Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at M. R. James’s “Casting the Runes,” first published in 1911 in his More Ghost Stories collection. Spoilers ahead.
“Dear Sir, — I am requested by the Council of the ___ Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.”
Mr. Karswell of Lufford Abbey, self-styled wizard, isn’t happy about the rejection of his paper on alchemy. Not happy at all, as the secretary of the rejecting Association tells his wife. At lunch with friends who live near the Abbey, the pair learn how vindictive Karswell can be. According to the friends, he never forgives an offense. To keep children off his estate, he treated them to a magic-lantern show of horrors, including a piece about a flopping white thing that does away with trespassers in the Abbey woods. Then there’s what happened to John Harrington, who wrote a damning review of Karswell’s History of Witchcraft. One night, on his usual walk home, he scaled a tree, fell, and broke his neck. No one can imagine what he sought to escape, but John’s brother suspects Karswell was responsible.
The secretary hopes Karswell won’t learn that Edward Dunning reviewed his paper for the Association. But Karswell would have to inquire at the British Museum for fellow alchemical scholars to learn his reviewer’s name.
Karswell, alas, is a clever man.
Dunning’s quiet life is first upset when he notices an unusual advertisement on his tram ride home. It reads: “In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.” By the next day the ad’s disappeared. Then Dunning’s given a leaflet by a man with a strangely rough and hot hand. Dunning glimpses the name Harrington before the leaflet’s twitched away by a passerby. It disappears, as has the distributor.
These incidents leave Dunning pensive. On his next visit to the Museum, he drops some papers. A stout man sitting behind him returns his notebook, saying “May I give you this? I think it should be yours.” Dunning later asks the attendant the man’s name. Oh, that’s Mr. Karswell, and actually Karswell has been asking about authorities on alchemy, and of course was given Dunning’s name.
As Dunning heads home, he feels that “something ill-defined and impalpable had stepped in between him and his fellow-men—had taken him in charge, as it were.” His physician meets him at the door with the news that his servants are both in hospital, poisoned by shellfish they bought from a door-to-door vendor. Dunning must spend the night alone. He’s in bed when he hears his study door open. Investigating, he sees and hears no more, only feels a gust of hot air around his legs. Back in bed, he reaches under the pillow for his watch, only to touch “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and…not the mouth of a human being.” He flees to the guest bedroom, to spend a miserable night of listening for—something—to fumble at the door. In the morning no intruder’s to be found.
Our Association secretary meets Dunning and is shocked by his haunted appearance. Learning that Karswell has identified his reviewer, the secretary refers Dunning to John Harrington’s brother, Henry. Henry relates John’s story, how a stout man—Karswell—handed John back a dropped program at a concert, after which John felt unaccountably “followed.” He and Henry later discovered a slip of paper in the returned program, covered with black and red runes. Henry remembered a chapter in Karswell’s History of Witchcraft about “casting the runes” to “get people out of the way.” He believes his brother could have escaped Karswell’s curse if he’d been able to give the slip back, but unfortunately (and totally coincidentally) wind caught it and blew it into the fire. Three months from the night of the concert, something chased John to his death.
Dunning recalls Karswell returning his notebook. He and Harrington find in it a slip marked with runes, identical to the one John received. Wind tries to whisk it out the window, but Harrington is able to grab it. They must keep it safe at all cost and somehow trick Karswell into accepting it back.
A week before Dunning’s three month reprieve will be up, Harrington learns Karswell’s leaving for Europe. Dunning and Harrington contrive to be on the same boat train, Dunning in disguise. Karswell is visibly anxious, keeps leaving the car, then spying back through the window. The last time he leaves, one of his ticket cases falls to the floor. Dunning quickly puts the runic slip into it and hands it to Karswell on his return; somehow he keeps his voice from trembling as he says, “May I give you this, sir? I believe it is yours.”
With a distracted air, Karswell takes the ticket case. At the Dover pier, the conspirators watch him board the boat to France. The boarding official calls him back, asking if the gentleman with Karswell has also shown his ticket. Karswell snarls that no one is with him, and indeed that seems to be the case. The official apologizes, then puzzles to a mate about whether Karswell had a dog with him, or did the official just mistake his bundle of coats for another person?
