Saturday, 11 October 2014

A Ghost Story Competition

In December 1930, The Spectator asked M. R. James, Provost of Eton college and renowned ghost story writer, to judge a ghost story competition. From the large number of submissions, a shortlist of twelve was compiled and James was asked to choose a winner and give his thoughts on the submissions he'd read. The winning entry, 'Here He Lies Where He Longed to Be', was written by Miss Winifred Galbraith of 44 Langon Grove, Sydenham, S.E. 26, though James did have some reservations about awarding the story first place, as you will read for yourself in the text below.

To my mind (as I may have said before once or thrice), M. R. James is the Master of the traditional English ghost story. Nobody has ever surpassed him, and I can't imagine anyone ever doing so. James got absolutely everything right. Anyone wanting to write ghost stories can do no better than to look to the Master for inspiration and guidance. So, for the purpose of enlightenment, I am posting here James' comments concerning the competition and its entries. I'll post the winning story, and the runner-up, in the next couple of weeks.

By Dr. M. R. James
The Spectator ~ 27th of December 1930.

THE limitation of space allowed competitors, viz., “not exceeding a thousand words,” has inevitably tended to cramp their style. I have always thought that one very desirable quality in a ghost story is leisureliness. Before now I have said it. The ghost story is essentially a somewhat old-fashioned thing; that is one of the reasons why Christmas time, which appeals to old association in so many ways, is considered the proper season for ghost stories. And in so far as the ghost story is old fashioned, it ought to move at a pace suitable to its age. Such alarming features as it has, if they are to produce their one effect, must be introduced gradually. An explosion, as of a maroon, is often legitimate enough, but the reader must be put into the mood of expecting it. Hence I attribute great importance to the setting of such a story. I like, as I do in a detective novel, to make some sort of acquaintance with the actors. And, I would add, the more ordinary and normal both setting and actors are, the more effective will be the entangling of them in a dreadful situation, and the more ready will he who follows their adventures be to shake the head and murmur those words which I have long since registered as the proper ones for the reader of ghost stories, to wit, “If I’m not very careful, something like this may happen to me.”

Now it is clearly impossible for anyone so limited as are your competitors in point of space to fulfil the conditions I have laid down. The writer is forced to plunge in medias res. Still, he must have a setting and an environment to indicate, and a patient who must be characterized, as well as some being to operate upon that patient. The question is, who has managed these matters best among the twelve authors who have come before me?

I tabulate the settings and I find that three are connected with car-smashes, two with trains, one with France ancient, one with France modern, one with the War, one with a London house, one with a country house; one gives us a benevolent ancestral ghost; and the scene of one is set in China. The car, in spite of its terrific death-roll, is hardly the right vehicle for the peculiar horror we want in the Christmas ghost story. It moves too quick (much too quick for my liking) and runs the risk of a Grand Guignol effect. That is the fault of The Grin, A Night’s Hospitality. One without title which tells of the Great North Road is better, but its point - a ghost who disbelieves in ghosts after having been one for a year - is too sophisticated.

Of the two train stories neither is quite coherent. I do not ask, heaven forbid! for a rigid sequence of cause and effect in a ghost story, but I do want some thread to tie the happenings together, though it should be guessed at rather than seen. In the Red Beard I do not get this; I cannot see what connexion can be supposed to exist between the man seen in the train and the wicked Baronet. The other, In the Fog, does connect the events together, but the catastrophe is wholly obscure (nor, though I may be very stupid, do I understand how that which was going on in the next compartment was seen reflected on the fog: does this happen?).

The revolution episode in The Return is of good quality: but if you are asking to be alarmed you will be disappointed. The other French scene, No Wine, etc., I cannot class as a ghost story. The “ghost” was a living man. As to the War story, The Haunted Trench, one feels that almost anything might have happened in the war. It is the wrong setting to choose for a ghost story: you cannot make it more terrifying in that way.

In the Atmosphere That Stayed we find familiar ground, an evil home in St. John’s Wood. Very right: but our ghost is too vague: were the story a “veridical” account of an experience, communicated with proper credentials to the S.P.R., it would command the attention which it fails to rouse as fiction. The benevolent great grandmother in Old China does not stray out of an ordinary groove.

Two tales remain which I think the best, The House-party, and Here He Lies, etc. The latter causes me a slight difficulty: the note at the end appears to indicate that the writer did not invent the story but had it told to her. It is a good story and well told, and, if this note does not constitute a disqualification, I should place Here He Lies first. If it is disqualified I should give the prize to The House-party, which has the merits (in my eyes) of a perfectly ordinary setting, a horrid catastrophe, and a curiosity legitimately excited, and not satisfied, in the mind of the reader. There is sympathy, too, roused for the victim - another good point.

It has been an interesting and pleasant experience to read these stories. All of them show some imagination: few have any serious faults in expression. The chief obstacle to excellence has been, as I said, the limited space: almost everyone would have been better for more elbowroom: but I cannot wonder that a limit was imposed. What might not have been the fate of a preliminary sifter, compelled to read, against time, a hundred stories of 3,000 words apiece!

Eton College.   M. R. James

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