Američki pisac Majkl Šejbon (Michael Chabon) kod nas je objavljivan i kao Čabon i kao Čebon i kao Šejbon (for the record: među svim tim čobanima jedini ga je kako treba preveo Nikola Pajvančić). Ali to nema veze s ovom temom. Pominjem ga zato što je on u svojoj knjizi eseja MAPS AND LEGENDS pored ostalog objavio i jedan vrlo dobar esej o M. R. Džejmsu, u kojem pokušava da objasni zašto je M.R. Džejmsova priča “Zazviždi i ja ću ti doći, momče…” jedna od najboljih kratkih priča ikada napisanih. Pored toga, u ovom eseju on pravi i brojne paralele sa Lavkraftom (čovekom i piscem), i mada neke od njih ne stoje (Šejbon očigledno ne zna baš mnogo o Lavkraftovom društvenom životu i pati od zablude „povučenog usamljenika“), zbog njih je ovo dodatno vredno pročitati.
Ovaj esej nije do sada bio dostupan onlajn, ali ja sam ga iskopao u toj knjizi, pa vam ga sad nudim na čitanje, proučavanje i uživanje. Pisan je jasnim i popularnim jezikom – istina, engleskim, ali to valjda neće biti problem čitaocima ovog bloga.
Ujedno vas podsećam da sam prošle godine priredio izbor najboljih Džejmsovih horor priča koji je nazvan upravo po ovoj priči – knjiga se zove ZAZVIŽI I JA ĆU TI DOĆI – detalje imate na linku, a ako vam je do sada nekako promakla, svakako gledajte da je nabavite na Orfelinovom štandu na predstojećem Sajmu knjiga u Beogradu!
Evo šta je Šejbon imao da kaže o Džejmsu i njegovom masterpisu stravične priče, u produžetku... A ako je nekome lakše i draže da čita PDF fajl, isti tekst sam u tom obliku okačio na Mediafire, pa ga možete skinuti OVDE.
THE OTHER JAMES
I’LL JUST COME RIGHT out and say it: M. R. James’s ghost story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is one of the finest short stories ever written. The problematic term in that last sentence, of course, is not “finest” but “short stories.” It’s a mark of how radically we have changed our ideas of what a short story, and in particular a fine one, ought to be, that there should be something odd about ranking this masterpiece of the Other James in the same league with, say, “The Real Thing” or “Four Meetings.” The ghost story has been consigned to the ghetto of subgenre. Rare is the contemporary anthology of “best short stories of all time” that includes even a token example of the form.
Once it was not so. Once, you could argue, the ghost story was the genre itself. Balzac, Poe, de Maupassant, Kipling—most of the early inventors—wrote ghost stories as a matter of course, viewing them as a fundamental of the storyteller’s craft. Edith Wharton was an enthusiast and master of the “subgenre”; her ghost stories are the cream of her short fiction. And Henry James himself, of course, gave us the one ghost story whose status as literature is not open to debate: “The Turn of the Screw.” It was only the best of a good two dozen that he produced during the heyday of the form, in the latter half of the nineteenth century.
Maybe our taste has grown more refined, or our understanding of human psychology more subtle. Maybe we don’t really believe in ghosts anymore. Or maybe for the past sixty years or so we’ve simply been cheating ourselves, we lovers of the short story, out of one of the genre’s enduring pleasures.
A great ghost story is all psychology: in careful and accurate detail it presents 1) a state of perception, by no means rare in human experience, in which the impossible vies with the undeniable evidence of the senses; and 2) the range of emotions brought on by that perception. And then, by the quantum strangeness of literature, it somehow manages to engender these same emotions in the reader: the prickling nape, the racing heart, the sense of some person standing invisibly near. Everyone has felt such things, coming up the basement stairs with darkness at our backs, turning around at the sound of a footstep to find only an empty room. I once saw a face, intelligent and smiling, formed from the dappled shadow of a stucco ceiling in a Los Angeles bedroom. The face remained, perfectly visible to both my wife and me, until we finally turned out the light. The next morning it was gone. Afterward, no matter how we looked at the ceiling, in daylight or at night, the face failed to reappear. I have never to this day forgotten its mocking leer as it studied me.
