Ingredients for Success

For every job, there is a perfect tool.

And, one might add, a perfect list of ingredients.

One will pay quite a lot to find that perfect combination which leads to success, as Isabella Beeton found. Her book on household management was a stroke of genius: for with the emergence of a middle class there was a whole generation of young women out there who were running small middle class households and hadn’t the foggiest idea how to begin.

I acquired my copy a century after it was written: my edition is the 1960s version. It advises earnestly on choosing the right flat or house, being the perfect hostess, modern flower arrangement, laundry, keeping a pet and even pest control.

She does not leave one hanging with platitudes. Every area is outlined and quantified.

I just read the section on drains out to my husband.

Far too many householders, she admonishes, ignore their drainage systems until they have problems.There are three concrete ways to avoid unneccesary expense: clean out the waste pipe twice a year; make sure they are free of leaves (fit a wire trap to prevent blockage) and flush drains regularly with hot soda water.

But Phil nodded sagely as I read. Now those, he said, are good ideas.

A combination of high ideals and algorithms- step-by-step procedures -it’s startlingly effective: and 60,000 people thought enough of Mrs Beeton’s offerings to buy them in the first year after the book was published in 1861. She has been a household name ever since.

This rigorous approach has been used in many areas. The step-by-step road to success haunts Do It Yourself books and car manuals, gardening books and get-rich-quick self-help tomes.

It is interesting to note, then, that one of our great British ghost story writers took the same approach.

His name was Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) and his day job was very far from being a writer. Instead he was an English mediaeval scholar and the senior academic administrator of King’s College, Cambridge.

Just once a year, at Christmas, he underwent a transformation.

He would invite friends to listen to a story he had penned: a story of such aniquarian ingenuity it positively writhed in the telling, dressing settings contemporary with the time with the strangeness of centuries. A more masterful storyteller there has rarely been, and I know many of his pieces almost by heart.

Each story maintains that light touch so important in the ghostly tale: that which keeps it entertaining, even while being, at the same time, terrifying. It is a charming horrifying tale told in firelight, and no more.

Few writers have furnished us with a set of guidelines for writing such stunning prose. But M.R.James did, with self-effacing fustian charm.

His recipe?

First: a ghost story should be written in a setting which is familiar to the listener: but with ‘a slight haze of distance’: ‘thirty years ago’, or ‘not long before the war’. Something from the twelfth century might be poetical, but it is next to useless as a spine chiller. James says: “It will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”

Second: your ghost must be malevolent or odious. “Amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends,” says James, “but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.”

Next: avoid that vulgar occult business at all times. There is nothing like quasi-science to get in the way of the imagination, he warns.

The ghost story, he says, is an old fashioned form. It needs a fustian, leisurely manner of telling, a feeling of authority. “We listen to it the more readily”, he adds, “if the narrator poses as elderly, or throws back his experience to ‘some thirty years ago.”

It must have an atmosphere and a nicely managed crescendo: we must see its characters going happily about their business at the outset. Then, as James says,”into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

One of my favourites: don’t spread the butter too thick. Bram Stoker, James says, did just this. Stoker was excessive, he asserts. “We could not, should not, use all the colours in the box”, he adds; and subtlety, the choice to leave questions unanswered and an imagination to run wild, are paramount.

For every job, there is a perfect tool: and here is a toolbox plundered from M.R. James for writing the perfect ghost story. Mine paraphrases his ruefully: you will find the various sources- usually in forewords to various publications – here.

We all have our recipe.

Now to write…



37 thoughts on “Ingredients for Success

    1. Hmmm, yeees, bad timing there. Sorry :-/ Time to get down to the charity shop and snaffle a copy of Mrs Beeton, Fiona! She has answers to everything!
      Although, my drains are looking pretty dodgy…

  1. “Perhaps surprisingly, author Isabella Beeton was just 21 years old when she started working on the book, and she died young at 28.”

    I too have a copy of Mrs Beeton. I must go and find it… not sure what date mine is!

    1. Poor Mrs Beeton. Such a superstar and such a young age to die.
      Sometimes, though, I do find myself wishing- just for an instant- that I were married to a wealthy publisher.
      Keep us updated on your copy!

    1. Very true, Brett. I guess the affirmation of a nation has a lot to do with how comfortable James was. He seemed happy to pull back that curtain, as you say: but he was very famous by the time, and what he did went way beyond his own rules…

  2. Loved the advice on writing ghost stories — particularly the admonition about letting imagination run wild. The scariest movies I’ve seen were those where my imagination leaped far beyond anything ever shown on screen. The same is often true of other genres as well. The reader’s or viewer’s imagination may well be the best device in the writer’s armamentarium.

    1. There’s a great bit in To Kill a Mockingbird where Scout announces that there’s nothing so scary as what’s in books- I’m paraphrasing, badly, of course. It’s so true. I’m looking forward to the rest of the tale.

  3. What wonderful advice on writing ghost stories. The idea of readers knowing where the story is, but, removed by a few years. One of my favorite tales, though not a ghost story, is Doyle’s Hound of the Baskervilles.

    I can’t wait for your Christmas ghost.

  4. I still occasionally refer to my ‘Mrs Beeton’s all about Cookery’, but not often.

    She was a remarkable woman.

    Looking forward to the ghost story.

  5. I love James and his very delicious recipe! Such chills, and all wrapped in the comfort of the familiar. I can’t wait to read what you do with the recipe…I know it will be savory!

      1. Perhaps i’ll join you for a Christmas scare if i can get my imagination machine cranking in time. The MR James recipe is intriguing me…;)

  6. Great post, Kate – like you, Mr James and Mrs Beeton knew their stuff

    (hot soda water for drains – what a great environmentally friendly option)

    Looking forward to those Christmas ghost stories

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