The Incomparable M R James

20 Sep

I’ve been looking forward to this one…

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) is generally acknowledged as the founding father of the ghost story as it is known today. The son of a clergyman raised in rural Suffolk, England, M R James attended prep school at Eton and it was here that he discovered traditional ‘gothic’ ghost tales full of the old trappings of antique castles, terrified maidens and spectres clanking chains. He decided to try his own interpretation of the genre – one of plausibility, actuality and malevolence more suited to 20th century readers – when he later became a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge. The publication of his first collection of ghostly tales in 1904 met with an enthusiastic public response. An antiquarian by nature, James was a master of topography, scholarly detail and seemingly authentic documentation, which appealed to the audience of sophisticated modern readers that he sought (even the least of his stories exhibits a craftsmanship and attention to detail that must be the envy of more hasty and prolific writers). James also inspired countless other ghost story writers, who to this day owe a debt to his conception of the form (in his own words – “Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way… 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”).

James was famously ambiguous as to whether or not he believed in ghosts (“I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me”) but there is evidence that much of his inspiration was garnered while he was a student at Cambridge. He was intrigued by the accounts of ghosts that he discovered in the old documents and papers he came across in musty college archives as well as the recollections of other, older academics – so much so that he began to adapt them into stories to read aloud to his friends. He chose the Christmas season as the appropriate time for these gatherings in his college rooms, which were jovially referred to as ‘meetings of the Chitchat society’, though his audience tended to be anything but chatty as they sat transfixed by James’ tales of terror. In the words of one Jamesian scholar “Perhaps the best way to read James’ short stories is by imagining oneself as part of one of these small gatherings in the study of the old Provost’s Lodge at King’s College, Cambridge. There, on a winter’s evening, with no lights save a glowing fire and a candle set in either arm of a large Victorian chair, sits an ample and benign scholar with gold-rimmed spectacles, quietly recounting tales of unimaginable horror”.

James only wrote about two dozen short ghost stories but no writer of supernatural fiction aside from H P Lovecraft (who I’ll discuss in my next post) has achieved such celebrity on such a relatively small body of work. He also inspired a number of contemporaries at Cambridge who went on to establish formidable reputations as writers of ghost stories in their own right, including Arthur Gray, A N L Munby, E G Swain and the three Benson brothers, A C, R H and, most famously, E F Benson. Whilst James’ stories are in my view best read on the page (again, look for the annotated Penguin Classics editions), there are a number of worthy adaptations which have been screened by the BBC over the years (the best being the ones read out by Christopher Lee in a recreation of James’ rooms in King’s College and the worst by some distance being last year’s ‘modernized’ version of ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ – oh dear). In 1918 James became the Provost at Eton, having previously taught at King’s College School, and in Lost Hearts (click to read!) he combines his knowledge of young people and ghosts in this tale of a little boy in danger from occult powers who finds supernatural forces coming to his aid…

7 Responses to “The Incomparable M R James”

  1. chinesetea2 September 20, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    i like the city.

  2. owlwoman September 20, 2011 at 9:59 am #

    I love a lot of M R James’ stories (and am one of those folk who find the 1960s tv adaptation of ‘Whistle…’ one of the scariest things committed to film) and have a couple of collections of his. I do find his format – of the cove speaking of terrible events – a little wearing when reading more than one story at a time. But his subtlety is amazing and kicks most modern day gore fests into touch.

  3. anilbalan September 20, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks, agreed

  4. sassyfran September 20, 2011 at 10:13 pm #

    Wow what a cool site; I can’t wait to check this out. Thanks for stopping by my site so I could know about yours. 🙂

  5. Genki Jason October 30, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    M.R. James is one of my favourite writers alongside Poe. I cannot fault his works unlike Lovecraft. The television adaptations of his works are just as chilling as the stories. My favourite is Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You My Lad directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Nigel Horden and a very scary bed sheet. I must admit that I don’t hate the 2010 adaptation as much as others do and I found it atmospheric.

  6. Woody Dexter March 30, 2017 at 5:36 am #

    Reblogged this on Haint-Blue Shudders.

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