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S0303 Number 13 by M R James
Episode 321st January 2022 • Classic Ghost Stories • Tony Walker
00:00:00 00:54:58

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Number 13 by M R James

Number 13 by M R James is a spooky story of a missing room and its missing inhabitant. Including old churches, musty documents, secrets, the occult and bookish blokes rummaging around

Unlucky for some, but not really for Mr Anderson though it gave him quite a shock. This story was commissioned by Gavin Critchley who kindly has allowed me to broadcast it to you all.

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Babylonish Church. I wonder whether this was James’ own view or he is merely representing the view of his character. James was an Anglican and the protestant view of the Catholic Church was not and in some circles remains not wholly tolerant or kind. 

I read an article arguing that because James was so drawn to the medieval period that he must be in possession of a Catholic sensibility, in which the whole world is in some sense sacred. I am not sure this correctly represents Catholic dogma or the Medieval European World View. But it’s fun to read about such things.

James leaves things out. For example the red light, the dancing figure that might be a man or a woman. I think he deliberately leaves unresolved threads. I think he does the same in Story of a Disappearance And an Appearance in which we have to try to reconstruct the narrative ourselves to figure out what actually went on, rather than James spoon-feeding us the rational explanation (rational though perhaps also supernatural. The two things aren’t exclusive). In this again I think he is a little like David Lynch who allows images to emerge from his subconscious and uses them leaving us to try and make sense like a Rorschach image. I’m not against, this, and I might be wrong.

In the end, we might walk away from this story wondering: eh?

The dancing, singing androgynous spirit, the portmanteau that vanishes and then reappears with apparently no significance. I think he just throws this weird stuff in to unsettle us. This is eerie (by Mark Fisher’s definition) in that it has an agent who has a purpose, but both are obscure to us therefore unsettling us.

The weird arm that reaches out is one of a string of weird arms: Grendel’s arm in Beowulf, the arm that takes the baby Pryderi in the tale of Pwyll in the Mabinogi. I also heard via Jon Gower about some farmers in Carno who believed there was a house where a monstrous arm appeared.

The number of windows is a clue. I take from this that there was a Room 13, but that Room 12 and Room 14 were enlarged to gobble it up. Perhaps because of its bad reputation. 

Nicholas Francken is a bit of a red herring. He is an occultist and I’ve said elsewhere that James’s interest in the occult suggests he knew more about it than he lets on in common with his contemporaries, Arthur Machen, W B Yeats etc who were members of the Golden Dawn. But he leads us to believe that we are going to find Francken’s body buried below the planks and then we just find some kind of occult document that no one can read. Another unresolved riddle.