The Weird – Casting the Runes – M R James

I may as well say here that M.R. James is my favourite writer of ghost stories; indeed, with a few noble exceptions, most of them actually written by friends or associates of James, or emerging from the same period, most other ghost stories seem like pale imitations by comparison. There is also an awful lot of pastiche James around, and to my mind very little of it comes anywhere near James’s own work. It is a curious thing that James does invite this impulse to emulate and yet, even with all the classic elements of a Jamesian ghost story in place, they invariably can’t quite capture the tone; something is always just every so slightly ‘off’.

Which is perhaps ironic because that sense of something being slightly ‘off’ is an important part of James’s work, the sense of ‘offness’ gradually gathering, growing, until it cannot be ignored, at which point, something genuinely dreadful bursts into a world that is theoretically very stable, very grounded n the here and now. ‘The Mezzotint’, a particular favourite of mine, works on the principle of tiny, accumulated details, interspersed with small moments of terror, yet the double audience of the reader and the main characters remain safely, and powerless, at a distance. ‘Lost Hearts’, another of my favourites, signals heavily to the reader that something quite dreadful is about to happen, but this is set against the professional ignorance of the servants who suspect that something is wrong but who dare not question their master, and young Stephen, who is the innocent asker of questions.

‘Casting the Runes’ positions the reader firmly in a world that seems, to the onlooker at least, to be very stable. Of course, anyone who has any involvement in academe knows full well that it was and is a seething mass of rivalries, jealousies and discontents, but that for the most part those involved strive to present an outward appearance of serenity, respectability, dignity, etc. (James, it should be noted, had a very well-developed sense of humour, and one should always read his stories with an eye to his having his tongue firmly in his cheek as he portrays his fellow antiquarians. He was in his way a sly dog.)

Here the scene is set with an exchange of letters, which the wife of the Secretary of an unnamed learned society has just picked up from her husband’s desk, and read. [1] From her, we learn about Mr Karswell, the so-called Abbot of Lufford, an alchemist and a man of intemperate character, who is currently trying to find out the name of the referee of a paper of his that has been turned down by the society: Edward Dunning. It is a long time before we meet Lufford himself; instead, we are introduced to him gradually through a series of gossipy stories told by his neighbours in Warwickshire, including an elaborate plan to terrify the local schoolchildren by showing them magic lantern slides of various horrors. Also, and crucially for the story, he had previously published a History of Witchcraft. Badly received at the time of its publication, its most critical reviewer, John Harrington, later died in unusual circumstances.

It is clear that Karswell is a transgressive figure. He does not play the academic game as a gentleman ought to. He does not accept the polite brush-off by letter, nor does he honour the institution of the blind peer review. The soubriquet, ‘Abbot of Lufford’, is mocking, a society joke at his expense, because he is obviously regarded as ‘not one of us’. He literally doesn’t belong. One could therefore make a case for Karswell as a vengeful man, but that is perhaps a little too easy. Or, rather, there is something deeper and more subtle at play here; it emerges in the comments about Karswell’s History of Witchcraft, reviewed by John Harrington, the man who later died mysteriously.

“Oh, in point of style and form, quite hopeless. It deserved all the pulverizing it got. But, besides that, it was an evil book. The man believed every word of what he was saying, and I’m very much mistaken if he hadn’t tried the greater part of his receipts.”

That is the Secretary in conversation with the host at a dinner party.

One chapter in particular struck me, in which he spoke of “casting the Runes” on people, either for the purpose of gaining their affection or of getting them out of the way – perhaps more especially the latter: he spoke of all this in a way that really seemed to me to imply actual knowledge.

And that is Henry Harrington, brother of the deceased reviewer.

There is a different kind of tension here, not that between the socially superior and the socially inferior, but between, on a fundamental level, the practical and the theoretical. Dunning, the Harringtons, Gayton the Secretary are all learned men, but they are theorisers; Karswell, the supposedly inept academic, is the man who can actually perform magic, real magic, and of a most unpleasant kind. [2] As such, he upsets the ordered world of the academic and the antiquarian. One wonders a little where James’s sympathies lie, given he is an antiquarian himself; it’s not easy to judge but there is a small aside in ‘The Haunted Dolls House’ that pokes fun at collectors, and one wonders if James isn’t himself having dangerously transgressive ideas beneath that mild exterior. And that is a notable thing about Karswell himself. When he appears in the story it is always as a mild-mannered, very civil and unremarkable man. He dissembles even as he carries out his revenge. Inside and outside do not match.

It is that civility as well as cunning which enables Karswell to identify Dunning as the anonymous referee, and he is already on Dunning’s trail, even if Dunning doesn’t yet know it. What happens almost immediately is that Dunning has a very peculiar experience travelling home by tram, when he sees, somehow embedded in the glass window of the tram, a memorial notice for John Harrington. There are other witnesses to this extraordinary phenomenon, the cab man and his colleague (although I think James overdoes the comic working-class turn in this story). [3] Untrammelled by academic concerns, they confirm the notice’s existence in the simplest of terms. What really works so well in this scene, however, is the juxtaposition of the modernity of the tram car, brightly lit, and the unfathomable message in the glass. This juxtaposition of the mundane and the mysterious occurs with each subsequent warning. Someone gives Dunning a leaflet in the street, another warning, with a hand ‘unnaturally rough and hot’ (61). Dunning’s cook and maid go down with ptomaine poisoning after buying shellfish from a hawker, but no one else on the street has seen this hawker at all.