Dunning, uncomfortable sending anyone to his death, dispatches a telegram to Karswell’s hotel warning him to check his ticket case. Evidently the message doesn’t get through, because a couple days later, at the end of Dunning’s three months, a stone falls from a church under repair and kills Karswell. No workmen were around at the time of the accident.
Back in England Harrington tells Dunning about a dream John had before his death, but Dunning soon stops him.
What’s Cyclopean: James’s writing is perfectly sedate—but of Karswell’s we hear that it’s full of “split infinitives, and every sort of thing that makes an Oxford gorge rise.”
The Degenerate Dutch: The tram workers need Dunning’s gentlemanly testimony to avoid getting sacked for “making up” a creepy disappearing advertisement.
Mythos Making: Witches, from Keziah Mason to the thousand heirs of Salem, appear throughout Lovecraft.
Libronomicon: John Harrington reviewed Karswell’s History of Witchcraft; unfortunately for him Karswell doesn’t take criticism well.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The scientific man may be reluctant to concede the evidence of other people’s senses, but “hypnotic suggestion” soothes many ills.
Scientific rivalry isn’t what it once was, back in the day. Twenty-first century researchers may excoriate their reviewers—or worse, the authors of failed replications—in the vilest of terms, but that’s generally as far as it goes. The active sabotage and libel of the Bone Wars is well behind us. Even that pales beside a fellow like Karswell. The gentleman (and I use the term loosely) is an excellent argument for anonymous peer review. The field of alchemy is fortunate that he’s not a more prolific writer.
There are a lot of excellent creepy details in “Casting the Runes.” I’m going to think twice before the next time I stick my hand under my pillow, let me tell you! Karswell has the Riddler’s sense of drama, and combines actual (possible) witchcraft with the sort of ominous hints that more mundane organized criminals and stalkers use to intimidate. “I can get to you any time” is powerfully and unpleasantly suggestive, with or without curses. Then again, like the Riddler’s requisite hints and tricks, it also affords getting caught. In Karswell’s case, that’s a pretty severe risk.
That risk is where the story breaks down for me—it feels a little too pat. Once Dunning compares notes with Harrington, his own hazard feels somewhat more relaxed and more predictable. Yes, all is death and ruin if he fails to get the paper back to his tormenter, but he has a plan, and it mostly involves waiting around. Plus, there’s an end to mysteriously etched tram windows and inhuman mouths under pillows, at just the point when the reader’s appetite has been whetted.
Harrington (Henry) and Dunning feel a little too confident in their guess, unsupported but perfectly accurate, that safety lies in surreptitiously returning the runes to Karswell. Then I have trouble buying Karswell’s willingness to accept a returned item, any returned item, a week before his curse comes up. If I were him, I’d check every coat and scrap of paper that came within 50 feet, ever. He seems paranoid from the moment he gets on the train—why would he not carry that through to actually, dunno, guarding against the very ruse he’s so fond of?
Then again, all my two-star reviewers are still alive. So clearly my mindset isn’t much like Karswell’s; I could be missing some deep psychological explanation behind his willingness to hug the idiot ball.
Even with these flaws, the story retains a core of power. Karswell is a writer, albeit one who horrifies Oxfordians with dreadful split infinites and mixed mythologies. Runes aren’t a random choice of tool: live by the pen, die by the pen. It’s interesting that he chooses to separate Dunning from his household via poisoning. Slipping something into someone’s food, and slipping something into someone’s papers, are parallel weapons. Writing isn’t so far from cooking in its range of possible effects, from transcendent pleasure to excruciating pain.
Given that similarity, perhaps Karswell should have paid more attention to his critics, rather than dismissing them with deadly force. You can’t avoid your own cooking forever, after all, and a willingness to improve would have made the taste more palatable.
Discussing the “Modern Masters” in Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft mentions a number of James’s stories, but not “Casting the Runes.” Or else he mentions it only obliquely, by stating how a Jamesian creature is “usually touched before it is seen.” Surely that description applies perfectly to the moment of purest terror in this week’s selection! I don’t keep handkerchiefs or books under my pillow anymore, for fear I might reach for them and encounter something else instead. Something inhuman. With teeth. Teeth!
