Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Some Features of Narrative Voice in "A Warning to the Curious"

I've been reading Haunts, a new ghost story anthology edited by Stephen Jones that mixes reprints and originals. Happily, most of the reprints are recent or obscure material rather than the familiar classics that everyone knows. The one exception is M. R. James' "A Warning to the Curious." While reading the story (for what must be the fourth or fifth time) I was struck, as I often am when reading James, by how effective it was, and how difficult it was to tell precisely how that effect was achieved. James described his own aesthetic of the ghost story in an often-quoted essay; in fact, a section from it appears in Haunts' introductory note to "A Warning to the Curious:"
Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
This is a valuable principle, and one can track its application in many of James' stories, but in the case of "A Warning to the Curious" I'm not sure it's relevant in any obvious way. Although the hints of it have the innocuous tone that inspires a grim yet pleasant knowing-ness in the alert reader, the ominous thing remains, as far as I can see, at a consistent level from near the beginning of the story until near the end. Although there is something of a crescendo, it lacks the careful and delicate gradation of those in other major M. R. James stories. The difference here, I think, is that the subject of the haunting knows from his first appearance in the story that something terrible is happening to him. He describes the development of that certainty, but with a hindsight that most James protagonists lack.

What, then, makes "A Warning to the Curious" work?  Obviously there can be no simple, all-encompassing explanation of how any piece of fiction succeeds or fails. For the purposes of this essay I'll focus on certain features of narrative voice, an aspect of his fiction for which James, perhaps because of the deceptive simplicity of his language, has received little credit, although many have commented on his related talent for pastiching the diction of different times, places, and social classes. "A Warning," like many of James' tales, features a frame narration by a unspecified person, perhaps intended to be James himself, who is not directly involved in the action. That this creates an emotional distance allowing for subtle, carefully-crafted descriptions of terrible experiences, and for the humor with which James leavens his terror, should go without saying. In the case of "A Warning," however, the narrative situation is even more complex. The person who is telling the story to the primary narrator is himself not at its center, and the person who is recounts his story to the secondary narrator. Thus we have a tale within a tale within a tale.  (The fact that Paxton in turn recounts what he is told by various locals further complicates things, but this essay doesn't go into that added layer.) The remarkable thing about this is that, although the three narrators are not rounded characters in a literary sense, each has a slightly different approach to story-telling, and the interplay of their voices, effortlessly realistic even as it weaves a story of ghostly fear, creates an atypical crescendo of its own.

The first of the narrators, who disappears after the first two pages of the story, is the closest of the three to James' usual voice. At once formal with James' ingrained erudition and conversational from the origin of many of his stories in readings for friends, it serves here primarily to set the scene by nostalgic descriptions of Seaburth that have the elegant, suggestive simplicity by which James manages atmosphere. The story begins:
The place on the east coast which the reader is asked to consider is Seaburgh. It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations; flat fields to the north, merging into heath; heath, fir woods, and, above all, gorse, inland. A long sea-front and a street: behind that a spacious church of flint, with a broad, solid western tower and a peal of six bells. How well I remember their sound on a hot Sunday in August, as our party went slowly up the white, dusty slope of road towards them, for the church stands at the top of a short, steep incline. They rang with a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower too. The railway ran down to its little terminus farther along the same road. There was a gay white windmill just before you came to the station, and another down near the shingle at the south end of the town, and yet others on higher ground to the north. There were cottages of bright red brick with slate roofs... 
These recollections are, for readers with a sense of the potency of memory and the power of well-hewn direct language, a small delight, but James' self-deprecating sense of humor is not far behind. Immediately after the above ellipses comes:
but why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? The fact is that they come crowding to the point of the pencil when it begins to write of Seaburgh. I should like to be sure that I had allowed the right ones to get on to the paper. But I forgot. I have not quite done with the word-painting business yet.
This is as charming in its own way as "the word-painting business" itself, and as a literary tactic it has the advantage of agreeing with both those who like such details and those who do not. Its very gentility sets up, despite the absence of characters, the opening placidity for which James had called, while the humorous description of the act of writing, as breezily postmodern as any of the contemporary games that earn that label, also creates the impression of truth, of reality reported rather than fiction crafted. We might be reading an elderly gentleman's privately-printed reminiscences