And then there is one of those small but terrifying moments that James is so good at. Alone, at home, in bed, Dunning puts his hand under his pillow and feels, not his watch as he expects, but ‘a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being’ (62). This is so simple, so mundane an action, so domestic and so intimate, and James has brought oddness, weirdness, right into Dunning’s very bed. His reaction is wonderfully right and normal, too. He bolts, and locks himself in the spare room for the rest of the night.

It is, strangely enough, the Secretary’s wife who makes the intellectual step the Secretary can’t quite bring himself to when they both hear the story. The Secretary, a ‘scientific man’, must remain aloof from such flights of fancy even though he surely knows well enough that he can’t reject the story out of hand. He can talk about ‘hypnotic suggestion’ all he likes. Mrs Secretary, however, free from the constraints of academe, although at risk of being dismissed as a foolish woman, nonetheless has the freedom to make that assumption, and does so, determining that Dunning must meet Harrington’s brother, Henry.

The two men, working together, now begin to unravel the story of what happened to Harrington, and to decide what they must do to ensure that Dunning doesn’t follow. Karswell passed to Harrington a strip of paper with mysterious lettering on it, and it turns out the same happened to Dunning. There is no indication as to what the lettering means, but Henry Harrington recalls that Karswell’s book spoke about ‘casting the Runes’. The reader is left to infer, given that Harrington died in a state of abject panic, apparently being chased by something, that it had been summoned by the strip of paper. Whatever the reader thinks of this, Dunning and Henry Harrington now accept it as perfectly possible. Interestingly, they seem to show no signs of worry at having had their worldview completely overturned.

The rest of the story is concerned with the efforts of Dunning and Henry Harrington to return the strip of paper to Karswell, and thus divert the threat to him. The return is accomplished during the course of a railway journey, richly symbolic of the well-ordered and regulated society that Dunning’s and Harrington’s efforts are directed towards restoring. We never see the something; there are only vague hints as to what it might be, like the mouth under the pillow, the rough hot hand, the comments about Karswell’s servants, or the shadowy figure that the ticket collector sees behind Karswell. Much of what we learn about the effect of such a creature comes secondhand from Henry Harrington, deriving from things his brother told him.

The supernatural is, thus, for the most part, kept at a distance, safely tamed by academe, but it nonetheless retains the power to suddenly irrupt, and to cause fear. The lovely irony is that Dunning and Harrington can only deal with its manifestation by using it. And it is, I think, magic rather than suggestion, in that Karswell appears to remain unaware that the runes have been returned to him, thus their power in calling whatever creature it is that kills him is external. Which leaves an moral problem for Dunning and Henry Harrington, in that they have employed something that doesn’t exist, theoretically. Dunning does exhibit entirely appropriate last-minute scruples about what he has done, and attempt to save Karswell. Harrington, seeking retribution for his brother’s death, experiences no such doubts. What I am left wondering is what happened to their view of the world beyond the end of the story.

You can read Casting the Runes for yourself, here, but I do recommend trying other stories by M.R. James. His ghost stories are very corporealin many ways; he is not a man for wispy bits of shroud. Indeed, the one occasion I can think of when a shroud does turn up, in The Uncommon Prayerbook, the revenant which it contains is described rather prosaically as looking like a large roll of carpet. A very malevolent roll of carpet.


[1] Women did not always fare well in James’s stories; they were often portrayed as inquisitive, overbearing, interfering; the more gentle portraits of women seem always to be of servants; James was very much a college man, used to male company, which is not to say that he did not have female friends, and indeed regular female correspondents, but he seems not to have formed any close attachments during his life, and there is always a slight waspishness towards women with status in his fiction.

[2] And here one can’t help thinking of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. which is situated in not dissimilar territory, in terms of the tension between theorised and practised magic.

[3] I’ve often wondered if C.S. Lewis knew this story as the dialogue is remarkably similar to that of the Dufflepods in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Equally, it may just be that I’ve heard both stories read in Michael Hordern’s very distinctive voice.

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2 thoughts on “The Weird – Casting the Runes – M R James

  1. Catherine Butler

    A favourite of mine, too. I particularly love the last lines of 'Casting the Runes', the villain of which was based, I seem to remember hearing, on Crowley. I also like the less-feted 'Count Magnus'.Actually, though, isn't the malevolent being in 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' a shroud-like sheet?

  2. Maureen Kincaid Speller

    There is one mention of draperies, apart from the face of crumpled linen, but much more is made of its being a figure, and a fairly swift-moving one at that, so I suppose I don't really think of it as a shroud. But that may just be me! Incidentally, you have unintentionally solved a mystery for me. I couldn't quite understand, when I went to see Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, why I had such an odd jolt of recognition when they show Control, aka John Hurt, dead, half out of the bed. I've only just realised that it of course mirrors John Hurt's death scene in the tv dramatisation of Whistle, at the beginning of the year.

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