It is tempting to say that, like his contemporaries Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, Montague Rhodes James is something of a ghost himself, nowadays, at least in the United States. He haunts the pages of foxed anthologies with titles like Classic Chilling Stories of Terror and Suspense, his name lapsed into obscurity along with those of the authors of durable gems of the genre such as “The Beckoning Fair One” (Oliver Onions) and “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs). But in England he is still remembered, and even beloved. James is about as English as it is possible for an English writer to be. A hungry Anglophile, one with no interest whatever (if such a creature exists) in the ghosts that haunt old abbeys, dusty libraries, and the Saxon churches of leafy villages, could survive very happily on a steady diet of M. R. James. These are stories that venture to the limits of the human capacity for terror and revulsion, as it were, armed only with an umbrella and a very dry wit. They are still read aloud on the radio over there, in particular at Christmastime, when, as during the season that frames “The Turn of the Screw,” it is apparently traditional to sit by a crackling yule fire and scare one’s friends out of their wits. (And it would be hard to imagine anything more English than that.)
M. R. James presents a nearly unique instance in the history of supernatural literature—perhaps in the history of literature, period: he seems, for the entire duration of his life (1865–1936) to have considered himself the happiest of men. His biography, insofar as it has been written, is free of the usual writerly string of calamities and reversals, of intemperate behavior, self-destructive partnerings, critical lambasting, poverty, illness, bad luck. His childhood, though it sounds to modern ears to have been a tad heavy on devotional exercise, Christian study, and mindfulness of the sufferings of Jesus and his saints, was passed in material comfort and within the loving regard of his parents and older siblings; the candlelit gloom of the paternal church counterbalanced, if balance were needed, by ready access to the beauties of the East Anglian countryside that surrounded his father’s rectory. His early school years were notable, if at all, only for the consistent excellence of his academic performance and for the popularity he attained among his fellow students, in part through a discovered knack for spinning a first-class frightening tale. At the age of fourteen he entered the world of Eton, and, though he spent the middle portion of his life as a laureate, fellow, and finally dean of King’s College, Cambridge (itself a sister school to Eton), he never really left that sheltered, companionable green and gray world, assuming at last the mantle of provost of Eton in 1918, a position he held until he died. He was a brilliant, prize-winning, internationally known scholar of early Christian manuscripts who devoted his personal life to enlarging, slowly and knowledgeably, his circle of gentleman friends, a task made simpler by his brilliance, charm, wit, kindness, and affability. He took no interest in politics, involved his name in no controversy or cause, and traveled in comfort through Denmark, Sweden, France, and other tamer corners of the globe. The seeker after shadows who turns, in desperation, to discover what untold sufferings James, like H. C. Andersen or E. A. Poe, might have undergone for the love of a woman, will discover here a profound silence. James never married, and as far as we are allowed to determine, the complete absence of romantic attachments in his life caused him no pain or regret whatsoever.
And the childhood fascination with the tortures suffered by Christian martyrs, each date and gruesome detail of beheadings, immolations, and dismemberments lovingly memorized the way some boys memorize batting averages? And the spectral face at the garden gate, pale and wild-eyed and reeking of evil, that one evening peered back at the young James across the lawn as he looked out through the windows of the rectory? And the intimate eleven-year friendship with a man named McBryde, illustrator of some of James’s best stories, traveling companion and inseparable confidant, whose rather late marriage, in 1903, was followed, scarcely a year later, by his untimely death? And the boys, the tens upon hundreds upon thousands of boys of Eton and King’s, on whom James had lavished his great teacherly gifts, cut down in the battlefields of Belgium and France? And the empty lawns, deserted commons and dining halls, the utter desolation of Cambridge in 1918?