As if anticipating the ire of “Runes” fans, Lovecraft offers a pre-emptive apology: “Amidst this wealth of material it is hard to select a favourite or especially typical [M. R. James] tale, though each reader will no doubt have such preferences as his temperament may determine.” That’s okay, Howard. I too have a hard time picking a favorite James, but “Casting the Runes” would definitely make the top five, probably clawing for number one with “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.” And Howard nails it with his analysis of what makes James a master. The most donnish of dons, antiquarian of antiquaries, James deploys his learning lightly, strategically.
To avoid the “technical patois” of scholarship and occultism is one of the rules James himself set for the weird tale. Another is to catch the reader where he lives by using contemporary and ordinary settings, giving him no opportunity to say, “Oh, that sort of thing only happened long ago and far away, in exotic dreams, don’t you know, kind of thing that Lord Dunsany chap writes.” James’s closest contemporaries were the fellow academics and writers who listened to his stories around the Christmas fire, and their “type” forms the bulk of his characters. They remain highly relatable, I think, for what do they do to precipitate themselves into supernatural adventures? Nothing we moderns couldn’t do: Buy the wrong book or picture, stay in the wrong hotel room, write a scathing review on Amazon or GoodReads.
The third rule is simple and paramount: Make the ghost (or other supernatural entity) malign, not benevolent or neutral. Come on, we’re out to scare readers to ecstatic shivers, right?
“Runes” certainly meets James’s own standards, and exceeds them. It’s notably light on magical jargon and pedantic asides—compared, within the author’s own oeuvre, with stories like “Number 13” (Danish church history) and “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book” (lotsa Latin.) It’s rich with contemporary and prosaic detail, into which the uncanny slowly filters, at first a light taint, finally a choking darkness. On his daily tram ride Dunning scans the old familiar ads, only to find one unfamiliar and subtly unnerving. On the streets of London someone hands him a leaflet. So what? Except this one somehow ties into the unnerving tram ad. He drops papers. A stranger returns some to him. Only the stranger turns out to be exactly the man Dunning would like to avoid. Only, afterwards, Dunning’s vague anxiety deepens, and his servants are sick, so he’s alone when something comes out of his study and creeps into his bed, gaping and toothy. No sooner does he hear the story of how Karswell cursed another critic than he learns he’s under the same curse himself. Escalation of peril, set off and even heightened by the preceding and interspersed bits of character humor: the Secretary and wife at lunch, the dialect-spiced repartee of the tram driver and conductor.
And is the supernatural entity malign? Hell yeah. What’s more, we experience it (and its precursors) through that most intimate of senses, touch. Dunning doesn’t just look at the strange tram ad—he rubs it with gloved fingers, yet fails to erase the lettering. The man who gives him a leaflet leaves no visual or auditory impression—he’s nothing but the odd heat and roughness of his hand. After the warning squeak of his study door opening, Dunning hears nothing more, sees nothing—he only feels hot air gust over his shins. Then there’s the touch that James describes with such brilliant brevity, leaving it for our own rousing imaginations to elaborate how Dunning must have felt the sticky give of furred lips under his fingers, and beneath them sharp ivory, and the ivory parting to release still hotter air, no, breath.
One sort of touch is still worse for Dunning’s victims, and that’s the touch of the intangible, the invisible, the inaudible yet undeniable, the phantom follower that dogs them and oppresses through their extrasensory perceptions of imminent danger, of doom that will shadow-tease and shadow-torture until the given time is up, when it will once again materialize.
Materialize, and do the deed the indecipherable runes have summoned it to do.
James pours on the suspense through the last quarter of the story, making the reader fret with Dunning and Harrington about whether they’ll be able to transfer the curse back to Karswell. But that’s not the final twist to our nerves, nor is Karswell’s death. The ending that proves James’s subtle mastery is again all suggestion. When Harrington finally tells Dunning what cursed brother John dreamt about his familiar, the truth is so horrible Dunning must cut him off.
Good God, man, it—it must have been the very Unnameable!
Next week, your hostesses try to counter a stressful summer with “Winged Death,” the very last Hazel Heald collaboration. We’ve been saving it like the last truffle in the box of chocolates; let’s find out if it’s worth the wait!
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” is now available from Macmillan’s Tor.com imprint. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Dreamwidth, 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 young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.