Episode 27: The Experiment by M R James

The Experiment by M R James

This is the second story we have read on the classic ghost stories podcast by Montague Rhodes James. James is considered the master of the English ghost story. He is credited with modernising the form by abandoning many of its classic Gothic features. So we are unlikely to find ruined castles.  However, we have plenty of old churches, which are arguably the same thing as the Gothic castles.

James was an academic and worked at both Kings College Cambridge and later at Eton College. Reading his stories it is obvious that he is an antiquarian with knowledge of looking through old texts. In reading this story I also wonder, as I have done before, whether James dabbled in demonology and necromancy. He has more than a passing acquaintance with this kind of material, even if it is only academically.

Why Read The Experiment?

When deciding to read The Experiment, I had wanted to find a ghost story specifically for New Year’s Eve. However, although the story is titled a ghost story for New Year’s Eve and it begins at New Year’s Eve that is about all that it has to do with this time of year.

Though not considered one of James’s best stories, I think the story is very well structured. 

It is only at the only at the end of the story is that the details that we’ve been given as the story proceeded finally make sense. For example, the first news we have is the Squire is dead and we don’t suspect there is any foul play until we are specifically told  at the end of the story that a wife and her son were hung for the murder of her husband. Then it is very obvious what has happened.

At this point we can the significance of James telling us that the Squire’s son is actually is his stepson. We are also told that the poor dead Squire was a generous man who was very generous and unstinting with his stepson. And this of course makes it all the worse to be repaid with such treachery and murder.

The whole business of the rapid burial with no ceremony and no coffin, laid outside the church building also becomes only clearly obvious at the end. And it is only when we get the recipe for speaking to the dead – pure necromancy – that we realise the significance of the face cloth, and all the other carryings on that the mother and her son begin once they get the recipes by post from the dead Squire’s fellow sorcerer. 

The fate of the murderess and her accomplice is pictured in almost  an almost Don Giovanni fashion from the Mozart Opera.  And here, like there, the monstrous revenant returns accusingly. 

In The Experiment, the ghost doesn’t even have to kill them himself, and instead, he drives them back to where they have come from with pure supernatural terror and they confess everything to the very same Rector that we began the story with, thus creating a neat narrative circle.

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