M R James

One of my favourite writers is M. R. James (Montague Rhodes James ). Who he is best known for his chilling Victorian ghost stories.

He was master of the uncanny, the purveyor of the uncomfortable and a writer renowned for his atmospheric ghostly tales.

He is regarded as one of the most accomplished writers in this genre and who managed to redefine the ghost story for the new (20th) century by abandoning many of the clichés of gothic fiction. He mastered mixing mundane, contemporary settings with the slow addition of creepy occurrences to unsettle the reader.

M.R. James: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”

Many of James’ stories started as tales told amongst friends on Christmas Eve, around the fireplace, and when they came to print these tales exuded the qualities associated with engaging oral storytelling and a self-aware narrative voice.

Although, most famous for his storytelling it must also be noted that he was a respected medievalist scholar and provost of King’s College, Cambridge(1905–18), and of Eton College (1918–36).

October 11th 2019 saw the 82nd anniversary of James death. So, what is it that makes his stories so popular, even to today’s audience? And why do we keep terrifying ourselves by retelling his tales?

Jamesian storytelling:

Have you ever heard of the Jamesian? James’ classic storytelling style involved a slow narrative build leading to an encounter with a malevolent supernatural manifestation. He would often leave the reader with unresolved questions and loved to use everyday, normal details to highlight what was absurd or mysterious.

James said of his stories: “If any of [my stories] succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.”

To create the perfect Jamesian ghost story you need:

    • A quaint, ancient setting. Such as a twee English country village, an estranged seaside town or a stately Abbey. James loved to utilise the antiquity of a colourful setting with an isolated atmosphere.
    • A gentleman protagonist. Many of James’ characters are naive reserved scholars, who are often not convinced something strange is happening until the final climax of the story.
    • A pivotal antiquarian object. Whether an old book or an antique, the discovery of a mystery object that unlocks and attracts an unwelcome figure from beyond the grave is a signature mark of James’ stories.

James was a master at creating fear and terror through suggestion, allowing the readers to participate through the ordinary then creating an unease through uncanny detail.

Here are a few of my favourite stories from M R James:

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary 1904)

Count Magnus (Ghost Stories of an Antiquary 1904)

The Tractate Middoth (Published in More Ghost Stories 1911)

“Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (Published in Ghost Stories of Antiquary 1904)

James Ghost story collections:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)

A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)

A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925)

M R James Ghost Stories Today:

James’ ghost stories have been adapted many times over the years for the screen and plays. Any curious reader can find many BBC adaptations of his novels, including the BBC series A Ghost Story for Christmas.

Perhaps the most well-known M R James enthusiasts, who’ve produced a number of adaptations of late, are The League of Gentlemen. You may remember the unnerving 2013 adaptation of The Tractate Middoth, from The League of Gentlemen’s Mark Gatiss, featuring something malevolent lurking in the library.

Perhaps it’s the link to the ordinary, and the gaps in the narrative left for the reader’s imagination that keeps James’ stories as indicatively spine-tingling today as to compared to when they were first told over a hundred years ago.