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THE DEEP ONES: "Count Magnus" by M.R. James

The Weird Tradition

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Apr 5, 2013, 9:04am Top

Another worthwhile piece of miscellany, by the author of the the first article listed above:


Apr 5, 2013, 12:40pm Top

The Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, volume 1, with annotations by Joshi I think, for me.

Apr 7, 2013, 8:40am Top

I'll be re-reading this one out of Price's Cthulhu Cycle volume, strangely enough.

Apr 7, 2013, 8:50am Top

Apr 7, 2013, 11:57am Top

I'l read this one on the recent Oxford University Press Collected Ghost Stories edited by (and notes by) Darryl Jones.

Apr 9, 2013, 8:41am Top

I'll be reading from the 1992 Wordsworth Collected Ghost Stories paperback.

Edited: Apr 10, 2013, 8:57am Top

I like the manner in which the segments of this tale click gradually yet logically into place for the doomed Mr. Wraxall. The historical background just makes the goings-on even juicier, especially when we get to the Count's 'Liber nigrae peregrinationis'.

Thinking cinematically, the cloaked mystery figures stalking Wraxall at the end reminded me of the enigmatic homicidal villains in any number of Argento-esque giallos. Also, I can't believe that Hammer Films never made this into a feature! As far as that goes, the only thing missing here is the cleavage!

Coleridge's "frightful fiend" also kept coming to mind as I read the ending.

Apr 10, 2013, 8:56am Top

So, this one is included in The Cthulhu Cycle as a literary antecedent of the Scandinavian sub-narrative of "The Call of Cthulhu."

I like how the narrator finally explains how he had gotten possession of Wraxall's MSS. It's such a curious denouement.

Edited: Apr 10, 2013, 9:02am Top

>9 paradoxosalpha:

Not to mention the following line, with a bit of cthulhoid prescience on the part of Mr. James:

The only part of the form which projected from that shelter was not shaped like any hand or arm. Mr Wraxall compares it to the tentacle of a devil-fish...

Apr 10, 2013, 12:35pm Top

I can see the influence "Count Magnus" had on Lovecraft. In fact, I dare say Lovecraft perfected this literary technique of impending dread and foreboding. The quasi-investigative reporting that the narrator undergoes in researching Mr. Wraxall (weird name) is reminiscent of Lovecraft's more perfected recounting of past and recent events that lead up to the horrifying conclusion for his protagonists. The difference, I think is that with M.R. James short story the sense of urgency and desperation are muted due to the fact that the 're-telling of past events' is done through an intermediary instead of by the individual experiencing these traumatic events first hand. This story reminds me of 'The Tomb', different exposition of course, but something creepy and menacing emerging from a tomb to pursue the intruder who disturbed it's slumber is evident.

Apr 10, 2013, 12:36pm Top

>8 KentonSem:

Cleavage is awesome.

Edited: Apr 10, 2013, 1:34pm Top

As paradoxosalpha noted previously, these links which are mentioned way up top provide some very intriguing background:


I really enjoy the amount of detail provided. Apparently, the Count in MRJ's story may have actually been modeled on the real Count Magnus's father, Jacob. It also seems that MRJ invented the "Black Pilgrimage" out of whole cloth. The Parsons/MRJ/Dee/Crowley/LASFS section makes for some intriguing conjecture.

Apr 10, 2013, 1:47pm Top

> 13

I had already independently come to the conclusions about Parsons's "black pilgrimage" offered in the Pardoe/Nicholls article, but it was nice to see someone else lay it out so cleanly with supporting detail.

Apr 10, 2013, 2:44pm Top

I read a version annotated by Joshi which mentioned a scholarly article which says this story specifically influenced Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. (Don't have the book near me so I can't give a specific cite.) I can see that with Magnus seemingly returned from the dead and being a student of alchemy and witchcraft. There also seemed to be, in Wraxall noting that he has no memory of witnessing the events he describes, possibly an element of psychic dominance or possession that Lovecraft's story has with Curwen.

The biggest thing I noted, after reading this the first time a few years ago, is that the narrator doesn't play as coy as Lovecraft might with some of the menace. Specifically, the narrator makes it pretty clear that he understands why Wraxall is taking such an interest in his fellow passengers, and he doesn't regard that interest as crazy.

On the other hand, the narrator is coyer than Lovecraft when it comes to describing the state of Wraxall's body.

Apr 10, 2013, 2:46pm Top

The story seems to be another M. R. James narrative about celibate, academic men who live in a world where women appear only in bit parts. He makes it work, but it limits his choices.

Is there a sly reference to Wraxall being over-inquisitive and 'almost a Fellow' of Brasenose College? Is he shown sticking his brazen nose into affairs of 'persons walking who should not be walking'?

> 13

Thanks for the link. I was looking up the historical Count Magnus and noting that he was not a good fit.

