Inspiring Older Readers
Casting the Runes by M.R. James
The other evening I noticed that a remote digital television channel was showing the movie, The Night of the Demon, which was director Jacques Tourneur’s adaptation of the classic M.R. James short story, Casting the Runes. I’ve seen the film several times and so I didn’t bother again but when I described it to my wife as enjoyable hokum but not overly faithful to the original short story, I realised that it had, in fact, been a long time since I’d actually read it and that revisiting it might be timely.
Casting the Runes, which first appeared in 1911, forms part of the More Ghost Stories collection that followed the publication of the more famous Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. James was at this time a medievalist scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge as well as a writer of mystery and horror stories and his persona as an academic plays an important part in many of his best pieces of fiction.
His academic background would also have given him the framework for Casting of the Runes because much of the action is driven forward by the scholarly practice known as peer-review – that is submitting articles for publication and having their ‘quality’ determined by anonymous peer experts in the subject that is the topic of a paper. In this particular case, providing a bad review results in the original author taking his revenge in a chilling and terrifying way.
The story opens with us learning that a paper on alchemy written by a man known both as Karswell and as the Abbot of Lufford has been rejected by an unnamed learned society following a critical review of its value by a renowned scholar in the field, Edward Dunning. Karswell, it transpires, has also had a book on witchcraft publicly traduced by another critic, John Harrington. The Secretary of the learned society and Dunning meet to discuss the rejection of the article and Karswell’s subsequent ill-tempered response. In the process we get some rather unnerving background details about a very spooky children’s party Karswell threw for the community in his persona as Abbot of Lufford and we also discover that Harrington committed suicide in what seems to be an unaccountable manner – by falling from a tree he had tried to climb in what seemed to be a state of terror.
All this background is sketched in quite fully but with splendid economy – the detail is never allowed to over-shadow the growing atmosphere of mystery and menace that James is keen to build. Having set the story up, James switches the focus onto Dunning, who now becomes the centre of the action. He expresses fears that Karswell appears to be the kind of man who might take umbrage if he discovers who had been the cause of the most recent article being rejected but is reassured that the peer review process is an anonymous one and will protect his identity. However, a number of disturbing and unexplainable incidents suggest that Karswell may have uncovered who had authored the negative review..
Following a coming together of the two men in a library where Karswell picks up and returns some papers of Dunning’s that have fallen to the floor, things take a turn for the worse. In an episode that is the hallmark of James’ skill as a horror writer, Dunning has a night of claustrophobic terror with strange noises, unformed creatures and an unspeakable ‘thing’ lurking in his house.
After confessing all his fears to friends, a meeting with John Harrington’s brother is arranged during which Dunning learns that the now deceased book critic had similar experiences which had culminated in him discovering that Karswell had passed to him a slip of paper containing a sequence of runic symbols. This paper had, as if having a will of its own, flown into the fire and been consumed. Three months later and after a series of terrifying events, Harrington met his death.
Dunning and Harrington’s brother rightly assume that Dunning too has been passed these runes, but, now aware of the need to take care, they prevent the paper from finding its way into an open fire and the two men resolve to pass the runes back to their originator…
I’ll leave you to read the denouement.
What James calls his ghost stories are never long but neither are they crude shockers – they operate at the level of suggestion, discomfort and your own weakness. The fears that they conjure-up are very much the fears that you yourself create, that are maybe lying dormant in us or that sometimes inhabit our dreams. The author is both the creator and the storyteller – his voice is a calm and sober one that is designed to convince you that he’s simply telling you the facts of the case and it is often this matter-of-factness that helps ratchet-up the readers sense of tension.
I was right, though, The Night of the Demon is enjoyable enough but its determination to cast Dunning as a square-jawed American sceptic and ultimate hero carries none of the original story’s ability to sit in the cobwebby corners of your mind and make you wonder what you’ve just picked up with the rest of the papers you left lying around the other day.