Over all of this speculation as to the origins of James’s ghosts and horrors, over any hint of torment, shame, passion, remorse, or sorrow, the shutters have been drawn. The only evidence we have for the existence of such emotions in M. R. James is the disturbing tales he chose, over and over, to tell. Could they possibly be the work of a man whose life presented him with a nearly unbroken series of comfortable, satisfying, and gratifying days, from cradle to grave? Let us say that they could; let us stipulate that the stories are the work of a man whom life denied none of the fundamentals of mortal happiness. Violence, horror, grim retribution, the sudden revulsion of the soul—these things, then, are independent of happiness or suffering; a man who looks closely and carefully at life, whether pitiable as Poe or enviable as the provost of Eton, cannot fail to see them.
Along with A. E: Housman, Thomas Hardy, and even, we are told, Theodore Roosevelt, one of James’s early admirers was the American horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890–1937). The two men shared a taste for old books and arcane manuscripts, for neglected museums and the libraries of obscure historical societies, and for ancient buildings, in particular those equipped with attics and crypts; they shared that requisite of any great writer of ghost stories: a hyperacute sense of the past. We all have this sixth human sense, to one degree or another, but in the case of Lovecraft and James the sense of the past is as evolved as the sense of smell in a professional nez. When it comes to their writing, however, Lovecraft and James could not differ more—in style, in scale, in temperament. Lovecraft’s style is the despair of the lover of Lovecraft, at once shrill and vague, clotted, pedantic, hysterical, and sometimes out-and-out bad. James, on the other hand, writes the elegant English sentences, agile and reticent, that an excellent British education of his era both demanded and ensured. The contrast is particularly stark when it comes to their portrayal of the unportrayable. Lovecraft approaches Horror armed with adverbs, abstractions, and perhaps a too-heavy reliance on pseudopods and tentacles. James rarely does more than hint at the nature of his ghosts and apparitions, employing a few simple, select, revolting adjectives, summoning his ghosts into hideous, enduring life in the reader’s mind in a bare sentence or two.
Evil, in Lovecraft, is universal, pervasive, and at least partially explicable in terms of notions such as Elder Races and blind idiot gods slobbering at the heart of creation. In James, Evil tends to have more of a local feel, somehow, assembling itself at times, out of the most homely materials; and yet it remains, in the end, beyond any human explanation whatsoever. Evil is strangely rationalized in Lovecraft, irresistible but systematic; it can be sought, and found. In James it irrupts, is chanced upon, brushes against our lives irrevocably, often when we are looking in the other direction. But the chief difference between Lovecraft and James is one of temperament. Lovecraft, apart from a few spasmodic periods, including one in which he briefly married a Brooklyn Jew named Sonia Greene and formed a part of her salon, appears to have liked his own company best. He could be gloomy and testy, and was perhaps most appreciated by his friends at a distance, through his lively correspondence with them. M. R. James, on the other hand, was legendary for his conviviality, and loved nothing more than whiling away an afternoon over sherry and tobacco with his erudite friends. Indeed, friends—colleagues, companions—play an important role in James’s stories, coming along to shore up the protagonist’s courage at just the right moment, providing him with moral support, crucial information, or simply another soul with whom to share an unspeakable secret. In Lovecraft the protagonist has often cut himself off from his friends and companions, and must face the final moment of slithering truth alone.
