“The Diary of Mr Poynter” by M.R. James

[Warning: this post naturally contains spoilers for the story in question. No artificial spoilers were added.]


“Dr. James, long fond of telling spectral tales at Christmastide, has become by slow degrees a literary weird fictionist of the first rank”
—H.P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

The British ghost story is closely tied to Christmas, as it became a tradition to tell ghost stories around that time. One individual who became particularly renowned for his yearly delivery of such a tale was Montague Rhodes James, a scholar at Cambridge. His stories were collected in four volumes, and then later in the single volume I’m reading from. Although I’m far from an expert in British ghost stories, it seems to me that M.R. James represents their apex, and I know I’m not alone in that opinion. His mastery in crafting precisely the story he intends is evident. His characters are often antiquarians like himself, and his knowledge of old documents is used to create an atmosphere of almost-boring realism that allows even the slightest supernatural elements to have chilling effects. His writing is the paragon of the subtle, implied horror. But he also has a great sense of showmanship, so that in reading his stories one actually gets the impression of sitting around him at Christmas, listening to him recounting ghost stories.


Typically for James, the story begins with a book-collector, a “Mr James Denton, M.A., F.S.A., etc., etc.,” who, at a book auction firm comes across a local diary from a Mr. Poynter: “there were four largish volumes of the diary … it concerned the years about 1710, and … there seemed to be a good many insertions in it of various kinds.” From the first scene James has established a certain sort of structured universe where collectors politely glide about looking for oddities, but he has also established a tone that puts the narrator closer to the reader than his characters. He mocks the overabundance of knowledge that he is providing with the use of details like those ‘etc., etc.,’ and the paragraph opening “It is no part of my plan to repeat the whole conversation which ensued between the two.” The fiction here is of a conversation between James and ourselves as much or more as the conversation between characters, and this mocking tone ends up lending verisimilitude to the story by disarming the reader much more than a straight third-person or first-person narrative that presumes suspension of disbelief.

Mr. Denton returns home to his stereotypically shrewish aunt, who is caught up in planning the dressing of their soon-to-be new home and harangues him for dropping by the auction firm:

“His aunt threw up her hands. ‘Robins’s! Then the next thing will be another parcel of horrible old books at some outrageous price.”

She continues by harassing him for his failures as a socialite, reminding him that, “We must occasionally be civil to our neighbors: you wouldn’t like to have it said we were perfect bears. What was I saying?” We have it established: this guy wants to read, he wants to socialize, which she thinks is barbarous. On the other hand, he sees “the prospect of a lawn-tennis party” as “an inevitable evil in August” against which he is “to some extent cheered by the arrival on the Friday morning of an intimation that he had secured … the four volumes of Poynter’s manuscript diary.” Any reader with the slightest awareness of the horror genre should pick up the irony here: given the title, we all know that the diary will be the real evil.

When the diary arrives, the aunt first attacks Denton over the price, and then screams when she picks it up and an earwig falls out. In the process they discover “a piece of patterned stuff about the size of a quarto page” which the aunt immediately “went into raptures over” and insists on having it copied as a pattern for the curtains. The pattern is described as looking like hair, and naturally the artist commissioned to copy it has reservations “as if the man scented something almost Hevil” (M.R. James does belong to a tradition of occasionally embarrassing attempts to render dialect) “in the design.”

Indeed, it doesn’t take long for Mr. Denton to be unnerved by the way the hairlike bands come together, saying “There was an effect as if someone kept peeping out between the curtains in one place or another.” Then, this exchange:

“‘The only other thing that troubled me was the wind.’
‘Why, I thought it was a perfectly still night.’
‘Perhaps it was only on my side of the house, but there was enough to sway my curtains and rustle them more than I wanted.'”

People often complain of so-called ‘genre’ works like ghost stories, detective stories, and slasher movies, that they are repetitive and predictable, but this is very intentional and critical to their function. This exchange is designed to be scary because you, unlike the characters, know what it means. Otherwise it would seem a pointless bit of jibber-jabber that James should have cut out. The fact that he left it in when earlier he made a point of cutting out pointless talk draws our attention to it just as if the storyteller had put on a showman’s grin and winked at us.

Of course, everyone then splits up, and Denton dozes off only to wake and think “that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something. But the feel of it, and still more the fact that instead of a responsive movement, absolute stillness greeted his touch, made him look over the arm. What he had been touching rose to meet him. It was … a human figure. But of the face … no feature was discernable, only hair.” The hair creature does not attack but he flees “and doubtless he did right to fly.” Momentarily stopped at the door, he feels a hairy hand becoming more material at his back before finally escaping.

