The holiday season has descended—darker nights, colder mornings, and an excess of cheeriness all set the mood for ghost stories. Many Victorian families would spend their Christmas evenings huddled around their fire, relating tales of ghouls and specters in an attempt to out-spook their relatives. This era of literature saw a surge in ghost stories, which established tropes that have been parodied endlessly in modern culture. One such trope is that of a spirit clad in bedclothes, clanking chains down dark halls.
The white-sheeted ghost is probably one of the most recognizable, and thus least frightening, images in horror. Whatever power the image once had to terrify, it has mostly lost. We see it in children’s shows, on Halloween, in costume advertisements. By this logic, we could assume that M.R. James’ seminal ghost story “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is not scary, and that you could read it late at night and not look strangely at the shadows, make sure the door is locked, or hesitate before turning off the light, deciding that it might be better after all to keep it on...
Of course, anyone who reads James with these expectations has a nasty surprise coming. The best of his stories are utterly chilling in a way that makes every shadow and every creaking floorboard suspicious. He achieved fame in his time—the late 19th and early 20th centuries—and his legacy has remained strong because he revolutionized the ghost story genre. Reading James is a reminder of why we love horror; it’s weird, creepy, and inspires dread from seemingly normal beginnings. But many of his images have become silly clichés. So, how do James’ tales retain their power even when we’ve been desensitized to what they contain?
Much of it lies in his prose. James was a well-educated historian and antiquarian, as are many of his protagonists. The stories take on this personality. Unlike the high, dark language of Poe and Lovecraft, James’ prose is personable, direct, and almost tongue-in-cheek. This works well, because in the great Victorian tradition, he would read these stories to friends on dark winter evenings in perfect darkness. The academic friendliness of the narrative serves this purpose, and also becomes one of James’ most powerful tools in scaring his readers. When something uncanny or horrific occurs, the prose is still academic. He’s just describing events as they happened. It’s all too convincing.
Yet that alone can’t make a white sheet scary. His blatant attitude is only one ingredient. James also employs one of the oldest, most forgotten rules in horror: don’t explain. The specter at the conclusion of “Whistle” is so frightening because James makes it baffling—its movements are described as jerky and inhuman, and the “crumpled face of linen” is not elaborated upon. Furthermore, the encounter is so brief and shocking to the protagonist and reader alike, that neither has time to sort out what happened. James does not clarify the events—they remain shrouded in supernatural mystery.
These “rules” are applied in many of James’ stories. In “Casting the Runes”—later adapted by Jacques Tournier into the 1957 film Night of the Demon—the protagonist does not see the demonic spirit, but rather feels its fur beside his bed in the dark. The evil specter of “Count Magnus” is never described because it kills all who set eyes upon it. In “A Warning to the Curious,” the narrator assumes that a shape behind them is his companion’s fallen coat, only to find that the coat is under his arm—something else follows. These moments are quick, startling, and almost absurd. Through them, James captures a mounting sense of unease, which is often never resolved because the protagonists either get away without looking directly at the horror, or they don’t get away at all.
I only discuss the best examples of James—some of his stories break these rules, providing too much history or showing too clear a view of their specters. Those overt tales have been more or less forgotten. The ones referenced above have resonated through the decades and remain frightening because they understand something vital: as Lovecraft said, the greatest fear is that of the unknown.
It is a lesson to horror authors and filmmakers alike, and one too often forgotten. Once we have time to process an image and understand it, the fear vanishes. There may be a sense of danger or suspense, but not terror. Horror is closely related to the absurd and the strange—we must keep it that way. Allow the audience to be confused, then bewildered, because then their fear will be sustained. James displays this effect in its pure form. By making the supernatural uncanny and bizarre, he manages to scare a hundred years of readers with a white bed sheet. If his example is followed, perhaps new storytellers will achieve the same effect.