Lovecraft wrote, in part, for money, often as little as one and a half cents a word; James was an avowed hobbyist of literature, and wrote many of his finest stories as Christmas entertainments of the sort already described, reading them aloud to his assembled friends by the light of a single candle. The stories are, nevertheless, unmistakably works of art, the products of a peculiar imagination, a moral sense at once keen and undogmatic, and an artist’s scientific eye for shape and structure. This brings us back to “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” whose unlucky protagonist, Parkins, we first encounter in conversation with his fellow professors over dinner “in the hospitable hall of St. James’s College.” (James’s stories never originate in cheap atmospherics, fogs or plagues or blasted landscapes, or with the creaky, dubious avowals of narratorial sanity so beloved of Lovecraft and Poe.) In the very first sentence* James displays the remarkable command that qualifies him as a great unrecognized master of point of view, which is the ultimate subject of any ghost story and, of course, of twentieth-century literature itself. For the narrator, or the author, or some indeterminate, playful amalgam of the two, reveals himself before we are twenty words into the story, and will continue to remind us of his presence throughout, right up to the final paragraph, when at last he takes leave, with a strange kind of cheerful pity, of the shattered Professor Parkins.
I don’t think any writer has handled a narrator in quite the same way as James in “Oh, Whistle.” For the narrator here is not merely a disembodied authorial voice in the classic nineteenth-century manner. He is involved in the lives of the characters he describes, he knows them, he sees them on a regular basis—he is, albeit invisibly, a character in the story, cut from the same cloth, as it were, as Professors Parkins and Rogers and the rest of the St. James faculty. There are portions of the story, he suggests, that could be told, that actually happened—most of them having to do with the game of golf —but which he gratefully lacks the expertise to set down. This accords with a fundamental operation of the supernatural story, from “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” to The Blair Witch Project, which is to make the explicit point—generally implicit or finessed in “literary” fiction—that what is being given is a factual account. All ghost stories are “true” stories. We love them, if we love them, from the depth and antiquity of our willingness to believe them.
M. R. James, more than any other writer, explores the wobble, the shimmer of uncertainty that results when quotation marks are placed around the word “true.” Because at the same time that the narrator of “Oh, Whistle” is implicating himself in his story—scrupulously telling us what he has seen for himself and what parts of the story he has only heard second- or third-hand—his supremely “authoritative” voice and evident easy control over the materials establish him as unmistakably the writer of the story, its inventor, hurrying us past characters we need not overly attend to, rendering the events with an impossible familiarity. This, in turn, calls into question the fictional status of the narrator, and hence that of the author himself.
All of this, I know, sounds dubiously postmodern. And indeed James, not merely in his approach, at once careful and cavalier, to point of view, but also in fitting out his stories with the full apparatus of scholarly research (footnotes, learned quotations from Latin, references to obscure medieval tracts), often anticipates Borges and the postmodernists—and with every iota of their self-conscious playfulness. But the playfulness is worn so lightly, and the experiments in point of view are undertaken with such a practical purpose—scaring you—in mind, that even a critical reader may scarcely be aware of them the first time through. James is like some casual, gentleman tinkerer yoking a homemade antigravity drive to the derailleurs of his bicycle because he is tired of being late to church every Sunday.
“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is, in many ways, the prototypical M. R. James story. It presents a man who stumbles, through benevolent motives, upon a historical puzzle that cannot fail to interest him and, poking innocently around in it, inadvertently summons—more literally here than in other stories—an unexpected revenant of a bygone time, with frightful results. Professor Parkins—“rather hen-like, perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour, but at the same time dauntless and sincere in his convictions, and a man deserving of the greatest respect”—kindly agrees to take time away from his golfing vacation on the Suffolk coast in order to investigate the ruins, in the neighborhood where he plans to stay, of an old Knights Templar church in which one of his colleagues takes a scholarly interest. Parkins, we have seen, is an avowed skeptic when it comes to the supernatural—to a fault, perhaps. Digging with his pocketknife in the earth around the ruins, he uncovers a strange metal flute bearing an enigmatic Latin inscription. When —as inevitably he must—Parkins plays a few notes on the flute, he calls up a series of increasingly terrifying disturbances, both atmospheric and psychic: winds, night terrors, and puzzling disarrangements or disturbances of the second, supposedly empty bed in his room at the Globe Inn. These disturbances culminate in the awful apparition—a marvel of James’s gift for creating horror through understatement and suggestion—of a thing, some thing, with a woeful face of crumpled bed linens.