James then points out that “It seems curious that … Denton should not have sought an explanation … of the pattern” and tells how he took the diary, finds several leaves pasted together, and reads them to learn of a young decadent named Sir Everard Charlett who “was a very beautiful person, and constantly wore his own Hair, which was very abundant.” We learn that “He died suddenly in October. [Several lines describing his unpleasant habits and reputed delinquencies are omitted.] … He was found in the town ditch, the hair as was said pluck’d clean off his head.” (Note that ‘hair’ is uncapitalized here and only here in the quoted passages.) I find the bracketed line hilarious, as if the threat of a murderous revenant of hair was perfectly acceptable, but the accounts of someone’s “loose way of living” would be inappropriate for the text. As is to be expected, the coffin when later moved and “breaking by mischance, proved quite full of Hair” and the pattern was designed specifically by Charlett as “a memoriall of his Hair.”

It seems to me that we’ve got two lines to play with here. On the one hand is James’ mischievous prose, so self-aware it comments on “the horror I have tried to put into words” and ends with “a quotation from Shakespeare. You may guess it without difficulty. It began with the words ‘There are more things.'” This all seems to me something of a virtuosic flourish. James is not only comfortable with the ghost story, he’s so comfortable with it that he’s going to make a joke about how familiar it is, but in such a way that the horror itself is not dulled.

On the other hand, we have . . . hair. Killer hair. Hair is a pretty rare element of horror in western literature, but let’s look at another horror tradition for a moment. In Japan, hair has a long association with a certain type of ghost called a yuurei (or yurei depending on your romanization). The vengeful spirits of those wronged, usually someone in a position of weakness who dies violently, yuurei have become pretty well known in Hollywood recently thanks to films like The Ring (2002), The Grudge (2004), and Dark Water (2005), not to mention the Japanese films that they, let’s say, ‘translate.’ The thing that stands out to me is that the hair becomes a focus of a sad, vengeful element. To look a little more closely at this, take Sion Sono’s 2007 film Exte: Hair Extensions. This is a film that is, basically, about killer hair extensions, which takes us one step further in the direction of absurdity. Sono, a master filmmaker (seriously, if you haven’t seen his 2002 film Suicide Club, make sure you watch it at the soonest possible time), manages to make the scenario work by playing up the absurdity. Without giving too much away, a good deal of the plot hinges on a hair-fetishist who takes the hair from corpses at a morgue where he works, and in this manner becomes associated with the vengeful ‘haunted’ hair (although that’s a vast simplification; one day I’ll need to write about this film as well). Alternatively, the B-plot here is a serious subject played straight: the main character, Yuko, is having to deal with protecting her niece from an abusive mother. The tonal interplay relies on the farcical element of killer hair to drive home the horrors of abuse and the misuse of the body by others as a larger theme.

That's a lot of hair.

M.R. James has done the exact opposite. By playing up the showman character of his delivery, the absurdity of a killer hair-being coming out of a curtain is downplayed, so that the whole thing takes on a strangely effective dream-like mood. James is an absolute master of mood, and that’s what I love about this story and so many of his others. His stories are of a perfectly comfortable creepy nature, the kind of thing that you want to sit in an armchair reading by a fireplace (I confess I have only actually done this maybe once in my life; it’s rare to find armchairs or fireplaces comfortable for reading in modern society).

So how do I rate the story? On my totally arbitrary scale, I give it an 8/10. It lacked the true cutting vivacity that would make me call a story absolutely great, but like all of James’ ghost stories it’s incredibly comfortable in its discomfort, the kind of ghost story that is highly effective but that I would also recommend to anyone and everyone. If you’re interested, and I hope you are, you should definitely check out James. I recommend either picking up the Collected Ghost Stories as I’ve been reading from, or the Penguin editions that divides his stories into two halves. While those will cost more money for the same stories, I have to recommend them for editor S.T. Joshi’s annotations. While I find Joshi less than insightful at times, his encyclopedic annotations are always of great benefit with an author like James who uses a lot of technical vocabulary and archaisms.

And that’s it for the killer hair. Up next: “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” by Poppy Z. Brite.

Unrelated, the last page of my M.R. James collection had a phone number and this cryptic note on it:

Am I Wrong?

Just a little creepy on a collection of ghost stories that largely start with cryptic notes in old books.

All quotations from Collected Ghost Stories, M.R. James, copyright Wordsworth Editions Limited 1992.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.


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