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Monday, January 1, 2024

An Interview With Simon Loxley

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a British academic and ghost story author whose tales are some of the best-known and most respected in the genre. John Bellairs was a fan and agreed with James that "spooky tales are most effective when the ghastly things happen to people who are going about their business in an ordinary, matter-of-fact world… (Locus, 1991). Bellairs was a Jamesian fan – and included a few homages in his novels – as is Simon Loxley, a British graphic designer and writer on design. Loxley's fandom went as far as writing and self-publishing A Geography of Horror: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James and the Suffolk Landscape, in 2021. It's taken us over a year to order the book, read (and reread), and conduct our interview, but Loxley was game – and here we are.

How were you first introduced to the work of M.R. James?

When I was 11 my English teacher at school (himself a successful writer of children's fiction) gave us each term a booklist, a number of which we had to read and write a review of. Not at this point a big reader, clearly one of the more attractive options for me must have been a short story anthology, The House of the Nightmare and Other Eerie Tales, edited by Kathleen Lines and published by Puffin, the Penguin children's imprint. It was a good collection, including W.W. Jacobs' 'The Monkey's Paw', Saki's 'Gabriel-Ernest', and M.R. James' 'A School Story', which has to be the first thing of his I read.

But without making the author connection, the breakthrough has to be the BBC' Ghost Stories for Christmas'. I think I definitely saw the first one, The Stalls of Barchester, but it was the second, A Warning to the Curious, broadcast on Christmas Eve 1972, that made a seismic impression on me, and I think lots of other people too. I was just starting to read supernatural short fiction in earnest at this point, so his name became fixed for me as someone to read more of.

What makes a "good" Jamesian story?

You have to feel sympathy with the central character, who has to become isolated at the point of maximum danger, and it has to seem as though their death is a high probability, even if that doesn't actually happen. And James has to keep his fondness for colloquial speech in strong check in his dialogue. He's clever at this, but it can come across as patronising, and also, for me, the story can start to veer off into lightness or comedy, destroying the building of tension.

Which story do you feel is his best?  Worst? Overlooked?  Overplayed?

I think 'A Warning to the Curious' just edges 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad', despite the latter's fantastic central idea and manifestation. It lacks the lighthearted opening of 'Oh, Whistle', its focus is pin-sharp throughout, as is the dialogue, and the death of the protagonist is inescapable and brutal. Although the Edwardian era in Britain was in reality one of growing social unrest and conflict, in the popular imagination it's a vanished age of sunlight uplands, and 'Oh, Whistle' seems more a product (albeit a highly disturbing one) of that imagined land of lost content. Written much later, there is an incredible bleakness and hopelessness to 'A Warning'. You feel it's coming from somewhere deep within James: it's hard not to connect it in some way psychologically with the loss of so many of his former students and friends in the recent world war.

'Two Doctors' has I know been given the "worst" status by some, and I struggle to remember the plot even; I'd add 'The Residence at Whitminster', which seems interminable (not a fault you'd normally accuse James of), and overloaded with colloquial monologues. 'Martin's Close' I've never been fond of. It's too pleased with itself as a depiction of seventeenth century speech and procedures, to the detriment of the horror element.

I've always loved 'A School Story', which might be regarded as very slight. The ending I found slightly confusing or disorientating on first readings (possibly put on as an explanation for its original schoolboy audience). But Alberto Manguel featured just the intro conversation in his fine 1984 Black Water anthology, he thought it was so good. The outcomes of the teacher's Latin exercises are so effective – 'If you don't come to me, I'll come to you' – how good is that? The dialogue is again really tautly written, and 'he looked as if he was wet all over… and I'm not at all sure that he was alive'. Great!

'Lost Hearts' has grown for me in recent years. James' didn't want it in the book, but its theme of the exploitation and killing of children whom no-one will miss, strikes a very contemporary note of anxiety; it's become more disturbing as the years pass. 'Count Magnus' possibly suffers from sounding too like 'Count Dracula'. But again what a bleak story, with an absolutely superb monologue from the innkeeper. And the image of the broken man pushing away at something that's not there for his few remaining weeks of life….

I don't think one falls into an overplayed category. But we could use a straight-down-the-line TV version of 'Oh, Whistle', for my money. I can see why people like the Jonathan Miller version, but he had his own agenda, and I actually find it quite irritating. The 2010 version, although it showed the strength of James' ideas in that you can use them and take them somewhere else, and had merits of its own – it just wasn't what we wanted, I guess. Think how convincingly CGI could now do the manifestation, but beyond that keep it simple, just stick to the story, and get us to empathise with Parkins, as I think we gradually do in the story.

For the uninitiated, how would you describe Suffolk, and what makes it so special?

It lies about 100 miles northeast of London, on England's east coast, the part that juts out into the North Sea, and opposite the Netherlands. It's roughly rectangular in shape, with two little panhandles. I think I'm right in saying that historically, the west side was the wealthier. When late-fourteenth century king Richard II wanted to raise some money (as kings always did) and called on the richest places in England, amazingly the small village of Bildeston was among them, and you see more of the 'chocolate box illustration'–style big thatched cottages on this side of the county. And the west has Bury St Edmunds, 'the jewel in Suffolk's crown', as it not unjustly styles itself, a beautiful historical town with the haunting ruins of the Abbey in its centre.