For this story is also prototypical James in that when at last we encounter the Horror, there is something about its manifestation, its physical attributes, its habits, that puts the reader in mind, however reluctantly, of sex. I say reluctantly in part because the cool, fleshy, pink, protuberant, furred, toothed, or mouthed apparitions one finds in M. R. James are so loathsome; and in part because James keeps his stories studiously free—swept clean—not merely of references to sexual behavior but of all the hot-and-heavy metaphor and overt Freudian paraphernalia with which supernatural fiction is so often encumbered. James is a hospitable writer, and one wishes not to offend one’s host. But the fact remains that “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is a story about a man pursued into the darkness of a strange bedroom, and all of the terror is ultimately generated by a vision of a horribly disordered bed. The bodily horror, the uncanny, even repulsive nature of sex—a favorite theme of the genre from Stoker to Cronenberg—is a recurring element in the stories of M. R. James, rendered all the more potent because it feels so genuinely unconscious. Sex was undoubtedly the last thing on the mind of M. R. James as he sat down to compose his Christmas creepers, but it is often the first thing to emerge when the stays of reality are loosened.
At times, as in traditional ghost stories (e.g., “A Christmas Carol”), James’s characters engender and deserve their ghastly fates, bringing them about through excesses of ambition, pride, or greed. Professor Parkins, one senses, does not entirely meet with the author’s approval—he is priggish, skeptical, he plays golf—but in other stories the protagonists are men whose profession, temperament, and tastes barely distinguish them from their creator. Most of the time they are innocents, ignorant trippers and travelers who brush up against the omnipresent meaningless malevolence of the world, and the sins for which they are punished tend, likely as not, to be virtues— curiosity, honesty, a sympathy for bygone eras, a desire to do honor to one’s ancestors. And, often, their punishment is far grimmer than the scare that Professor Parkins receives.
The secret power of James’s work lies in his steadfast refusal to explain fully, in the end, the mechanisms that have brought about the local irruption of Evil he describes, and yet to leave us, time and again, utterly convinced that such an explanation is possible, if only we were in possession of all the facts. He makes us feel the logic of haunting, the residue of some inscrutable chain of ghostly causation, though we can’t—though, he insists, we never will be able to—explain or understand that logic. In “Oh, Whistle” the elements—the Templars’ ruined church, the brass flute with its fragmentary inscriptions, the blind pursuing figure in white, the whistled-up wind—all hang together seamlessly in the reader’s imagination: they fit. And yet, in the end, we have no idea why. For the central story of M. R. James, reiterated with inexhaustible inventiveness, is ultimately the breathtaking fragility of life, of “reality,” of all the structures that we have erected to defend ourselves from our constant nagging suspicion that underlying everything is chaos, brutal and unreasoning. It is hard to conceive of a more serious theme, or a more contemporary plot, than this.
It may be, in fact, that the ghost story, like the dinosaur, is still very much with us, transformed past the point of ready recognition into the feathered thing that we call “the modern short story.” Perhaps all short stories can be understood as ghost stories, accounts of visitations and reckonings with the traces of the past. Were there ever characters in fiction more haunted by ghosts than Chekhov’s or Joyce’s?
The short story narrates the moment when a dark door, long closed, is opened, when a forgotten error is unwittingly repeated, when the fabric of a life is revealed to have been woven from frail and dubious fiber over top of something unknowable and possibly very bad. Ultimately all stories—ghost stories, mysteries, stories of terror or adventure or modern urban life—descend from the fireside tale, told with wolves in the woods all around, with winter howling at the window. After centuries of the refinements, custom fittings, and mutations introduced by artistry and the marketplace, the short story retains its fundamental power to frighten us with its recognition of the abyss at our backs, and to warm us with its flickering light.
* “ ‘I suppose you will be getting away pretty soon, now Full term is over, Professor,’ said a person not in the story to the Professor of Ontography, soon after they had sat down next to each other at a feast in the hospitable hall of St James’s College.”