As for Chorazin, Wikipedia informs us "Chorazin, along with Bethsaida and Capernaum, was named in the New Testament gospels of Matthew and Luke as "cities" (more likely just villages) in which Jesus performed "mighty works". However, because these towns rejected his work ("they had not changed their ways" -Matt11:20SV), they were subsequently cursed (Matthew 11:20-24; Luke 10:13-15)." So an accursed city sounds like a good spot for a Black Pilgrimage.

Has anybody looked up the books in the Count's library? The Turba Philosophorum is real but the others don't seem to be.

Unusually for an M. R. James story, the ending is quite vague. I suppose Wraxall was pursued by the Count and his mysterious companion, but why? At first, the story seemed to hint that the Count was still alive, then the trope that he would consume Wraxall's soul to keep alive, but what happened at the end? Wraxall apparently evoked the Count by speaking to him in the mausoleum and saying he would like to see the Count.

The details of Wraxall walking to the mausoleum in a trance and finding that the Count's sarcophagous did not have a crucifix on the lid are suggestive. The successive openings of the padlocks build suspense. Was the Count opening them supernaturally? Wraxall presumably could not, even if he was entranced. But what was the Count's beef with Wraxall? Did he think Wraxall was another poacher like Anders Bjornsen and Hans Thorbjorn?

Apr 10, 2013, 2:49pm Top

The book I read this in has James's stories in probable order of composition. "Count Magnus" seems a bit chillier in tone than the earlier stories. Possibly this is because Mr Wraxall is more of an outsider figure than the usual protagonists: not a fellow of a Cambridge College (only "nearly" an Oxford fellow), unmarried, no permanent home, and so on.

I wasn't aware this had been worked into the Cthulhu Mythos. I have seen Count Magnus himself described as a vampire, though (and this story cited as the source for a locks-falling-from-vampire's-tomb (or coffin, I forget the exact details) in a Hammer film).

Of course, the main thing that makes this "chillier" is that Mr Wraxall doesn't survive his brush with the supernatural. He is followed all the way back to England, and killed, and he really has done nothing to deserve his fate. The Ash Tree similarly ends with the protagonists death, but setting the story back in the 18th century does distance the reader from it, I think.

One more thing - with a probable composition date of 1901, this may have been James's first story after the death of Queen Victoria. As a small-c conservative who hated change, that would have unsettled him, I'm sure.

Apr 10, 2013, 2:54pm Top

> 16

Brasenose is a real Oxford college. My guess is that James considered Oxford a little lower than Cambridge, and as for not being made a fellow, I think it leaves hanging in the air a faint suggestion that Wraxall is both a little second rate and a bit unlucky.

Edited: Apr 10, 2013, 3:13pm Top

>15 RandyStafford:

On the other hand, the narrator is coyer than Lovecraft when it comes to describing the state of Wraxall's body.

Yes - you do go from the Wraxall's Grand Guignol transcription of "And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones." to the narrator's much more demure "he was found dead, and there was an inquest; and the jury that viewed the body fainted, seven of 'em did, and none of 'em wouldn't speak to what they see, and the verdict was visitation of God". And which "God" would that be, since I imagine that Wraxall's fate was much the same as Bjornsen's?

The image of the inquest jury fainting evokes Bierce's "The Damned Thing", doesn't it?

>16 bertilak:

I suppose Wraxall was pursued by the Count and his mysterious companion, but why?

Good question. Was it because Wraxall called to him, and the Count was somehow supernaturally bound to pursue? I'm reminded of the whistle in "O Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad", although apparently no such device is necessary as far as Count Magnus is concerned!

Apr 10, 2013, 4:57pm Top

With the description of Count Magnus as a vampire in mind, the black pilgrimage reminded me of the story - related by Van Helsing in the novel - of how Dracula became a vampire:

"The Draculas were, says Arminius, a great and noble race, though now and again were scions who were held by their coevals to have had dealings with the Evil One. They learned his secrets in the Scholomance, amongst the mountains over Lake Hermanstadt, where the devil claims the tenth scholar as his due."

Apr 10, 2013, 5:48pm Top

I actually enjoyed this more re-reading it than I did the first time I read it. I had more of an appreciation for how perfect the pacing is, and I like how a lot of things are kept mysterious/unresolved at the end of the story (What's the deal with the tentacle coming out from under the garment? Don't know. Who exactly is Magnus' diminutive companion? Don't know.), which I think lends things a nice air of verisimilitude.

One definitely feels "{a} certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces" (Supernatural Horror in Literature) here; no wonder, then, that HPL named "Count Magnus" as one of his all-time favorites.

Apr 10, 2013, 6:06pm Top

>19 KentonSem:

"And I tell you this about Anders Bjornsen, that he was once a beautiful man, but now his face was not there, because the flesh of it was sucked away off the bones."