The east side has the other jewel, its amazing coastline, which I love so much. There is no coast road, you can't just roar through; if you want to reach the places by the sea you have to tack off from the highways inland to reach them. Many locations are, therefore, isolated and very atmospheric, with the eroding, changing shoreline studded with the line of Martello towers, defences against a Napoleonic invasion that never came. The twentieth-century chips in with the abandoned atomic weapons research site at Orford Ness, an eerie spit of land with its strange 'pagoda' buildings silhouetted against the sky.

Suffolk is largely very flat, and this may contribute to the very special light it sometimes seems to have, which again for me really adds to the atmosphere. In many places the church is still the tallest building. And there's the sense of layers of history, going back particularly to the Anglo-Saxons: St Edmund with a wolf guarding his severed head, and the ship burials, most notably Sutton Hoo with its incredible find of treasure. You soon see why it was such rich, imaginative territory for James.

How well-known or revered are James's stories in the area?

Loved, I'm sure, by those who know them, but in the population at large, I think this is very hard to gauge (see next answer).

What sparked A Geography of Horror?

In the 1990s, I did quite a lot of graphic design work for London's National Portrait Gallery. At one point, the publications director was looking for subjects for a small book series they could do on people who were featured in the collection. I suggested doing some ghost story writers. She was a fan of the genre, and was quite taken with the idea, but it never got off the ground. However, the idea of writing something myself about the genre stayed with me.

When we moved to coastal Suffolk in 2000, one of my thoughts was that I was moving to James territory. How exciting! But as the years went by, it dawned on me that there was nothing in the environment to mark that he had even existed. I considered him a major writer, and as the 150th anniversary of his birth approached (2012), I contacted the county council about commemorating him in some way, but maybe my message went to the wrong person because I never got a response. But if only in terms of encouraging visitors to the county and raising its cultural profile, it seemed a missed opportunity on their part.

In 2018, something I was working on for a locally-based publisher made me suggest the idea of a James-and-Suffolk book to them. They were initially enthusiastic, but a change of director meant the idea was eventually dropped. However, by this point, I had already written quite a lot of it and felt excited about how it was developing. I decided to continue and self-publish A Geography of Horror in 2021. As well as having a lot of fun researching and writing it, I wanted the book to help improve the recognition of James in the county, if only in a small way.

What response have you had to the book?

It's been really encouraging. Readers who get in touch tell me how much they've enjoyed it. It sells well in bookshops in the area, and online, and in December 2022, it got a four-star review in Fortean Times, which brought in a lot more online orders. I gave a talk about the book at the Felixstowe Book Festival in June 2023, and at the Suffolk Book League in November 2023), which has resulted in me being invited to take part in a James symposium at the University of Suffolk in April 2024 – so perhaps a little of what I was hoping might happen for him in the county is starting.

You provide a detailed walking tour through many of James's stories…which story do you feel is reflected best in the Suffolk area?

This has to be Aldeburgh, Seaburgh in 'A Warning to the Curious'. James knew it so well from when he visited his grandmother there as a child, later staying in the White Lion Hotel there. The story starts with describing the town and the area, which you can easily recognise from today's Aldeburgh. It also references the now disappeared railway, again its route still traceable, and culminates at the Martello tower.

What town or area has the most easily recognized site or object from a James story (if any)?

Undoubtedly Aldeburgh, see above, but Felixstowe is excellent too. You can really see for yourself, no imagining necessary, the landscape that James describes in 'Oh, Whistle': the golf course, Martello towers, again, the beach, the groynes over which the hunted man climbs in Parkins' dream – or vision.

Do any of the areas have any post-Jamesian notoriety?

Possibly Great Livermere, where James spent his childhood. One of the interesting things with publishing a book is that people get in touch with you with more information. Someone once said to me, 'A book is only a work in progress', and it's true, the research and learning never stops. One reader had researched local records for the village and found that the Mothersoles, the local name James used for the witch in 'The Ash-tree', were sometimes in trouble with the law (apologies to any descendants reading this). There was also evidence of sexual assault in the village. Which you could probably find in the history of most places if you dug deep enough, but it connected interestingly with my theory on the possible underlying roots behind James' last, posthumously published and perhaps ultimately, his strangest story, 'A Vignette' (examined in the last chapter in A Geography of Horror).

Are people in the area aware (or proud) of such literary connections?

Again, it's really hard to assess. Awareness of him might be lower than you might imagine. I suppose if you don't like the genre, you wouldn't probably have read him or even maybe heard of him.

Do you lead tours of the area?

No, I don't, but an interesting idea! 

In this fast-paced, high-tech world of ours, do you still think James's work has a valid place?

Absolutely, it's why I make a claim for him as a major writer. His influence has spread from beyond writing into television and cinema. He took the supernatural out of the realm of cobwebbed castles and placed it very firmly in your home, your hotel room, your place of work, which is a very contemporary approach. His revenants aren't pitiful or humorous spectres, they don't wish to communicate from beyond the grave. They want simply to punish and very possibly to kill. It's very direct.

If you were adapting a Jamesian story for the screen, what's one thing you would ensure is included?

I think it's more what I'd leave out. The power of suggestion, not showing. The monster in Night of the Demon does have its fans, but it's the not-seeing that gives the film so much of its power and atmosphere.

Compleat this sentence: you know you've read too much MRJ when –

… you're travelling on your own, and refuse to take a hotel room that has two single beds in it.

Good point. You can contact Loxley and order his book through his website (simonloxley.com). Thank you, Simon!

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