Friday 13 December 2013

M.R. James - Master of the Ghostly Tale

On a stormy day last week, with the wind howling and the rain battering the windows, I settled myself down in the warmth and snug comfort of my living room, and picked up The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James.

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:
It stood for the moment in a band of dark shadow, and he had not seen what its face was like. Now it began to move, in a stooping posture, and all at once the spectator realized, with some horror and some relief, that it must be blind, for it seemed to feel about it with its muffled arms in a groping and random fashion. Turning half away from him, it became suddenly conscious of the bed he had just left, and darted towards it, and bent and felt over the pillows in a way which made Parkins shudder as he had never in his life thought it possible. In a very few moments it seemed to know that the bed was empty, and then, moving forward into the area of light and facing the window, it showed for the first time what manner of thing it was.

(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.

But the wider world remembers him for those wonderful short stories, which were originally published in four collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925). In 1931, they were first collated into one volume: The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James from which the above extract was taken.

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:


  1. I love M.R. I have his short stores right here on the shelf. And as you say what is so amazing is the detail and punch he packs in a few pages. When you think at that time the tendency was to describe the antimacassar , he was something. Still is.

  2. I owe you an immense debt of gratitude for introducing me to this writer. All these years I fancied myself something of an aficionado concerning macabre literature (having read "Carmilla", "Vampyr", "The Castle of Otranto" etc. when I was scarcely older than fourteen) but this discovery has been humbling.!

    1. Thank you Norman. That's very kind of you. Now you've discovered this brilliant author, may you have many happy, scary hours reading his amazing stories.

    2. Your blog is (nicely!) overwhelming. I intend to follow it more closely in the future. Incidentally, that is not what I look like but my google account is strangely resistant to my changing it.

  3. That's very kind of you, Norman and much appreciated. I look forward to having you around!