Shortly the second narrator, also unnamed, begins his account. Because his voice is, like the first, not lugubriously stylized, readers may not consciously observe its distinctive features, but they are obvious from the first paragraph on.
I know all that country more or less (he said). I used to go to Scaburgh pretty regularly for golf in the spring. I generally put up at the 'Bear', with a friend - Henry Long it was, you knew him perhaps - ('Slightly,' I said) and we used to take a sitting-room and be very happy there. Since he died I haven't cared to go there. And I don't know that I should anyhow after the particular thing that happened on our last visit.
I've called the James-voice "conversational," but this one is far more so, or rather its conversation is less refined and academic, with a casual air; its turns of phrase-- "more or less," "pretty regularly," "I don't know that I should anyhow"-- are far more offhand. Perhaps the distinction is that the James-voice's conversation is rehearsed, with the tone of a prepared after-dinner speech, whereas this voice is more genuinely of the moment. But it's also more brusque: its eventual description of Paxton, the third narrator, as "rather a rabbity anemic subject" would be impossible for the James-voice. (Contrast the introduction of Parkins in "Oh, Whistle" to see how that voice describes a similar type.) A slightly later passage reinforces the character of the second voice.
After some remarks, which I forget, he became rather confidential. 'You'll think it very odd of me' (this was the sort of way he began), 'but the fact is I've had something of a shock.' Well, I recommended a drink of some cheering kind, and we had it. The waiter coming in made an interruption (and I thought our young man seemed very jumpy when the door opened), but after a while he got back to his woes again. There was nobody he knew in the place, and he did happen to know who we both were (it turned out there was some common acquaintance in town), and really he did want a word of advice, if we didn't mind. Of course we both said: 'By all means,' or 'Not at all,' and Long put away his cards. And we settled down to hear what his difficulty was.
From the almost-mocking bluntness of "which I forget" and "he got back to his woes again" to the robust non-nonsense attitude of "a drink of some cheering kind," to the patronizing inclusiveness of "our young man," this is a noticeably different personality to that of the first narrator, not so much less intelligent as less scholarly about its intelligence.

