Sheen, which ‘had the reputation of being the oldest private school in England’. From this moment on, his life was an unbroken progress through educational institutions — Eton, King’s, and (when the deaths of so many of his students in the War proved too much for him) back to Eton.

The world of academia was a natural fit for James. Throughout his career, he received a great many scholarships and professional accolades, and served as director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at in Cambridge from 1893 until 1908, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge from 1913 to 1915, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, from 1905 to 1918, and provost of Eton College from 1918 until his death in 1936. James was, primarily, a medievalist, though his scholarly pursuits range through a large array of ancillary topics. Indeed, he is still remembered quite well in academia, particularly for his systematic organization and cataloging of medieval manuscripts. His legacy would have been well assured, even without his less expected hobby.

While it was, by nature, a rather insular life, one cannot say that the closed world of the university was lonely — merely sheltered. That is not to say that he never traveled. James was a great enthusiast for traveling Europe, often in the company of friends. One such trip to study churches in France was the likely model for his earliest story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, and his trips to Denmark with his friend and illustrator James McBryde clearly gave him fodder for stories like “Number 13”.

And, rather famously, James’ friends were the original audience for all of his stories. It’s a rather delightful image: every year on Christmas Eve night, they would gather in James’ rooms in Cambridge. Settled by the fire with drinks, they would close all the lights save one candle, by which James would read his newest offering.

M. R. James never married, and it has been hypothesized that the aforementioned James McBryde was the love of his life. McBryde himself died young, following complications from an appendectomy. In his will, he made James legal guardian of his then-unborn daughter, and James remained close friends with McBryde’s widow and daughter for the rest of his life.

Largely, it seems likely that James viewed his students and colleagues as something of a family. His fondness for all of them was quite well known. When, in 1918, many of his students left King’s College for the first World War and never returned, it hit James very hard. He retreated from life in Cambridge, back to the familiar comfort of Eton, and remained there until his death.

IMG_0221Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island, USA, in 1890, and spent most of his life in Providence. Very early in his life, Lovecraft’s father was committed to Butler Hospital due to erratic behavior caused by untreated syphilis. He died only a few years later. Following this, Lovecraft was raised in a home containing his mother, her two sisters, and her parents. His mother and grandfather were, in particular, huge influences on him — and Lovecraft’s grandfather is often credited with introducing him to old stories in the more Gothic tradition, as well as giving him a firm base in the classics. His traditional schooling was a little more sporadic, as young Lovecraft was often kept home for periods of time due to ill health and nervous afflictions.

Following his grandfather’s death, Lovecraft’s family suffered a downturn in finances, and he and his mother had to move to a much smaller home. He viewed the changes with great resentment, and went through a period of depression. During this time, Lovecraft began working as an amateur journalist, and submitting some of his fiction to magazines for pulp and weird fiction. Many of the articles he wrote at this time are marked by the preoccupations that would underline much of his future writing — xenophobia, the supposed bastardization of language and culture, the threat posed by immigration.

In 1918, Lovecraft’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown, and was eventually committed to the same hospital that had housed his father. Within a few years, she died of complications following gall bladder surgery. It was during this period of time that Lovecraft started writing the stories that would eventually become the Cthulhu Mythos. Also in this time, he met Sonia Greene.

Sonia Greene was a journalist and publisher in her own right, and the two met at a writers’ convention. They were married in early 1924 and moved to New York City, where Lovecraft was largely miserable. By 1925, Sonia had left both Lovecraft and New York to pursue her own career. After a further year in Brooklyn Heights — where he wrote some short stories, and the initial outline to Call of Cuthulhu — Lovecraft returned to Providence. His last ten years in Providence were his most prolific, though Lovecraft showed a remarkable indifference to most publishers. Lovecraft died in 1937 of intestinal cancer. His stories and notebooks passed into the possession of his young friend and correspondent, Robert H. Barlow, and were eventually donated to the John Hay Library at Brown University. Another friends, August Derleth, founded Arkham House as a vehicle for posthumously publishing Lovecraft’s work.

