I can't remember the last time I read one of his stories. They are short - sometimes only a couple of pages - but he packs more into those few pages than many authors manage in an entire novel. He has been the inspiration for many a writer of Gothic, ghostly and horror stories and it's easy to see why. Many were written with an eye to being read aloud, in small intimate gatherings, with the candlelight flickering and the fire crackling. His style is in keeping with that of an author writing in the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, yet is perfectly accessible to us now. His stories are original, lacking the cliched settings of some of his contemporaries. He puts ordinary people (man of them academics like himself) in extraordinary situations and sets the scene around them.
Rather than presenting graphic descriptions of the 'monsters', he evokes terror with just a few words and lets us, his readers, give vent to our imaginations:
(from 'Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad')
Montague Rhodes James was born on 1st August 1862. He was an academic - medieval scholar, provost of King's College Cambridge (1905-1918) and subsequently of Eton (1918-1936). He grew up in Suffolk, which he subsequently used as a location for many of his stories. To this day, he is widely respected for his academic work.This included his discovery of a fragment of manuscript which led to excavations of the ruins of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, where the long lost graves of a number of twelfth century abbots were discovered. He also catalogued many of the manuscript libraries of the colleges of Cambridge University and translated the Apocrypha of the New Testament.
The stories cry out to be filmed and many adaptations have been made - both for screen and TV. One of my favourite films, Night of the Demon is adapted from Casting The Runes. But probably the most famous adaptations, certainly in the UK, were provided by the BBC between 1968-1978. These half hour episodes were broadcast late at night on Christmas Eve and became a 'must-watch'. While not exclusively M.R.James stories, the series could hardly have existed without him. They are now collated into a 5 DVD collection with some fascinating extra features: Ghost Stories for Christmas.
I am looking forward to February, when we have tickets to see Oh Whistle And I'll Come To You, My Lad in a stage production at Venue Cymru in Llandudno , where it is presented in tandem with The Signalman by Charles Dickens (also included as one of the Ghost Stories For Christmas - and very chilling it is too!)
M.R.James died 8th June 1936 in Eton and is buried in the town cemetery. His work lives on - perfect examples of the British ghost story at their most chillingly entertaining.
Now, click on the link below, sit back and enjoy A Warning to the Curious: