Tuesday, 14 August 2012

A country estate is something... a bit dodgy

Sometimes it pays to look up things you already know, especially on Wikipedia. For instance, in the entry on Lovecraft's novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward we read that
A possible literary model is Walter de la Mare's novel The Return (1910), which Lovecraft read in mid-1926. He describes it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as a tale in which "we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself on the flesh of the living".[3]
The theme of a descendant who closely resembles a distant ancestor may come from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, which Lovecraft called "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in "Supernatural Horror in Literature".[4]
Another proposed literary source is M. R. James' short story "Count Magnus", also praised in "Supernatural Horror in Literature", which suggests the resurrection of a sinister 17th century figure.[5]
Now this is rather odd. I agree that the de la Mare and Hawthorne links make sense, but the M.R. James is way off beam. For those who don't know about the issue at hand, here come the spoilers...


The central premise of CDW is that the protagonist becomes possessed (sort of) by the spirit of his ancestor, the 18th century warlock Joseph Curwen. This leads to Ward reanimating Curwen's 'essential saltes', whereupon Curwen kills his hapless descendant and takes his place in a rather drastic example of identity theft.

Now this isn't much like 'Count Magnus', in which a hapless English traveller in Sweden happens to fall foul of an undead aristocrat who was also a black magician. There is no ancestral link here, no suggestion that M.R. James' character, Mr Wraxall, was possessed. He is hunted down and killed, very horribly, in England, and that is that - we are left to infer that Count Magnus (and his horrible familiar demon-thing) have gone back to Sweden.

No, the M.R. James story that quite possibly served as a model for Lovecraft's novel is 'Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance'. The protagonist, an English civil servant, inherits a country estate, Wilsthorpe, from a distant relative Mr Wilson. The two men never met. It emerges that this reclusive uncle was keen to prevent anyone investigating the old yew maze on the estate that was laid out by his grandfather, James Wilson. The latter seems to have been (you guessed it) an 18th century black magician, like Joseph Curwen.

Mr Humphreys is keen to revitalise his new estate, and opening the maze strikes him as a good idea - especially when attractive young ladies and aristocratic older ladies are keen to investigate it. James is not explicit about Humphreys' romantic or social-climbing instincts, but the hints are there. When he investigates the maze he finds that the old padlock on the gate falls away easily (a common James motif) and that the gate is topped by a Latin inscription reading: 'My secret is for me and for the sons of my house'.

Mr Humphreys, when investigating Mr Wilson's library, receives an indirect warning about the true nature of the maze. He stumbles across an old sermon that describes the ordeal of a man who enters a maze in pursuit of a great prize, although he knows that the 'Labyrinth' in question is full of terrifying beings. Sometimes James has his characters warned by dreams, but the effect here is much the same, only with the odd 'un-distancing' effect of carefully reconstructed Augustan prose:
...he begun to be sensible of some Creature keeping Pace with him and, as he thought, peering and looking upon him from the next Alley to that he was in; and that when he should stop, this Companion should stop also, which put him in some Disorder of his Spirits. And, indeed, as the Darkness increas’d, it seemed to him that there was more than one, and, it might be, even a whole Band of such Followers: at least so he judg’d by the Rustling and Cracking that they kept among the Thickets
One important characteristic of James' characters, and one that's been grafted on to every other horror movie, is that They Simply Won't Be Told. They have to be shown, so that we can be shown. Mr Humphreys continues to clear out the maze, and opens the way for Mr Wilson, who has left a cleverly-wrought 'time capsule' in his bid to cheat death.
The column was featureless, resembling those on which sundials are usually placed. Not so the globe. I have said that it was finely engraved with figures and inscriptions, and that on a first glance Humphreys had taken it for a celestial globe: but he soon found that it did not answer to his recollection of such things.

From the excellent site thing-ghost.org

The two stories couldn't be more different in terms of plot and style, of course. M.R. James took a 'light touch on the tiller' approach, which Lovecraft didn't approve of. James, in his turn, didn't like Lovecraft's style.  Joseph Curwen succeeds (albeit temporarily) while James Wilson fails. But, again, this doesn't alter the fact that the basic premise of James' story is that of the black magician seeking to return to life by seizing upon a gullible descendant.


Enough of my rambling, though. If you can stand it (because I think it's rather bad) here's a chance to see the only surviving TV adaptation of 'Mr Humphreys...' It's one of my favourite M.R. James stories, and it could be dramatised a lot more effectively than this. But, to be fair, this is a low-budget Seventies film intended (almost unbelievably) to illustrate the use of music in the creation of atmosphere. The fact that the music totally destroys the atmosphere will not, I think, escape the discerning viewer.

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