Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s original stories—and some on his friends, too.
Today we’re looking at M. R. James’s “Count Magnus,” first published in 1904 in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. You can read it here.
“This is the English of what was written: ‘If any man desires to obtain a long life, if he would obtain a faithful messenger and see the blood of his enemies, it is necessary that he should first go into the city of Chorazin, and there salute the prince….’ Here there was an erasure of one word, not very thoroughly done, so that Mr Wraxall felt pretty sure that he was right in reading it as aeris (‘of the air’). But there was no more of the text copied, only a line in Latin: Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora . (See the rest of this matter among the more private things.)”
Summary: Our anonymous narrator has come by accident on papers telling the tale of Mr. Wraxall, Oxonian, bachelor, travel writer. Around 1860, Wraxall decides to write a guide to Scandinavia, and journeys to Sweden. Narrator declines to name the last town and family Wraxall visits, but let’s call them Raback and De la Gardie, respectively.
The De la Gardies allow the researcher access to their family records, even offer him a place in their manor house, but he prefers to stay at a nearby inn. It’s only a mile from inn to manor and a pleasant walk through woods and by a lake. The walk also passes a church on a knoll, typical of Swedish ecclesiastical architecture—except for the unconnected mausoleum built on its north side. Here lies, among other De la Gardies, the family founder, Count Magnus.
Wraxall views a portrait of Magnus, whose face impresses him more by its power than its beauty. Magnus took a leading and bloody part in suppressing a peasant rebellion, abused his tenant farmers, may even have burned the houses of men who encroached on his domain. People whispered that he’d been on the Black Pilgrimage, and that he’d brought something or someone back with him. Wraxall finds among Magnus’s papers a book of alchemical tracts. On a blank leaf, Magnus himself writes a “Liber nigrae peregrinationis,” actually just a few lines to this effect: He who seeks long life, a faithful messenger and the blood of his enemies, must travel to the city of Chorazin and there salute the prince (of the air.) Alas, Magnus notes that the rest of the story is only to be found among “more private things,” and they’re private enough to elude Wraxall.
On his way home that evening, Wraxall pauses at the mausoleum and (being in the habit of talking to himself) says aloud, “Count Magnus, there you are. I should dearly like to see you.” Inside the church, or perhaps the tomb, something metallic drops.
From the deacon, Wraxall can only learn that Chorazin may be the birthplace of the Antichrist. From his landlord, he hears a singular story. Ninety-two years before, two men decided that since Count Magnus was long dead, they might as well hunt in his woods. Laughing at warnings they might encounter those walking who should be resting, they set off. Men at the inn heard a terrible distant scream. Later, they heard someone laugh by the church, after which a heavy door slammed. The next morning they found one man backed against a tree, arms stretched before him as if to fend something off. The other man was dead, his face sucked clean of flesh, all staring skull. They buried him nearby and brought the surviving hunter to a madhouse, where he soon died as well.
On a visit to the mausoleum, Wraxall notes that Magnus has no cross engraved on his sarcophagus, but instead a full-length effigy. Scenes of war and death decorate the tomb, including an enigmatic representation of a man running from a short hooded figure whose only visible feature is a tentacle where one would expect a hand. Nearby a cloaked man watches the hunt.
Stranger still, three massive steel padlocks secure the sarcophagus, but one has fallen to the floor. Later Wraxall approaches the mausoleum singing whimsically, “Are you awake, Count Magnus?” Looking inside, he finds another padlock has dropped to the floor, and that he’s unable to resecure them.
On the night before he leaves Raback, Wraxall pays a last visit to the mausoleum and mutters over the sarcophagus that though Magus may have been a rascal, he’d still like to see him. Something falls on his foot, the last padlock. Hinges creak, the sarcophagus lid shifts upwards. And there was something more, seen or heard, that Wraxall can’t remember after he flees in terror.
During his trip home, Wraxall notes among fellow canal-boat passengers a tall cloaked man and his short close-hooded companion. On landing in England, he takes a private carriage rather than the train in hopes of evading their seeming pursuit. But at a moonlit crossroad near Belchamp St. Paul, he sees the two again, standing motionless.
Locked in his lodging in the town, he knows doctors will think him mad, policemen a fool, so he can only pray for rescue from what he’s summoned. Prayer’s not enough. In the morning he’s found dead, and in such a condition that the members of the inquest faint and later refuse to say what they saw. The owners of the house leave and no one ever lives in it again. Our narrator, who inherits the property, has it torn down, and that’s how Wraxall’s papers come to light, for they were stashed in a forgotten cupboard in his bedroom.
What’s Cyclopean: Not James’s deal—his language is extremely restrained.
The Degenerate Dutch: Also not James’s deal—aside from a mild speculation that Scandanavians might have a cultural disposition to giving slow answers, the story remains innocuous on this front.
Mythos Making: From the second-hand narration to the carefully laid-out evidence arranged in order from least to most alarming, many of Lovecraft’s building blocks are already in place here.
Libronomicon: The Count’s sorcerous library includes The book of the Phoenix (probably not by Nnedi Okorafor), Book of the Thirty Words, Book of the Toad (probably not the “natural and magical history of toad-human relations” that comes up on a quick web search), Book of Miriam, Turba philosophorum (an actual alchemy text, translated from Arabic), and Liber Nigrae Peregrinationis.
Madness Takes Its Toll: Magnus’s pursuit appears to drive Mr. Wraxall to great distraction—more so than many of Lovecraft’s narrators who face greater horrors. Plus there’s the hunter, apparently left catatonic after the horrid death of his comrade.
In Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft names four modern masters: Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany—and Montague Rhodes James. Academic, antiquarian, medieval scholar, biographer, M. R. James resembled many of his protagonists. He was also a “casual” writer of ghost stories, many of which he shared with friends on Christmas Eve. Casual or dead serious, his weird tales are among the finest in the language. James deftly juxtaposes contemporary settings and prosaic detail with the long and ever-accumulating shadows of history, of ancient survivals, of preternatural menace. His is a seemingly light touch, verging even on the whimsical, but the chords he plays are minor, bass. As Lovecraft notes, his ghosts are not filmy spectres, perceived mainly by sight. Instead they’re “lean, dwarfish, and hairy—a sluggish, hellish night-abomination midway betwixt beast and man—and usually touched before it is seen.” Or, if not actually touched, at least material, tactile, and ickily so. Nor are James’s creatures helpful, beneficent. Nope, they are badass and malignant and capable of ultraviolence on a shoggoth-scale, however briefly described.
“Count Magnus” gets the lion’s share of Lovecraft’s attention in his essay. He calls it one of James’s best and a “veritable Golconda of suspense and suggestion.” I’ve always wondered about this choice of favorite. Not that “Count Magnus” isn’t a great creeper, but for suspense and suggestion—and character interest and the stellar balancing of humor and horror—it’s no match for “Casting the Runes” or the “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” which Lovecraft gives such short shrift. I’m thinking it’s the tentacle that got Howard. The tentacle and the face sucked right off, which is a modus operandi for slaughter even worse, visually, than the shoggoth’s favored sucking off of the entire head. Here’s where James wins the suggestion prize, giving us a horrific image for which we have to figure out the actual physical process. Because what does Magnus’s little buddy use to suck face? The application of a whole lot of tentacles (with their suction cup discs) at once? Or, my own demure little notion—the ever hooded one has the head of a lamprey, along with its mouth full of concentric rings of rasping teeth!
Of course, I’ve got to love Count Magnus himself. He walks when he should be resting. He’s the walking dead, only far better preserved. Maybe he’s a vampire like that other Count, though it’s unclear whether blood is his sustenance. He’s not the one doing the face-munching after all. He’s a voyeur and hence perhaps a connoisseur of fear and agony, living on the rich (final) emotions and sensations of his victims, just like in the good old days when he used to execute ungrateful peasants and whip his tenants. But what are his laws of existence? What’s with the padlocks–three because of the time-honored trope of summoning evil by calling or wishing for it three times? Great meat for speculation there.
