How to end bad reviews, for good

Matthew Reisz follows the trail of a fictional scholar's deadly solution to negative criticism

September 1, 2011

Academics depressed by the latest rejection letter from a scholarly journal might like to reflect on the solution adopted by the anti-hero of a Victorian ghost story, who was "in the habit of murdering peer reviewers who had advised against his scholarship".

The nefarious deeds of Mr Kars-well appear in Casting the Runes by M.R. James, whose celebrated supernatural fiction will come under scrutiny at a symposium at University College Falmouth next week.

Speaking at the event, Haunted Men: Masculinity in the Ghost Stories of the Victorian and Edwardian Eras, will be interdisciplinary historian Shane McCorristine, a Fellow at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.

James (1862-1936) was Fellow, dean and provost of King's College, Cambridge from 1905 to 1918 and, as Dr McCorristine explains, "consistently located his ghost stories in the environment of his working and vocational life".

Of his 30 published tales, 10 feature an academic as the lead character.

James' stories were originally read aloud to gatherings at Cambridge as "an after-dinner curio, like a fine cigar - to be consumed by close male friends for pure pleasure".

Yet this was "an era when, following the university reforms of the 1880s, which allowed for married dons in the academy, and the beginnings of the introduction of women into higher education, traditional male homosocial bonds in the universities were weakening".

In the world of the ghost stories, according to Dr McCorristine, "most of the world's evil seems to be unearthed once the quiet man leaves his bookish and academic retreat".

When a po-faced professor goes on holiday in Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, for example, he cannot resist a spot of amateur archaeology, picks up an ancient whistle and is followed back to his hotel by a ghostly figure. Another gets a nasty scare in his hotel room while working in a Danish archive.

But what about Mr Karswell and his radical strategy for dealing with academic rivals? Fortunately, Dr McCorristine says, his combination of "scholarly imposture and diabolical autodidactism" represented all that James detested, so he devised a suitably sticky end for him.

When Mr Karswell's latest critic and the brother of a murdered peer reviewer make common cause, they manage to "competitively redefine the rules of the game" and redirect his runic curses back on him.

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