“There was always somebody – a man – standing by one of the firs. This was in daylight, you know. He was never in front of me. I always saw him with the tail of my eye on the left or the right, and he was never there when I looked straight for him. […] Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don’t, just as he pleases, I think: he’s there, but he has some power over your eyes.” (M. R. James, ‘A Warning to the Curious’)
M.R. James needs no introduction. His famous stories, constantly reprinted, tell – at great and wordy length – of scholarly, rational men in ancient houses and lonely hills menaced by disturbed spirits, things of diabolical and malevolent intent with the power to inflict death and terror by little more than the fact that they are nearby. A James story typically consists of a pseudo-academic introduction, followed by an unremarkable and very long-winded exposition of events … and then something changes. Over maybe just a few paragraphs, and with the minimum of information, we begin to feel the presence of a mortal threat. Through suggestion and hint, this threat grows and grows until it overcomes the protagonist. We are rarely shown the moment of demise, and the hellish creature is usually described only in elements.
“… what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs.” (‘The Mezzotint’)
“It was a high, thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse.” (‘Number 13’)
“It was not a mask. It was a face – large, smooth and pink. She remembers the minute drops of perspiration which were starting from its forehead: she remembers how the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut. She remembers also, and with an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable to her, how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip.” (‘The Rose Garden’)
“I was conscious of a most horrible smell of mould, and of a cold kind of face pressed against my own, and moving slowly over it , and of several – I don’t know how many – legs or arms or tentacles or something clinging to my body.” (‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’)
Suggestive, compelling and succinct, these partial descriptions of the monsters are what transform James’s fiction from humdrum and portentous tales into nightmarish works of genius. The reader is left to fill in the gaps – what sort of creature makes that sound? What could smell so awful, live in darkness and have tentacles? The reader is forced to compile his or her own picture, to build up a complete image of the monster; and, in doing so, supply his or her own extra details – claws, red eyes, fangs, slime, horns, whatever, none of which is even mentioned by James. On top of this, the environment is so chilling and the protagonist in such immediate danger, that we sometimes feel the threat to be greater than it is (for example, in ‘The Mezzotint’ none of the people looking at the scene is in danger; yet we feel that, at any moment, that goblin – or whatever it is – might leap out of the picture and attack them).
If so much is left out, then, surely James’s stories wouldn’t work on film? Indeed, there have been few successful attempts. One of the best – perhaps the best – is Jonathan Miller’s ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’, made for the BBC’s Omnibus television series in 1968. Miller builds up the supernatural tension in nightmares experienced by Michael Hordern’s character. He runs, in slow motion, across a deserted beach, looking over his shoulder at something we can’t see. The soundtrack is silent, save for a constant thudding which may be his raised heartbeat and a repeated chant of “who is this who is coming?”. When the ‘monster’ in his dream is revealed, it is only a collection of black rags – yet it seems to move under its own power, and by this stage Hordern’s reaction to it is so terrified that we too feel it must have some life-threatening power we can only guess at.
The reason this sequence works so well is that Miller establishes at the start that the setting is isolated, and that Hordern is somehow infringing on territory where he does not belong. Before the reveal of the monster, we have been encouraged to identify strongly with the protagonist and his terror because this is all we have been allowed to see. Miller brings us into the petrified world of the hero-victim by exaggerating the same experiences we have of nightmares – unable to move fast, hearing voices, stifled groans, the banging of our own hearts. Of course, Dick Bush’s stark black and white photography doesn’t hurt, either.
(Andy de Emmony’s 2010 remake of the same story also has its effective moments – John Hurt standing alone in a deserted boarding house, scenes where he is troubled by the grinning figure of a bust in his room, a climactic sequence where his wife appears on his bed out of nowhere – but the direction is too slow and James’s story too dressed up with unnecessary extra detail to make it as effective as Miller’s original.)
Many semi-successful adaptations of James stories were made by the director Lawrence Gordon Clark, also for the BBC, in the 1970s. Commonly regarded as the best is ‘A Warning to the Curious’ in which Peter Vaughan’s character is punished for his theft of an Anglo-Saxon crown. The crown’s guardian is effectively represented by showing a figure in black in the distance, too out of focus to be distinct; or by hints of his presence in cut-aways to a figure moving between the trees, intercut with close-ups of Vaughan’s eyes looking nervously to the side (“I always saw him with the tail of my eye on the left or the right”). Sadly, the effect would have been even better had Clark not had the figure appear in a prologue, in full focus and even speaking. It ruins the mystery of its presence later. The adaptation is also made less compelling by some awkward and inconsistent day-for-night photography (though we can be forgiving, since the budget was tight and the technology not half as advanced as it is now). Despite these drawbacks, there are some attractive sequences throughout the half-hour adaptation.
(Clark’s other James adaptations – ‘The Stalls of Barchester’, ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ and ‘The Ash Tree’ also have highly effective moments, though these likewise suffer from the limitations of budget and technology. Clark went on to make other ghost stories for the BBC, in a regular Christmas slot, but of these only his adaptation of Charles Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ is worthy of note.)
Where Clark’s versions of James stories work best is where – like with Miller’s – we are shown only elements of the threat. The atmosphere is developed threefold: we see glimpses of the ‘monster’; we hear stories about its effect on others or the terrible circumstances in which it came into being; and we see the terror of the protagonist climbing slowly and over a sustained period. It’s the same reason many ghost films from Asia are so effective (Hideo Nakata’s The Ring and Dark Water being the most obvious examples). Other film-makers are learning that the same trick pays off – the makers of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity realised this, even though their films suffer drawbacks which blunt the impact of the overall offering. Our production of The Ditch is partly influenced by James and these more recent homages to his style.
As film-makers we’re always taught: “show, don’t tell.” Perhaps it’s time to introduce a new rule for horror: “hint, don’t show.”
(A comprehensive review of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Ghost Stories for Christmas by Simon Farquhar can be read here. The box set of all the BBC’s Christmas ghost stories was released last year, and is recommended.)
[Footnote: Today I stumbled across a short adaptation, by film-maker Stephen Gray, of James’s story ‘The Haunted Dolls’ House’. Although it ups the ante in terms of graphic violence at the end – departing from James’s original, where the vengeful visitation “might be described as a frog – the size of a man”, and the exact fate of the children is left to the reader to imagine – it still works pretty well and is an impressive achievement on a micro-budget. I hope it does well on the festival circuit this year.]