Also that Black Pilgrimage. Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls do a fine job of tracing its possible roots in their essay of the same name. Their conclusion remains the general one: Maybe James invented this particular quest for immortality and power, maybe not.
Argh, so much to say about narrative and point of view technique vis a vis James and Lovecraft: Their similarities and contrasts. We must certainly do another James story with that in mind!
A personal note. Someone gave me a cross-stitch pattern of this sweet English cottage set in a vibrantly blooming garden. The sky was flushed with sunset, and there was a gate into the garden, and it was really lovely but come on, it needed just a little spice of the unexpected. So I stitched in Count Magnus’s cloaked and hooded companion at the gate, exuding nice gray-green tentacles from his drapery, paw-claw raised to the latch.
Put on the tea kettle, dear. We have company!
Lovecraft was a great admirer of James, particularly of his ability to place ghosts and ghouls, not in the predictive atmosphere of gothic mansions and damp dungeons, but amid the persuasive details of ordinary life. The admiration was not mutual: James found Lovecraft’s style “most offensive.” Perhaps no surprise there—Lovecraft may have picked up many things from James but his spare prose wasn’t one of them.
Under other circumstances than a Lovecraft Reread, I might have enjoyed this story more. I like spare prose and understated British emotionality. I like chatty travel memoirs. But I also, while I don’t suggest that Lovecraft is one of the great English stylists, am pretty fond of the sheer unrestrained enthusiasm with which he tosses vocabulary at the reader. Used that word thrice already this week? If it seems to be the right word for the current sentence, who cares! Ten other people in the country know what this one means? Pick up a dictionary! No shortcuts, get your OED on! Italics! So when my blog reading for the week is more miserly with the adjectives, I feel a bit cheated.
On top of that, one of Lovecraft’s tricks that I’m not so fond of does appear here—the superfluous second-hand narrator. As far as I can tell, we get Wraxall’s journals at a remove 1) as an excuse to skip over a certain amount of the chattiness, and 2) to allow a report of the post-journal denouement. Neither is quite worth the distancing effect—one could easily have marked relevant sections as “excerpts” without an unrelated currator, and Wraxall’s fate could have been implied by the last thing he wrote. (As long as it wasn’t an uncharacteristic “Aaaahhhhhhh!!!!!”) He certainly seemed to have a pretty good idea what was about to happen to him.
And that’s the thing—the furniture here is basically strong. The setting is fun, the locals who pass on tidbits of lore sympathetic. The balladic pattern of Wraxall’s half-chanted desire to see the Count, and the locks opening in response, has a hypnotic rhythm. Magnus sounds like a genuinely nasty guy, with nastiness exaccerbated by his alchemical studies.
I could infer some intriguing Mythos connections—it seems very likely, for example, that he’s one of Curwen’s correspondents, and that the Black Pilgrimage might be something like the travels undertaken by Curwen and young Charles Ward, with Chorazin somewhere on the itinerary. The method of waking him seems far simpler than what Curwen depends on. No saltes, no need for One Who Shall Come with a conveniently similar face. Nope, just trance out a passing essayist, and get him to implore your locks open.
And then… here I hit another snag. Why does Magnus stalk and kill his rescuer? Does he think it will hide something? Does his dark master require a sacrifice? If so, why that one? The story depends a little too much, I think, on the fairy tale logic in which those who wake evil forces must face their destructive ire, even when the evil force clearly wanted to be woken.
Ultimately, for me, this story lacks both Lovecraft’s strengths that draw me into his best stories, and the weaknesses that intrigue me, in spite of myself, about the worst.
Next week we get back to our favorite collaborators with H. P. Lovecraft’s and Hazel Heald’s “Man of Stone.”
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian novelette “The Litany of Earth” is available on Tor.com, along with the more recent but distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint in Spring 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.