What I liked about that passage is that I really expected James to pull the camera away (as it were) at that point, but no! Instead we continue on with:

And they laid him on the bier which they brought, and they put a cloth over his head, and the priest walked before; and they began to sing the psalm for the dead as well as they could. So, as they were singing the end of the first verse, one fell down, who was carrying the head of the bier, and the others looked back, and they saw that the cloth had fallen off, and the eyes of Anders Bjornsen were looking up, because there was nothing to close over them. And this they could not bear. Therefore the priest laid the cloth upon him, and sent for a spade, and they buried him in that place.

Yikes! =:^O

Apr 10, 2013, 10:01pm Top

>21 artturnerjr:

I also enjoy most of all the pacing, and the deliberate piecemeal reveal of the irrational / visceral fears, embodied in ways that defy expectation. The story is short I am tempted to jump ahead, knowing there is something horrific coming but difficult to know precisely when, and I rarely have the urge to read ahead or skip passages. The thrill of the horror!

But the scary bits come soon enough that I wait. For me, particularly effective were the use of so many senses -- all perhaps smell, in this story? First the sound as the legend of Magnus is told, and "they hear someone scream, just as if the most inside part of his soul was twisted out of him." Then shortly after, the sight of Hans Thorbjorn pushing, pushing with his hands, and Anders Bjornsen's skin sucked from his skull. And then, the description of the sarcophagus, and ultimately the blow (touch) of the padlock as it falls on his foot. And this progression is from distant fear to an immediate threat, a presence just at Wrexall's elbow: listening outside a window, then sight of others (but told as recollection, so not Wrexall's direct experience), then personal sight, and then touch.

A question: I recall that James was a fabled storyteller at his College, and it was a tradition that he bring out his stories for the students, that he tell them and I believe, not read them (or if so, then he was a good storyteller and it was not just reading from the book, but more in the manner of a ghost tale around the campfire). Does anyone know: did he publish his stories after editing them based upon his listeners' reactions, or perhaps his satisfaction after trying the story a number of different ways? Or did he publish the story, then tell it, perhaps revising it in the telling and perhaps not?

Apr 11, 2013, 2:30pm Top

It occurred to me that in some ways James is here elaborating on the outsized menace a personality like Magnus begins to take on over time. There's sufficient background to think of Magnus as that familiar type, the stingy and even violent landlord. Here, the supernatural element is layered over that personality, almost a symbolic expression of Magnus's class relations and the legend he becomes over time.

Not saying that's the meaning of the story, at all, just found it interesting that this weird aspect is layered over a fairly typical power relationship, and extends its reach beyond the grave. In this way, there's still no explanation as to why Magnus pursues Wraxall, or what Wraxall did to deserve the attention, but Magnus's overall menace is heightened when his threat becomes more than economic or physical.

Apr 11, 2013, 3:09pm Top

> 25 A question

I seem to recall Chabon's intro to Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories discussing James's storytelling and its role in his compositional process, but I can't remember that level of detail, and it was a borrowed book.

> 24 a symbolic expression of Magnus's class relations

Yes, that's a common element with the most conspicuous 19th and 20th-century vampire stories, and it certainly plays into a whole school of horror with a barely concealed class element. Zombie stories seem to be the converse: fear of the plebes dragging everyone down to their own senseless level.

Apr 11, 2013, 6:25pm Top

It occurred to me today that the etymology of magnus is very interesting - it's the Latin word for "great" and is very similar to the Greek magos and the Old Persian maguš, both of which mean "sorcerer".

Apr 11, 2013, 8:01pm Top

> 25

James's storytelling in Magnus seems a bit off to me. It is good in the beginning and vivid in the middle, but the ending is dissipated by vagueness.

> 26 myEtymology.com does not show a direct connection between magnus and magos:

Etymology of the Latin word magnus
the Latin word magnus (large; full, complete, utter; great; mighty; distinguished; large, great, big)
derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *meg- (great)

Etymology of the Greek word magos (μάγος)
the Greek word magos, μάγος (a Magian; Oriental scientist; by implication, a magician)
derived from the Old Persian word magus
derived from the Old Persian word maguš
derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *magh-
derived from the Old Persian word magŭs

If one had a time machine one might check if *meg- relates to *magh-.

At http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/cybalist/message/40800?o=0&var=1 one finds detailed discussion (beyond me) about this issue: "There remain *meg^h2- 'large' and *magH- 'be able, powerful, capable'."

Apr 11, 2013, 9:32pm Top

>25 paradoxosalpha:

I'd never thought of that gloss on the zombie tale: fascinating! I'd noticed the class nature of the vampire / horror stories I've read, but I'm not deeply read* in horror lit so I was not certain how representative it was. Another theme I particularly like in horror lit is the critique of rationalism, which is why the scientist / fellow / academic characters appeal to me. This anti-rationalism accounts for my abiding fondness for both James and Lovecraft.

