The classic ghost stories of Montague Rhodes James are Halloween staples for many readers, listeners, and viewers. So many are fixtures in the genre that it’s hard to pick just one as a favorite. But I am going to single out one story this year, for particular reasons.
“A Vignette” was James’s last ghost story – indeed, it only appeared in the London Mercury after his death in 1936. It is also his most autobiographical, and recalls his childhood home, the Rectory at Great Livermere in Suffolk. “You are asked to think of the spacious garden of a country rectory,” the story begins. And this apparent personal account of his youth directly concerns his first intimations of “uncanny fancies and fear.”
Obviously, the Suffolk landscape impressed itself on James deeply, and he proved adept in teasing out its potential for “melancholy or funereal associations.” Suffolk and East Anglia provide the settings for many of James’s stories. “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad” and “A Warning to the Curious” are the two most obvious, but “Castringham Hall in Suffolk” in his equally disturbing “The Ash Tree” is another venue. “Wilsthorpe, a country station in Eastern England,” features in “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance,” near the house with the mysterious maze that confounds the inheritor. And “Rats” has another setting on the Suffolk coast, in a gloomy inn.
But “A Vignette” is about more than a sense of place. Specifically, it’s about intimations of the uncanny that are never made clear or coherent. One strength of James’s writing is the enigmatic, cryptic nature of many of his horrors. What they are is not made explicit, and there is no key to the mystery, just as there often is no defense against it. The origins of the terrifying yet almost unseen phantom in “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You My Lad” are left unclear, except for some apparent connection to the Knights Templars. Ditto the entombed demon in “An Episode of Cathedral History”: What exactly is it? How did it get there? No clue. “Count Magnus,” the grim and awful vampiric figure in the story of the same name, won his frightful powers on a “Black Pilgrimage,” whose details once again are only hinted at – and he himself is never seen directly, for all that his character and even his portrait are carefully described. Ambiguity and uncertainty are almost as characteristic of James’s style as tension and horror.
“There is very little in the way of actual incident to come,” James admits in the tale, but his vignette goes on to describe an incident of sorts in fearfully evocative terms. Looking into belt of trees called the Plantation next to the rectory, he spies something in a gap in its gate. “There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. Nor does it make the matter any better if the expression gives no clue to what is to come next.” That’s almost all that happens, but the confrontation with the inexplicable and frightful is all the more disturbing for its lack of any obvious logic, purpose, or outcome. Did James really have a youthful encounter with what Rudolf Otto calls the the mysterium tremendum – the Panic sense of numinous dread? It seems like he probably did, and developed as a horror writer because of it. And the whole story is recounted in “A Vignette.”