Wednesday 3 January 2024

M.R. James - Master of the Ghost Story


I am often asked whose influence has had the greatest impact on my writing. This is a difficult question because, over the years, so many great authors have impacted me, and overtly or subliminally, my writing has been influenced by them in one way or another.

One of the earliest of these was undoubtedly the master British ghost story writer, M.R. James.

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 a manuscript which led to excavations of the ruins of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, where the long-lost graves of several 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 his 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 .

M.R. James taught me the power of the short story. Some of his are only a couple of pages long but they pack a whole story into precious few words. Many of his stories 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 clichéd settings of some of his contemporaries. He puts ordinary people (many 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 the minimum of detail and lets his readers give vent to their imaginations. Here’s an extract from A Warning to the Curious:

We were a couple of hundred yards from the hill when Long suddenly said to him: ‘I say you’ve left your coat there. That won’t do. See?’ And I certainly did see it — the long dark overcoat lying where the tunnel had been. Paxton had not stopped, however: he only shook his head, and held up the coat on his arm. And when we joined him, he said, without any excitement, but as if nothing mattered any more: ‘That wasn’t my coat.’ And, indeed, when we looked back again, that dark thing was not to be seen.

The stories cry out to be filmed and many have been made - both for screen and TV. One of my favourite films, Night of the Demon is based on Casting The Runes (with a great deal of license being taken with the original tale). 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' seasonal tradition. While not exclusively M.R. James stories, the series could hardly have existed without him.

M.R. James died on 8th June 1936 in Eton and is buried in the town cemetery. His work lives on - providing perfect examples of the British ghost story at its most chillingly entertaining.

I had recently immersed myself in M.R. James' work when I wrote my Gothic, ghostly novella Linden Manor. This was the story that changed everything for me - winning me a publishing contract and introducing me to world-renowned editor of horror Don D'Auria who published it as part of an anthology of four Gothic ghost stories.

Now the lovely people at Crossroad Press have produced a paperback edition of Linden Manor and it's out NOW. Here’s a flavour:

Have you ever been so scared your soul left your body? 

All her life, Lesley Carpenter has been haunted by a gruesome nursery rhyme—“The Scottish Bride”—sung to her by her great-grandmother. To find out more about its origins, Lesley visits the mysterious Isobel Warrender, the current hereditary owner of Linden Manor, a grand house with centuries of murky history surrounding it. 

But her visit transforms into a nightmare when Lesley sees the ghost of the Scottish bride herself, a sight that, according to the rhyme, means certain death. The secrets of the house slowly reveal themselves to Lesley, terrible secrets of murder, evil and a curse that soaks the very earth on which Linden Manor now stands. But Linden Manor has saved its most chilling secret for last. 

 Find Linden Manor in paperback here:


Barnes and Noble

also available widely on ebook and audio

Come and meet me at Blackwell's Bookshop, Tuesday February 20th 2024 at 6p.m. (GMT)

Unit 2-3 Crown Place, Peach Street, Liverpool L3 5UH 
0151 709 8146


Crossroad Press


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