An Ancient Evil: M.R. James and Nigel Kneale.

Two writers who could be said to epitomise the ideas of Folk Horror, M.R. James and Nigel Kneale, while addressing these ideals through different media, are writers whose work often crept into the same realm.  This has lead to both of their work having a natural relationship with each other, with one almost being a reincarnation of the other.  Of course, to imply such things would ignite Kneale purists but there is a strong argument to be found in various work by both writers, that the two were delving into the same worlds; disturbing the forgotten treasure while simultaneously arousing the wrath of an ungodly guardian.

M.R. James is the quintessential English ghost story writer.  Like Beethoven, James is considered a watershed moment where everything after him cannot help but at least acknowledge his presence; an apt trait for a writer whose main tactic was to deploy the impossible presence of another.  James’ obvious paranoia is an instantly obvious quality, one which his writing shares with Kneale’s.  James was a Victorian in an Edwardian age.  His ideals being gradually more and more questioned, the age’s more liberal and progressive stance towards everything being a discomfort to the conservative provost of Cambridge University and, later on, Eton College.  James’ writing has several key factors which, once identified, can be linked quite easily to the scripts and stories of Kneale.  These factors are rather handily distilled in the various screen adaptations of his work which sat alongside Kneale’s during their screen debuts (i.e. the 1960s and 1970s).  The aforementioned paranoia in James’ writing is a good place to begin. This paranoia of being out-of-touch lends James’ stories a strong lean towards the past.  This leaning may hint at a personal nostalgia for James but the method with which he uses it is far from pleasant, at least for his characters.

The Jamesian character is often a projection of James himself.  Often they are scholars in religious and cultural antiquities whose finding of a text or an object of historical value sets off a supernatural chain events.  James’ leaning towards the past and complete disregard for the present seems to find a cathartic release in his writing, often implying that the modern intrigue for the past should be left alone if an undisturbed night of rest is desired.  This also seems to suggest that the past happily takes revenge on the present for its casting off of traditional values and ways.  This is never better realised in James’ work than in A Warning To The Curious.  The title alone highlights all of the Jamesian paranoia; leave well alone with your modern ways or there will be trouble.  The narrative follows the narrator, Henry Long, as he tells of his collecting of stories around the resort of Seaburgh (a loose pseudonym for the town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk) and one story in particular about an amateur archaeologist called Paxton.  Paxton has found a lost Saxon crown but is now haunted by its guardian, William Ager.

It’s not too difficult to imagine how Kneale would have approached the same story.  The idea of the crown’s finding invoking the wrath of an Ancient Evil is only a step away from Kneale’s Quatermass and the Pit.  Whereas Kneale would inject an element of science fiction to suggest that the Ancient Evil was caused by something literally from another world, James is more satisfied with leaving it as ambiguous.  The presence of a man after he is dead is an idea that is equally as science fiction as is it supernatural and Kneale could easily have made the crown of Anglia into some form of space technology had he adapted the story himself.  In terms of Folk Horror, both A Warning To The Curious and Quatermass and the Pit tie nicely into the idea of a buried evil. The buried evil, or Ancient Evil as some scholars describe it, is essential to so many forms of Folk Horror.  In James’ writing it becomes an Inorganic Demon in analysis by Mark Fisher; an object which possesses some form of malevolent creature of spirit.  In Kneale’s work, it often is something alien though the repercussions since its arrival are often been thought of as supernatural.  This is made explicitly clear in Hammer’s Quatermass and the Pit (1967) though also adds humanity’s natural ties to fascism into the mix.

When allowing objects to be discovered, it also allows the visual of the ground and soil to become part of the narrative’s aesthetic.  Folk Horror so often lends itself to this aesthetic with any number of films using it to its own ends (Blood on Satan’s Claw and Cry of the Banshee being two great examples).  There is soil-a-plenty in James’ stories from digging up the whistle in Oh Whistle and I’ll Come To You, My Lad to discovering the treasure in a muddy alcove in The Treasure of Abbott Thomas.  Equally, Kneale enjoys this unearthing aesthetic in Quatermass and the Pit and when adapting Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black in 1989.

Both writers also implant a greed for knowledge and progress within their characters.  This is often a Folk Horror trait, usually put into the context of a polar community who are against such progress. For James, the discoveries of his characters often have potential wealth in both knowledge and monetary forms.  Dennistoun in Canon Amberic’s Scrap-Book is only tempted by the intriguing item in question when it becomes clear that some pages may be of great academic value.  Paxton from A Warning To the Curious is the same, only searching for the crown for cultural gain (later adding financial gain in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s television adaptation in 1972).

Kneale’s take on this is felt most strongly in his television play, The Stone Tape (1972).  Rather handily, The Stone Tape takes a number of Jamesian elements and combines with Kneale’s modernism to achieve a greatness rarely achieved since in the television ghost story.  This story concerns the discovery of a room by an audio-technology team who are desperate to find the next discovery in the field. This room has the potential to store audio information, found to do so by its haunting nature; replaying past moments from history to the occupants at random times.  The object of the room itself is essentially a Jamesian inorganic demon.  The potential for the room to the characters to commercialise is the perfect summation of Jamesian greed for the future, for academic gain and the potential wealth.  The Stone Tape is effectively an M.R. James story for the modern age.

The term Ancient Evil sums up both writers’ works.  Everything about their character’s drives, their finds and their eventual fates can be covered by this term.  This evil needs to be dug up to do harm and therefore hints heavily of Folk Horror throughout their various narratives.  Indeed, it seems the Ancient Evil is to blame for so much of the horror, the greed and downfalls of antiquarian scholars and meddling scientists, it’s a wonder that anyone keeps hold of an object they find on their travels, whether it be a whistle, a crown or a spaceship under a London tube station.

Adam Scovell

Other articles:

Quatermass and the Pit.

Ghost Stories Volume 2 (The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning To The Curious).

Ghost Stories location visit.

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