Two very different men, to be sure. And yet, and yet. There are many themes that recur throughout both of their works. Anyone familiar with either author knows that they both tended towards imagined books of dangerous or arcane knowledge, the echoes of past sins, forbidden knowledge, the dangers of the outside world.

As Lovecraft himself wrote in Supernatural Horror in Literature:

The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

That “unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces” is a particular thread in both men’s writing. It winds its way through all of Lovecraft’s work very starkly, and perhaps more quietly through James’. Think of the strange, inexplicable demons and wraiths that inhabit the latter’s ghost stories. Think of the Old Gods, the strange creatures, the forces from beyond in the former’s. Reading their stories, so much of the fear comes from the power held by things that are well beyond the comprehension of the (largely well-educated, academic) protagonists. Even, or perhaps especially, when they are actively seeking out knowledge, they step too far off the path and encounter something terrible.

However, it is the root of that fear that makes all the difference. For M. R. James, the danger was what lay beyond the safety of the academic institution. It’s leaving that is the danger. Who knows what dangers lurk without these walls? James’ protagonists are usually university men like James himself, their sheltered lives have insulated them from dangers. The outside world is fascinating — they are often in search of books or prints or relics to bring back for study; they often have engaging, if odd, encounters with outside people —  but unsafe. Even when supernatural things come to the university (such as the seemingly cursed print sent to an Oxford curator in the unsettling story “The Mezzotint”), the horror already occurred in another place. What is left to our unassuming hero is to figure out the story, with the help of his fellow scholars.

For Lovecraft, the genesis of horror was something much more sinister. The danger from outside was the all-terrifying Other. In this case, “Other” being anything but an unmuddied Anglo-Saxon norm. (We are, in fact, seeing a resurgence of the conversation over the problematic nature of the term “Anglo-Saxon” now. For a good overview, go here.) The landscape of his horror is racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and all their attendant fears and hatreds. Even when it is subtle, Lovecraft’s hangups are the underpinning, the thing that gives his stories such a claustrophobic, trapped feel — the dangers are closing in. And, they are not always (or even often) subtle. One only has to read “The Horror of Red Hook” to see his take on a city “leporous and cancerous with evil dragged from elder worlds”, wherein the non-Aryan people are described as possessing “primitive half-ape savagery”. It is, disturbingly, not the most racist thing he ever wrote. Plenty of it has language that we would all be best not including on this blog.

But, contending with the complexities of Lovecraft’s legacy is not the order of the day. There’s plenty of  time for that yet. Our current concern, in the main, is the different ways that one can approach a fear of the outside world.

It will, perhaps, surprise no one that Lovecraft was a devoted fan of M. R. James, and had a great deal to say in his favor (indeed, his addressing of James’ work in the above-mentioned Supernatural Horror in Literature is well worth reading). He was particularly taken with the short story “Count Magnus”, and it would be difficult to not see parallels between the eponymous Count, and the sorcerer Joseph Curwen from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. And plenty more of the stories have similarities that are less easily pinpointed, something that is more of a feeling. Personally, I have always found something reminiscent of James in Lovecraft’s “The Tomb”; and of Lovecraft in James’ “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”. Make of that what you will.

There is something cozy about reading M. R. James. Which may sound strange, given how unsettling their content, but something about them has retained the quality of being told a story, in front of the fire, by a good friend. The answers are, perhaps, not always available, but you can rest assured that you have made it, you are safe. James offers us a kinder world than his foil. Lovecraft’s stories are anything but cozy. They are unsettling, and the lack of answers is meant to haunt — for all that the answers themselves are likely to drive you mad.

The difference is always in who is telling the story.

(For those interested, you can read the works of James here, and Lovecraft here.)

2 thoughts on “But What Lurks Without? M. R. James vs. H. P. Lovecraft

  1. I’m with you when it comes to preferring MR James. I find Lovecraft’s writing to be overwrought and lacking in subtlety. James’ universe may be smaller than Lovecraft’s, but it’s more skilfully described. He suggests where Lovecraft is explicit. Also, he has a sense of humour…

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    • The subtle playfulness of James’ stories is part of what makes them so enjoyable! That, and he was a much better writer. There’s a self-conscious clumsiness to Lovecraft’s writing that no one seems to want to admit to.

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