The third narrative voice, Paxton, is something of a hybrid of the first two, sharing the intellectual edge of the first and the chattiness of the second:
'It began,' he said, 'more than a week ago, when I bicycled over to Froston, only about five or six miles, to see the church; I'm very much interested in architecture, 'and it's got one of those pretty porches with niches and shields. I took a photograph of it, and then an old man who was tidying up in the churchyard came and asked if I'd care to look into the church. I said yes, and he produced a key and let me in. There wasn't much inside, but I told him it was a nice little church, and he kept it very clean, "But," I said, "the porch is the best part of it." We were just outside the porch then, and he said, "Ah, yes, that is a nice porch; and do you know, sir, what's the meanin' of that coat of arms there?"
It is difficult to imagine the second voice being interested in church architecture (as, of course, James himself was), and equally difficult to imagine the first referring to "one of those pretty porches with niches and shields." But the most distinctive quality of Paxton's voice is the edge of despair built into it. His desperation has a nicely-managed crescendo of its own, rising from asides along the lines of "I wish this hadn't happened" to a very long paragraph that I feel compelled to quote in full.
Then it all came out: Paxton looked over his shoulder and beckoned to us to come nearer to him, and began speaking in a low voice: we listened most intently, of course, and compared notes afterwards, and I wrote down our version, so I am confident I have what he told us almost word for word. He said: 'It began when I was first prospecting, and put me off again and again. 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. I would lie down for quite a long time and take careful observations, and make sure there was no one, and then when I got up and began prospecting again, there he was. And he began to give me hints, besides; for wherever I put that prayer-book - short of locking it up, which I did at last - when I came back to my loom it was always out on my table open at the flyleaf where the names are, and one of my razors across it to keep it open. I'm sure he just can't open my bag, or something more would have happened. You see, he's light and weak, but all the same I daren't face him. Well, then, when I was making the tunnel, of course it was worse, and if I hadn't been so keen I should have dropped the whole thing and run. It was like someone scraping at my back all the time: I thought for a long time it was only soil dropping on me, but as I got nearer the - the crown, it was unmistakable. And when I actually laid it bare and got my fingers into the ring of it and pulled it out, there came a sort of cry behind me - oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was! And horribly threatening too. It spoilt all my pleasure in my find - cut it off that moment. And if I hadn't been the wretched. fool I am, I should have put the thing back and left it. But I didn't. The rest of the time was just awful. I had hours to get through before I could decently come back to the hotel. First I spent time filling up my tunnel and covering my tracks, and all the while he was there trying to thwart me. 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. Well, I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise, and then I had to get to the junction for Seaburgh, and take a train back. And though it was daylight fairly soon, I don't know if that made it much better. There were always hedges, or gorse-bushes, or park fences along the road - some sort of cover, I mean - and I was never easy for a second. And then when I began to meet people going to work, they always looked behind me very strangely: it might have been that they were surprised at seeing anyone so early; but I didn't think it was only that, and I don't now: they didn't look exactly at me. And the porter at the train was like that too. And the guard held open the door after I'd got into the carriage - just as he would if there was somebody else coming, you know. Oh, you may be very sure it isn't my fancy,' he said with a dull sort of laugh. Then he went on: 'And even if I do get it put back, he won't forgive me: I can tell that. And I was so happy a fortnight ago.' He dropped into a chair, and I believe he began to cry.
This is our closest glimpse at the story's ghost, but what really makes it unsettling is the psychological disorder and dissolution hinted at by its air of distraction and interjection. Paxton's chronological account of events rises and falls erratically in intensity;  even as he attempts to make his problem clear, he is forced by the sheer strangeness of his situation into ominous vagueness and abrupt changes of subject from the eerie to the banal that underline his confusion and fear: "all the same I daren't face him" followed by "Well, then, when I was making the tunnel," or "he has some power over your eyes" followed by "Well, I wasn't off the spot very long before sunrise."   These "wells" and "you knows" have the usual effect of empty conversational filler integrated into dialogue, making the speech seem ragged and the speaker at loose ends. That James presents this monologue as a single paragraph increases this impression of unstructured thought.

Lacking depth of characterization, James' stories often depend on the reader's projection of himself or herself into the place of the protagonist (the "this could happen to me" effect), but Paxton's ramblings, with the pathos of the culminating "And I was so happy a fortnight ago," make him more an object of genuine and intense sympathy than virtually any other victim of the supernatural in the Jamesian canon. He's also unlike the James protagonists who meet terrible fates in that we see his end from a much closer perspective, that of the second voice, who even on the basis of a limited acquaintance knows and cares about Paxton far more than the narrators of "The Ash-Tree" and "Count Magnus" care about Richard Fell or the hapless Mr. Wraxall.
The notion of Paxton running after - after anything like this, and supposing it to be the friends he was looking for, was very dreadful to us. You can guess what we fancied: how the thing he was following might stop suddenly and turn round on him, and what sort of face it would show, half-seen at first in the mist - which all the while was getting thicker and thicker. And as I ran on wondering how the poor wretch could have been lured into mistaking that other thing for us, I remembered his saying, 'He has some power over your eyes.' And then I wondered what the end would be, for I had no hope now that the end could be averted, and - welI, there is no need to tell all the dismal and horrid thoughts that flitted through my head as we ran on into the mist.
Here, and in the ensuing description of the aftermath of Paxton's death, the second narrator's brusqueness, threaded through with sympathy, adds to the sense of disquiet and tragedy, making Paxton's grisly end less the structurally-required conclusion of a supernatural revenge story and more a disturbing occurrence in its own right. The final sentences-- " Paxton was so totally without connections that all the inquiries that were subsequently made ended in a No Thoroughfare. And I have never been at Seaburgh, or even near it, since"-- have a laconic and pessimistic finality, and it is no surprise that the James-voice, with its comic asides and delicate word-painting, does not return for a curtain call. Perhaps M. R. James' last great story, "A Warning to the Curious" is a masterwork of narrative voice. Other stories show his ability to work in wildly different voices-- "The Residence at Whitminster" comes immediately to mind-- but "A Warning" seems to me the finest use of that gift in the structuring of a ghostly tale.

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