Relocating M.R. James' original story from Denmark to England, the BBC followed up the previous year's A View From a Hill with Number 13. Graham Williamson explores Pier Wilkie's 2006 adaptation...
Part of the appeal of the original A Ghost Story for Christmas series is their evocation of a particular strain of 1970s British culture. That sounds nostalgic, but nostalgia is not the reason to revisit this subculture. The post-hippie fascination with all things folkloric, rural and paranormal – defined much later by terms like ‘folk horror’ and ‘hauntology’ – only seems to become more significant and fascinating the further we get away from it.
It’s possible to over-indulge this connection. You can fully enjoy a film like ‘Stigma‘ without a collected volume of Mark Fisher’s criticism to hand – the Ghost Stories are, above all else, good yarns. But it is this uncanny ability to tap into the mood and meaning of the times they were made in that makes the 1970s films feel more alive, more relevant, even less dated than a lot of television horror from recent decades.
With that in mind, what are we to do with the Ghost Stories from the 2000s? The Ghost Stories of the 2010s make cultural sense: they are a product of the same process of re-interpreting and re-examining the 1970s that occupied critics like Fisher and Simon Reynolds (who coined the term ‘hauntology’). The 2000s, though, was a decade untroubled by 1970s ghosts. The first wave of 1970s nostalgia, which spawned bands like Suede and films like Boogie Nights, had been and gone; the more critical, academic examinations of the 1970s only began to gather momentum at the end of the decade.
The mood of the country was recognisably New Labourite: modern, metropolitan, indifferent to history. How on earth does M.R. James fit into this landscape? Despite being one of the most overlooked entries into the A Ghost Story for Christmas canon, 2006’s ‘Number 13′ posits a series of answers that are worth revisiting.
‘Number 13’ relocates James’s 1904 short story from Denmark to England, yet the structure of the plot remains the same. A historian researching the history of the Church – nameless in James’s story, but called Anderson here – checks into an inn and finds his work disturbed by drinking and carousing from Room 13. Despite being told the inn has no Room 13, he insists the matter be investigated – a decision which, as you might expect, he comes to regret.
The 2010s A Ghost Story for Christmas are clearly the product of a creative team who grew up on the 1960s and 70s films – indeed, the first entry in that decade was a remake of ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You’. As the product of a less nostalgic era, ‘Number 13′ is more hesitant about its predecessors. It respects the fact that it sits in a venerable tradition, but it is also anxious not to alienate the audience by appearing fusty or old-fashioned.
Sometimes this leads the film off-piste. There’s a certain colourful brashness about 2000s British television drama that can be seen in everything from Shameless to Russell T Davies-era Doctor Who. ‘Number 13′, with its leisurely dissolves between scenes, is radically slow compared to those peers, but it doesn’t always rise above the era’s house style.
The shadowy interiors work well enough, but the exteriors want for Lawrence Gordon Clark’s muted colours and cigarette-smoke-hued daylight. Director Pier Wilkie sometimes over-eggs the scares; the quietly terrifying ghosts of ‘Lost Hearts’ are a world away from the crash-zooms, booming foley effects and slow-motion used for the supernatural scenes here.
Yet in any M.R. James adaptation, the fusty must reassert itself, like a revenant, and writer Justin Hopper proves to have a fascinating, forward-looking angle on James’s core themes. Relocating the story from Denmark to Britain might just have been an attempt to bring it in line with the series’ Anglo-centric house style – how different this strand might have been if Clark had succeeded in filming the Swedish-set Count Magnus! Yet it also leads to a telling change in the narrator’s area of expertise.
James’s protagonist was studying the Reformation but Anderson, played by Greg Wise, made his name with histories of the Roundheads. The English Civil War is one of the two key historical subjects of British folk horror, and as soon as Anderson starts his research he comes into contact with the other one: the witch trials. Had ‘Number 13′ been made in the 2010s, these might have been simple fannish references, signifying nothing other than the makers’ fondness for Winstanley and Witchfinder General. In the context of 2000s horror, these are very unusual historical reference points, and Hopper has reasons for invoking them.
Wise’s well-groomed, moustachioed academic has a look of Nikola Tesla about him, and he certainly shares that scientific genius’s ascetic lifestyle. It’s no wonder the Roundheads, led by the Puritan fanatic Oliver Cromwell, appeal to him. His chief tormentor is Edward Jenkins, a ruddy-faced, hard-drinking young man played by Tom Burke, now famous for playing J.K. Rowling’s detective Cormoran Strike. Jenkins taunts Anderson about his field of study, saying if he’d been around back then he wouldn’t have hesitated to join the Cavaliers.
Jenkins may or may not be a ghost – one tradition of the BBC’s A Ghost Story for Christmas that ‘Number 13′ fully embraces is its knife-edge balance between psychological and paranormal explanations. What is clear from the start, though, is that even if he is a living human he is a form of life Anderson cannot understand. There are other strange life-forms around the edges of ‘Number 13′. A centuries-old letter found hidden in a library has a medieval bestiary doodled in the margins, and Anderson becomes ruinously obsessed with a print of the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.
Bosch is now remembered as a painter of bizarre novelties, but there was nothing frivolous about his intent. His paintings are vivid warnings about the torments of hell, and The Garden of Earthly Delights is no exception. The title is not ironic; the viewer was expected to understand that Earthly – sexual, greedy, or otherwise indulgent – delights were to be avoided by anyone who values their eternal soul. The triptych overflows with naked figures and enormous, ripe fruit, yet it maintains a dispassionate, disapproving atmosphere.
It’s this contradiction that makes it a fine intermediary between the worlds of the living and the dead, worlds that ‘Number 13′ differentiates by their attitudes to physical pleasure. The world of the living is cold and academic when it isn’t riven with war and witch-hunts; one may be more rational than the other but neither is fun. The interlopers, whether they’re ghosts or not, are certainly hedonists. They down oceans of red wine and hum Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – even the candle-light looks warmer when they’re around.
‘Number 13’ deals with the standard Jamesian theme of a scholarly man driven to the edge of madness by the supernatural. But Hopper augments this theme by giving us apparitions who entertain, seduce, even comfort. It’s not wholly sympathetic to its monsters in the way that Guillermo del Toro’s films are, but even at their most disturbing, these ghosts have more life than the living.
Would it be too much to see a kind of premonition here? Over the next ten years, the technocratic rationalism that defined the West in the 2000s would be rejected in favour of more atavistic ideas that were, depending on your viewpoint, either dangerously irrational or invigoratingly passionate. Except in ‘Number 13′, they’re both.
Had it been made ten years later it might have been a deliberate folk-horror allegory, had it been made ten years earlier it’s hard to imagine these themes resonating at all. Only in 2006 could it exist in-between, with elements that feel strikingly prescient co-existing with ones that hark back to its own cultural context. Despite the fitful execution, ‘Number 13′ sees the A Ghost Story for Christmas strand capturing the mood of its age once more.