The contrast between human (homely) and inhuman (alien, hostile) is strongly present in most of Montague Rhodes James’ stories. In the story ‘Casting the Runes,’ the protagonist, Professor Dunning, is being slowly but inevitably hunted down — haunted down — by unseen demonic forces. He is not yet fully aware of it, but his night in a lonely house is restless. Trying to find a box of matches under his pillow, he suddenly, in complete darkness, touches what he later described as “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being” (James, ‘The Ghost Stories’ 252). It is unclear why Montague Rhodes James had to specify that it was not the mouth of a human being — surely, the presence of such an entity under one’s pillow would not have been less unpleasant if it was human. But the distinction — non-human, alien — is emphasized. Montague Rhodes James connects this encounter with the acute sense of loneliness experienced by Dunning in the scene leading to this episode. “It seemed to him that something ill-defined and impalpable stepped in between him and his fellow-men” (250). It appears that loneliness makes humans easy prey for the haunting hunters.
Invariably, a malevolent presence creeps up slowly on the unsuspecting scholars. Professor Parkins, the protagonist of “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” begins his journey of horror on a deserted seashore in the twilight. A very unimaginative person, Parkins sees a distant silhouette behind him on the beach — apparently human — a figure that tries to catch up with him without making any progress. Parkins suddenly experiences the strange feeling of loneliness and alienation in the vast space — the first symptom of the approaching disaster. The deserted seashore keeps featuring prominently in his recurring night visions. In the climax of the story, his nightmare comes to life when the professor is attacked by a ghostly creature of bedclothes with the face of “crumpled linen” (James, ‘The Ghost Stories’ 148). The idea that something as mundane as bed sheet linen can have a horrible face produces the shock of horror. The homeliness of the object serves to intensify the dread and repulsion that are mixed with the sense of betrayal — how can something so comfortable, so intimate, behave in such an aggressive manner and break our trust? Most importantly, this creature is an invader from the outside: it followed its victim from the deserted seashore, the infinite space of the twilight beach. The homily cannot protect the protagonist, it turns against him, abruptly and horribly confronting him with the expenses of the infinite and unknown Universe.
The protagonist of “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” a typical Jamesian scholar called Dennistoun, safely locks himself in his hotel room to investigate a precious manuscript — a scrapbook — that he has discovered in a local church. One of the pages depicts a creature crouched on the floor before King Solomon. It makes an impression of such intense horror that, according to Dennistoun’s friend (the narrator), it cannot be conveyed in words. The narrator attempts then to “indicate” the essential traits of the figure which, apart from its physical appearance, stresses that it was “endowed with intelligence just less than human” (James, The Ghost Stories 12). This ancient demon confronting King Solomon is not content to stay inside the scrapbook: it materialises in Dennistoun’s comfortable hotel room to attack the scholar who escapes only through the presence of other humans. As he screams “with the voice of an animal in hideous pain,” two local servants break-in, helping the protagonist to reclaim his human status (16). It appears that Jamesian ghostly species do not dare to hunt humans en masse, and lone, socially isolated scholars are their preferred game. Human isolation and loneliness seem to empower the inhuman menace lurking in the shadows.
The creature that attacks the Edwardian scholar in Montague Rhodes James’ story has inferior intelligence but superior power of hatred and physical strength; in this encounter, the sole reaction of a human participant is the intense feeling of physical and mental loathing. It is clear that this creature, inferior as it might be in its intellectual capacity, can easily overpower Montague Rhodes James’ hero. In this respect, Montague Rhodes James’ narrative is aligned to anxieties expressed by some evolutionary theories of his time. Earlier Victorian theorists, such as Robert Chambers, working within the long-dominant Neoplatonic tradition of the Chain of Being, suggested that all living creatures could be placed in a hierarchy where fish, insects, and reptiles occupied lower planes while human Caucasians were placed on the top (Cowlishaw 167). Brian Cowlishaw claims that Montague Rhodes James seems to reverse this hierarchy, representing a Victorian “man of letters,” who is supposed to be the pinnacle of evolutionary development (according to Chambers and similar Victorian theorists), as a prey species (Cowlishaw 170). In the scene from “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” the Edwardian scholar loses his human dignity when he screams “with the voice of an animal in hideous pain” (James, ‘The Ghost Stories’ 16). In that moment, both participants are not human, demonstrating, according to Brian Cowlishaw, “supernatural regression to an earlier, less civilised stage of humanity” (Cowlishaw 170).
This view can be linked to the Victorian fear of degeneration as expressed by one of the followers of Darwinian theory, biologist E. Ray Lancaster, who claimed (several decades after Chambers) that high civilizations tend to decay and give way to intellectually inferior but physically more adaptable races. The fear was extended to humanity in general and was one of the great anxieties of late Victorian and Edwardian times (Glendening 20-21). In this light, Jamesian ghosts might represent the ominous “Other” — a barbarian ascending to take place of the modern “man of letters” who is no longer fit enough to survive in the hostile and cruel universe. He descends into the state of an animal and, further down the line, into an insect.
Herbert George Wells also expressed the fear of human degradation and degeneration: in his essay ‘Zoological Regression’ (1891), he emphasised the fragility of human dominance in the biological world and gave examples of rises and falls of other species on Earth throughout billions of years. Herbert George Wells made his readers ponder: what if the same fate awaits humans? Since the mud-fish of the distant prehistoric era is vaguely related to the human race, where is the guarantee that humans will not return to that state by some strange evolutionary whim? (Wells 166-167).
Rejecting the idea of evolution as an inevitably progressive process, the science and the society of the nineteenth-century had to face the fact that evolution can lead not only upwards, but also downwards. And, as Herbert George Wells put it, perhaps some other creature is quietly waiting “to sweep homo away into the darkness from which the Universe arose” (168). This view deeply resonates with Montague Rhodes James’ stories: protagonists find themselves being constantly watched and followed, even if the identity of the watcher or follower is unknown.
Also published on Medium.