Scholars, academics, learned people of all kinds, often crop up in fiction. Horror is no exception and ghost stories from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in particular, featured academics in lead roles. Sometimes this is as the result of ‘write what you know’ more than any other reason; M. R. James, coming up later (because of course he is) being a case in point. But, much more significantly, academics represent rational, empirical, and “modern” thought, in contrast to the superstitions of an older, darker age. The academic represents progress; sometimes as a means of rebutting the supernatural, but sometimes the supernatural could show that perhaps our progress had gone too far. Thank you to Sarah Burton on Twitter for prompting the idea for this reading list and thank you to those who offered suggestions (@cath_fletcher, @marccold, & @ssmithwc1n).
‘Green Tea’ by Sheridan Le Fanu (1872, from In a Glass Darkly)
‘I believe the entire natural world is but the ultimate expression of that spiritual world from which and in which alone, it has its life.’ Dr Hesselius, in ‘Green Tea’
Published the year before his death, Le Fanu’s short story collection In a Glass Darkly presents a series of cases from Dr Martin Hesselius, who generally considered the first occult detective in fiction. Perhaps not strictly an academic (Le Fanu describes him as a ‘medical philosopher’), Dr Hesselius nonetheless devotes his life to study, the focus of which is the relationship between the unconscious and the supernatural. The doctor only actually appears in the first story in the collection of five, ‘Green Tea’, used more as a method of tying all of these stories together, which were initially published separately. In ‘Green Tea’, a clergyman is suffering from a haunting presence gradually eroding his sanity. Dr Hesselius suspects a penchant for green tea is the likely source of the clergyman’s distress.
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
Shirley Jackon’s novel The Haunting of Hill House was given a recent surge of interest when it was turned into a Netflix series by Mike Flanagan in 2018. Amongst the story’s four main characters is the paranormal investigator Dr. John Montague who invites a couple of assistants to stay with him in Hill House for a summer to help him prove the existence of the supernatural scientifically. One of the other guests, Eleanor Vance, was chosen by Dr. Montague on account of a newspaper story in which a rain of stones fell on her childhood home, thought to have been caused by the supernatural. Dr. Montague does not make it into Flanagan’s TV remake. He does, however, make it into the excellent 1963 film adaptation The Haunting as Dr. John Markway. The less said about the other 1999 film adaptation, also called The Haunting, the better, but the doctor does appear as Dr. Marrow, investigating not the supernatural but the psychological effects of fear.
‘Lot No. 249’ by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1894)
Doyle’s Egyptomania horror story ‘Lot No. 249’ has been greatly influential in the development of the curse of the mummy in later fiction, portraying the reanimated figure as a source of danger, unlike similarly-themed stories that came before. It is set mostly within the dwelling chambers of an old tower in the corner of an Oxford college where three students reside; William Monkhouse Lee on the bottom floor, Edward Bellingham in the middle, and Abercrombie Smith on the very top. Smith is the protagonist, a medical student and keen athlete, who together with Lee, begin to suspect something foul of the Egyptologist Bellingham following a series of unusual events and the discovery of an ancient mummy he keeps in his chambers, alongside so many other artefacts it was ‘a museum rather than a study’. The story’s central theme is imperialism, Bellingham’s chambers representing the assimilation and appropriation of colonised cultures. Some have suggested that the xenophobia expressed in the story is actually a critique of imperialism; I’m not so sure.
You can read ‘Lot No. 249’ in the inexpensive Tales of Unease Doyle collection from Wordsworth Editions.
‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ by Robert Hichens (1900, from Tongues of Conscience)
Robert Hichens is perhaps best remembered for his scandalous novel The Green Carnation (1894) satirising Oscar Wilde. Less well remembered and sadly hard to find in print is his short story ‘How Love Came to Professor Guildea’ from the collection Tongues of Conscience, which despite the rather mixed response at the time of its publication, perhaps represents some of his finest fiction. Professor Guildea is a scientist whose character rather stereotypes the image of a rational, detached man of study who despises love, compassion, and physical contact. For such a man, what could be more terrifying than discovering you have attracted the love of another? Perhaps the love of another whom you cannot see only feel. On the surface, this is a story that warns against turning one’s back on love and human companionship. However, others have suggested that Hichens used the ghost story as a ‘mask for more complex investigations of homoeroticism, desire, and denial.’
It is hard to find a still-in-print edition of this story. I am told it features in Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, a collection of 52 stories. I also discovered a PDF version of the story you can read for free.
The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James (1890s-1930s)
No collection of academics in ghost stories would be complete without a mention of M. R. James. James was himself a highly-regarded Medievalist scholar as don and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, a life which greatly influenced his stories. His stories often revolved around scholars and academics made in his mould, concerned with the study of the long-forgotten past. One of many examples is ‘The Mezzotint’ (a particular favourite of mine) that concerns a curator for a university art museum who happens across a mezzotint (a print made from an engraved copper or steel plate) that appears to change throughout the course of the story, eventually revealing the scene of a murder. Haunted objects of antiquity were a common trope for James. The antiquarian background to James’ stories provide an air of verisimilitude and show that terror is often most effective when it is emerging from the depths of history.
The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor (2011)
Andrew Taylor is a master of historical crime fiction and 2011’s The Anatomy of Ghosts is a great way to conclude this little collection. Set in the academic world of 18th century Cambridge, this novel isn’t a don’t-turn-the-lights-off sort of ghost story but instead uses hauntings as a means of analysing and unpicking its setting, as well as exploring the psyches of its characters. The 18th century, as Clare Clark wrote in her review for The Guardian, was not a golden-age for universities in England, subject as they were to poor teaching and rife corruption. ‘In the 1760s,’ Clark writes, ‘even the educated and sophisticated occupied a world bristling with ghosts and omens.’ The story follows London bookseller John Holdsworth, a vocal critic in the belief of ghosts. Holdsworth has only recently lost his wife and son in a drowning when he is summoned by Lady Anne Oldershaw, patron of the fictional college of Jerusalem, to investigate reported ghostly goings-on.
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