Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

M. R. James the Notorious Arachnaphobe

James the Notorious Arachnaphobe

M R James long held a hatred of spiders, noting in one of his letters to his friend Gwendolen McBryde that they terrified him, “Especially the one that turns up unaccountably in the Bath”[1]. That they were a personal motif of horror for him can be located in his stories, of which, three have the terrifying presence of these arachnoid forms, which for a small body of work is an indicator of how much the spider must have been his own dark nightmare.

The monster that terrifies the academic Dennistoun in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” is the presence of the spider personified, with James’s narrator remarking that it reminded him of “one of those awful bird catching spiders of South America”. It is described in the story thus,

However the main traits of the figure I can at least indicate. At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair, presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow had intensely black pupils...[2]

One ought to be very glad that at least there were just two hate filled eyes and not the multiple eyes that spiders typically have.

Rosemary Pardoe in her essay A Wonderful Book, remarked that James was an arachnophobe, and the inclusion of the spider villains’ in “The Ash-Tree” would certainly prove this theory, as they are amongst the most terrifying visitants in the Jamesian canon. [3] The Ash tree in the story is next to one Castringham Hall, and in the year 1690 when the squire Sir Matthew Fell had successfully borne witness against the villain of the story, a local woman Mrs Mothersole who was being tried for witchcraft, he was found dead, “Black and bitten” by unknown assailants.

The tree in the course of the story is found to be the home of many large spider like forms who seem to have come from the body of the old woman, but it is the description of these monsters that emerge at the end of the story from the burning Ash tree that is truly fear inducing;

First, at the fork, they saw a round body covered with fire-the size of a man’s head-appear very suddenly, then seem to collapse and fall back. This, five or six times; then a similar ball leapt into the air and fell on the grass, where after a moment it lay still. The bishop went as near as he dared to it, and saw – what but the remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And as the fire burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from the trunk...[4]

The spiders are the agents of death used by Mrs Mothersole to despatch her victims. The size alone of them, “As big as a man’s head” is enough to make anyone nauseous at the thought of encountering them in a dark and unfamiliar bedroom. In our country we do not have spiders of any great size, the largest being among the species of garden or large house spider. The larger species of spider are to be found in Australia, especially the Huntsman or the varieties as above of the bird eating spiders that can be found in the Brazilian rainforests. James evidently had these types of spider in mind when he included these as agents of death in his stories.

Sigmund Freud indicated that spiders were amongst our deeply buried fears as a species, in one of his selected papers he remarks "A spider in dreams is a symbol of the mother, but of the phallic mother, of whom we are afraid; so that the fear of spiders expresses dread of mother-incest and horror of the female genitals"[5]

James’s own way of exorcising these primal horrors was to include them as motifs in his stories, the final one of which was “The Tractate Middoth” where the villain of the story Dr Rant tries to disinherit his niece, Mrs Simpson, by leaving all his worldly goods to his nephew, Mr Eldred but then deceiving both parties by leaving the actual copy of his will in a library book, the Tractate Middoth of the story.

The nephew however, is determined to locate and hide the book from Mrs Simpson and sets out to procure the book for himself, but the revenant of Dr Rant finds Eldred and kills him, it is the manner in which Eldred meets his death that is most interesting;

He took hold of a leaf, and was carefully tearing it out, when two things happened. First something black seemed to drop upon the white leaf and run down it, and then as Eldred started and was turning to look behind him, a little dark form appeared to rise out of the shadow behind the tree trunk and from it two arms enclosing a mass of blackness came before Eldred’s face and covered his head and neck...[6]

The next day, Mr Garrett who witnessed the attack upon Eldred, is passing the scene, when he finds;

Something dark that still lay there made him start back for a moment; but it hardly stirred. Looking closer, he saw that it was a thick black mass of cobwebs; and, as he stirred it gingerly with his stick, several large spiders ran out of it into the grass...[7]

The horrors in these stories are very visceral but also very intensely personal to James, as some critics, notably Steve Duffy have noted, the holy trinity that he used to great effect usually revolved around the physical characteristics of “Thin, Dirty and Hairy, of which the totemic beast is the Spider”[8]

For as noted above, the spider when thought of on a realistic level is not really in the end threatening to man on any level, especially as a whole even the larger species cannot give us more than a fright when we glimpse them unexpectedly. The venomous ones could kill us with a bite, but mostly on a physical level their size rules them out as large scale predators. It is on a symbolic and primordial level that the spider excels as an exceptional motif of the horrific, and it is with this deploying of the symbolic horror that James after all excels. The personal for him in this case was an exceptionally brilliant way to evoke horror on the page and in his readers.

[1] McBryde, Gwendolen,  M.R.James Letters to a Friend (London: Edward Arnold, 1956)

[2] James, M R, Collected Ghost Stories ( Ware: Wordsworth, 1992) p.9

[3] Joshi, S T, & Pardoe, Rosemary (Eds), Warnings to the Curious (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007)p.245

[4] James, M R, p.40

[5] Freud, Sigmund, The Spider as a Dream Symbol, Selected Papers, (London), 1927. New York,1953, Chap, xix, 22;24.

[6] James, p.126

[7] James,p.127

[8] James, M R, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, (2000).p.xxii

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