* Excepting, of course, my occasional indulgence in this group's discussions.

Apr 11, 2013, 10:27pm Top

>27 bertilak:

If one had a time machine one might check if *meg- relates to *magh-.

A pity that we don't.

Edited: Apr 12, 2013, 9:05am Top

You know, before it got all philologized into a positive science of linguistic history, etymology had a lot more to do with perceived relationships between words, and it admitted puns and near-homophones. This sort of rhetorical and contemplative approach was ubiquitous in the Middle Ages, but you can see it in antiquity with the soma/sema comparison, for example.

In literary study, whether your concern is composition or reception, it's that old-time etymology that's the most significant.

Apr 12, 2013, 9:51am Top

Good point: the association between Magnus and Magus is there for the reader, whether deliberately selected by James or not. I hadn't thought of it consciously, but when reading artturnerjr's post in >26 artturnerjr:, there was for me a frisson of recognition that I'd linked the two meanings.

Edited: Mar 13, 11:58am Top

An audiobook online (35min/Michael Hordern) voiced this story as I read along online. It was like old time radio shows captivating an eager audience. Thanks for pointing this one out in the other thread, A Twilight. The third story is not online, but I will find it eventually.
https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/antiquary/chapter6.html (text)

Not one to read before a meal. =( I liked the layered storytelling, the tie in with Sweden, the attempted escape, fleeing back to the homeland for safety. Not one of his stories can be left unfinished. A very trim&tidy fellow. His wry humour is alive and well: "They gave details of hotel accommodation and of means of communication, such as we now expect to find in any well-regulated guide-book, and they dealt largely in reported conversations with intelligent foreigners, racy innkeepers, and garrulous peasants. In a word, they were chatty."

>16 bertilak: I read in a Blackwood story, if I can find it, a perfect comment about women... ah, got it. Similar sensibilities. This might be one of my favourites of the past six months:
The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York
… The private secretary made a foolish little bow in modest appreciation of so uncertain a compliment. Mr. Jonas B. Sidebotham watched him narrowly, as the novelists say, before he continued his remarks.
“I have no doubt that you are a plucky fellow and —” He hesitated, and puffed at his cigar as if his life depended upon it keeping alight.
“I don’t think I’m afraid of anything in particular, sir — except women,” interposed the young man, feeling that it was time for him to make an observation of some sort, but still quite in the dark as to his chief’s purpose.
“Humph!” he grunted. “Well, there are no women in this case so far as I know. But there may be other things that — that hurt more.” …

Alaudacorax ... if you see this, it reminds me to mention that Canadian gothic/ghost story author Robertson Davies knew of the performances by MRJames since his father-in-law had attended one! Small world. Perhaps he was a student or a privileged guest? His stories were written for Massey College in Toronto, for Gaudy Night, one each year for 18yrs then they were published together. I bought the 25th anniversary edition paperback of his ghost stories called High Spirits. Fun and noble ghosts, maybe a toad is as wretched as he gets. Nothing gory, it was meant as a party trick, not a sinister campfire out of doors horror. Each of the 18 stories occurs at the school, when he was Master of the College at UofT. He sometimes featured colleagues in his tales, as an affectionate nod to both faculty and student body. He also mentions York University the way MRJames might include Oxford. =) Highly creative guy. YouTube shows an interview, quite a character, unlikely MRJ's cup of tea.

Edited: Mar 13, 11:41am Top

Another question: Was there any importance to the portrait of Count Magnus being extremely ugly and yet powerful, and the victim having had a beautiful face, that no longer remained? Was it an attempt to extract the skin to replace his own face, was it a portrait similar to Dorian Gray that became more hideous with each vile deed, was it an irrelevant fluke or simple jealousy? Did Count Magnus think he was doing the narrator by pursuing him in order to pull his face off? Why did he not do it then before, either in Sweden or at the crossroads? Why the final setting?

Edited: Mar 13, 11:49am Top

The Ash Tree is in my top three by M.R.James so far! Loved the ending (shiver).

I enjoyed my reading and research of a dozen or two by MRJ last year, although the whole university scene is a mysterious distant planet. It was fun to visit. I wonder if he was poking fun at anyone who left the hallowed halls of academia, in search of more, as though it would be insulting to do so. I thought of dear sheltered Ann Ward Radcliffe who wrote convincingly of locales she'd never seen, then later with money in her pocket and time on her hands, she wrote a travel book. =)

Edited: Mar 13, 11:28am Top

The Damned Thing just went on the short list! And I'll be sure to dig up the 'whistle' story. Thanks for those references. Glad to have ticked Dracula off my list last October at long last.

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