Montague “Monty” Rhodes James OM, MA, FBA (1 August 1862 – 12 June 1936), who used the publication name M. R. James, was an English author, medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge (1905–18), and of Eton College (1918–36).
Though James’s work as a medievalist is still highly regarded, he is best remembered for his ghost stories, which are considered as among the best in the genre. James redefined the ghost story for the new century by abandoning many of the formal Gothic clichés of his predecessors and using more realistic contemporary settings. However, James’s protagonists and plots tend to reflect his own antiquarian interests. Accordingly, he is known as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story”.
James was born in Goodnestone Parsonage, near Dover in Kent, England, although his parents had associations with Aldeburgh in Suffolk. His father was Herbert James, an Evangelical Anglican clergyman, and his mother, Mary Emily (née Horton), was the daughter of a naval officer. From the age of three (1865) until 1909 James’s home, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. Several of James’s ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad (Felixstowe), A Warning to the Curious (Aldeburgh), Rats and A Vignette (Great Livermere).
In September 1873 he arrived as a boarder at Temple Grove School, one of the leading boys’ preparatory schools of the day. He eventually settled in Cambridge, first as an undergraduate, then as a don and provost, at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was also a member of the Pitt Club. The university provides settings for several of his tales and its insular world informs many of the often drifting souls he characterises. Apart from medieval subjects, James studied the classics and appeared very successfully in a staging of Aristophanes’ play The Birds, with music by Hubert Parry.
His academic career saw him cataloguing and translating many medieval works, the hidden texts and found knowledge echoing several of his published fiction work, as well as being very highly regarded by his academic contemporaries. He later became a director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum before seeing out his final years as Provost of Eton College, the town where he is now buried. As with his time in Suffolk, his Cambridge surroundings, especially those within University walls, are featured in several of his tales; A School Story, Temple Grove, East Sheen and A Tractate Middoth.
Many of James’s ghost stories were written for public performance, specifically for reading to a small group of assembled friends (and occasionally, choirboys) as part of spirit-fuelled polite revelry on Christmas Eve in his private quarters at the University. Such precise and well-orchestrated behaviour is a reminder of the very Victorian quality of James’s writing, and he as a person – it was also an excuse to display his acting skills, as well as to assert his dominance in an environment of constant one-upmanship.
From his own recollection, his first written and published ghost story was Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook, which appeared in National Review magazine in 1894, with Lost Hearts appearing in Pall Mall magazine the following year. These, plus a further six tales were collected into one volume, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904:
• “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”
• “Lost Hearts”
• “The Mezzotint”
• “The Ash-tree”
• ” Number 13″
• “Count Magnus”
• “‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad””
• “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”
The first edition of this collection featured four atmospheric illustrations by James McBryde, a friend of James’ and one of the few who were present at the stories first Christmas readings. It was intended that McBryde would provide illustrations for each featured story but his premature death meant only four were completed. A distraught James, whom, it is said, harboured romantic feelings towards his friend, refused to allow the publisher to use images supplied by anyone else to complete the unfinished work.
More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911)
• “A School Story”
• ” The Rose Garden”
• “The Tractate Middoth”
• “Casting the Runes”
• “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral”
• “Martin’s Close”
• “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance”
A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)
• “The Residence at Whitminster”
• “The Diary of Mr Poynter”
• “An Episode of Cathedral History”
• “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”
• “Two Doctors”
• “The Haunted Dolls’ House”
• “The Uncommon Prayer-Book”
• “A Neighbour’s Landmark”
• “A View from a Hill”
• “A Warning to the Curious”
• “An Evening’s Entertainment”
Despite the subjects of his stories, James claimed neither to have any real belief in ghosts or the supernatural, nor to have witnessed anything himself which could not be rationally explained. Although operating in an era when literature had several of the great practitioners in full effect, notably, Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, James honed both a style and structure which were distinct and memorable. Relying on neither the actions of wicked, misguided individuals (much of Poe) nor the unimaginable horrors of Lovecraft, James wrote of unassuming (if, often, well-to-do) individuals who by circumstance found themselves the victim of restless spirits, none of whom were in the least welcoming or benign.
• A characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university
• A nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature). Few women appear in his tales, romance even less.
• The discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave
• A mundane, contented life disturbed by an initially innocuous presence or occurrence, leading to a more malignant force.
Analysts have suggested that James’s sexuality and his inability to come to terms with it leant a detached malaise to his tales; a lack of, or even fear, of human contact quite a noticeable theme. Whilst this is possible, what is undeniable is the influence of Sheridan Le Fanu’s writing, which James was never slow in praising.
On the other side of the coin, James himself was no stranger to praise from high places. Foremost of these was H.P. Lovecraft, saving significant reverence for James in his extended essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, first published in 1927. He also wrote:
“M.R. James joins the brisk, the light, & the commonplace to the weird about as well as anyone could do it—but if another tried the same method, the chances would be ten to one against him. The most valuable element in him—as a model—is his way of weaving a horror into the every-day fabric of life and history—having it grow naturally out of the myriad conditions of an ordinary environment…”
Other admirers of his work include Sir John Betjeman, Paul Theroux, Ruth Rendell and horror fiction heavyweights, Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. More keenly, Kingsley Amis used James’s signature motifs for one of his most famous works, The Green Man. James’s character-led tales have made them ideal for television and film adaptation.
Buy Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories from Amazon.co.uk
1951 – Lights Out – “The Lost Will of Doctor Rant”. A clear adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, starring Leslie Nielsen
1966-1968 – Four teleplays were broadcast on ITV in the UK, all of which are now considered lost in their entirety.
1968 – Whistle and I’ll Come to You – perhaps the most famous TV adaptation of them all, directed by Jonathan Miller for the BBC
1971 – The Stalls of Barchester. From 1971, in a tradition James would most certainly approve, each Christmas saw a James tale dramatised, each directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark.
1986 – Robert Powell’s partially dramatised readings of The Mezzotint, The Ash-Tree, Wailing Well, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad and The Rose Garden were screened on BBC2 for an even older audience.
2000 – Christopher Lee took the reading reins for another series of James re-tellings, this time in front of a roaring fire with a suitably-attired small audience. These are still regularly screened around Christmas time. With Lee playing the role of James reading his own stories, the 30 minute episodes produced by the BBC include The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Ash-tree, Number 13 and A Warning to the Curious
2005 – BBC4 screened updated adaptations of both A View From a Hill and Number 13
2010 – A new version of Whistle and I’ll Come to You was developed for broadcast around Christmas. Starring John Hurt (Alien), most consider it massively inferior the Miller’s earlier film, which starred Michael Hordern in the same role.
Buy Night of the Demon on DVD from Amazon.co.uk
1989 – The Church (La Chiesa). Michele Soavi’s film, co-written with Dario Argento but taking significant influence from The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.
Buy The Church on DVD from Amazon.com
Forthcoming – Joe Dante has been linked with a new adaptation of Casting the Runes for several years, having already adopted the Jamesian curse for his 2009 film, Drag Me To Hell
The performed origins and suggestive scares have made James’s work some of the most performed horror on radio.
1947 – CBS Radio – Escape – Casting the Runes
1973 – BBC Radio 3 – Lost Hearts, read by Bernard Cribbins (Daleks’ Invasion Earth 2150 A.D.)
1974 – CBS Radio – This Will Kill You – Casting the Runes, starring E.G. Marshall
1981 – BBC Radio 4 – The Hex – Casting the Runes, starring Conrad Phillips (Circus of Horrors)
1997–1998 – Radio 4 broadcast The Late Book: Ghost Stories, a series of 15-minute readings of M. R. James stories, abridged and produced by Paul Kent and narrated by Benjamin Whitrow (repeated on BBC 7, December 2003–January 2004, September–October 2004, February 2007, October–November 2011). The stories were Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book, Lost Hearts, A School Story, The Haunted Dolls’ House and Rats.
1982-92 – A series of four double audio cassettes was released by Argo Records, featuring nineteen unabridged James stories narrated by Michael Hordern. The tapes were titled Ghost Stories (1982), More Ghost Stories (1984), A Warning to the Curious (1985) and No. 13 and Other Ghost Stories (1988).
ISIS Audio Books also released two collections of unabridged James stories, this time narrated by Nigel Lambert. These tapes were titled A Warning to the Curious and Other Tales (four audio cassettes, six stories, March 1992) and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (three audio cassettes, eight stories, December 1992).
2007 – Tales of the Supernatural, Volume One, an audiobook presentation by Fantom Films, featuring the James stories Lost Hearts read by Geoffrey Bayldon (Tales From the Crypt, Frankenstein Must be Destroyed), Rats and Number 13 by Ian Fairbairn, with Gareth David-Lloyd reading Casting the Runes and There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard.
2007 – Radio 4 – The tradition of James’s ghost stories for the festive period returned once more, with a series of adaptations of his most popular tales. Each lasted around 15 minutes and was introduced by Derek Jacobi (The Medusa Touch) as James himself. Due to the short running times the tales were fairly rushed, with much of the stories condensed or removed. Stories adapted included Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, Number 13 and Lost Hearts.
2007 – A Warning to the Furious. Forty-five minute play, written by Robin Brooks, concerning a film-making team setting out to make a documentary about MRJ on the Suffolk coast.
A series of seven tales billed as Doug Bradley’s Spinechillers were released as audio downloads, read by Pinhead himself
Anna Sahrling-Hamm – Hearts/Wailing Well. Online adaptations
Scott Hampton – Spookhouse Volume One. A compendium of tales, also featuring W.W. Jacobs Monkey’s Paw, James’s The Mezzotint is included.