Tag Archives: M R James
Video

A Warning to the Curious

18 Dec

Here’s a real festive treat. In 2000 the BBC produced a series called Ghost Stories for Christmas, with Christopher Lee in which Lee played M R James reading four of his own stories. Lee, who actually once met James, obviously enjoyed making this series and A Warning to the Curious is a real highlight – enjoy!

Video

Lost Hearts

11 Sep

I have been haunted by the writings of M R James since childhood but when asked what is my favourite of all his ghostly tales I’ve never fully been able to answer. Lost Hearts, an early tale which apparently James didn’t much care for, and which only appeared in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary to fill up the collection at the request of his publisher, does however retain a special corner in my affections. This was my first introduction to James and ever since I have always been surprised at the author’s seeming negative attitude to this particular story, which remains one of the classic short chillers in whatever guise it has assumed, on the page or on the screen. The plot is well known. Abney, an elderly scholar, reclusive and of independent means, invites his young cousin Stephen, recently orphaned, to live with him. His secret intention is to kill the boy in order to obtain his heart, which he believes will give him magical powers and, possibly, immortality. Two murders have already been committed for this purpose, and the young victims’ corpses carefully concealed, but their whereabouts are frighteningly disclosed to the intended next victim, and their intrusion back into the world of the living occurs in a series of disturbing incidents that culminate in the story’s horrifying denouement.

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Video

A Ghost Story for Christmas: The Tractate Middoth

13 Dec

Here’s a real treat to conclude the series of Christmas ghost stories that I’ve been posting for the last few weeks – the BBC adaptation of The Tractate Middoth from just a couple of years ago. Fingers crossed they do another one this year!

 

Video

A View from a Hill

6 Dec

Last week’s ghost story video seemed to go down pretty well, so here’s another M R James classic filmed by the BBC for your delectation:

 

 

Video

Number 13 by M R James

29 Nov

One of the joys of the festive season for me is enjoying a good, old-fashioned, spooky tale so, in the run-up to Christmas, I will be posting ghost stories from years past. The first of these is a masterly BBC adaptation of M R James’ classic Number 13:

 

The Ash-Tree

19 Apr

Although it is far from the best known of his ghost stories, The Ash-Tree is perhaps the most explicitly grisly of all M R James’ tales of the supernatural. This particular short story is also very personal, for it is the one that most powerfully reflects his near-pathological fear of spiders, hints of which also appear in The Tractate Middoth. In European folklore the ash tree does have occult significance, but it is generally positive: there is Yggdrasil, the World Tree in Norse mythology; the Christmas log was of ash and was thought to bring prosperity to the family that burned it; tools made of ash were thought to allow the persons using them to do more and better work etc. Conversely, witches were believed to ride through the air on ash branches – a point of relevance in that witchcraft plays a critical role in the story.

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“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”

5 May

M R James, grand master of the ghost story genre, wrote around two dozen short tales. However, of them all, perhaps none are more famous, anthologized or distinctive than “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. This story, first published in the collection Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, was apparently written in 1903; at any rate, it was read at one of the celebrated informal meetings of the ‘Chitchat club’ at King’s College, Cambridge in that year. The odd title derives from the first line of an untitled song (1793) by Robert Burns and the story contains perhaps the most distinctive ‘ghost’ in James’ entire corpus, which may have been derived from a nightmare. In the late and apparently autobiographical tale A Vignette, James writes of a creature he has seen in a dream:

“It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.”

This iconic image has, ever since the publication of Whistle, accounted for the archetypal ‘ghost’ that springs to mind whenever the word is mentioned – a human form draped entirely in white linen. Interestingly, a similar entity is featured in James’ other tale The Uncommon Prayer-Book, which speaks of a role of white flannel that “had a kind of a face in the upper end of it”. The recurrence of such a uniquely envisaged spectre in James’ stories naturally leads one to wonder whether it was inspired by a real incident that occurred in the great man’s life.

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A College Mystery

19 Aug

Visitors to Cambridge will find Christ’s College – the alma mater of both John Milton and Charles Darwin – in the middle of a crowded shopping precinct. To get in, you will normally have to go through a narrow door set in the large oak portal of the gatehouse. At once, you are a world away from the hustle and bustle, in a court that leads to another court that leads to a garden that could be in the heart of the countryside. When it was founded in 1505 (or more accurately re-founded – the college has been around since the early 1400s in one form or another), Christ’s College lay on the edge of town and this has enabled it to expand over the centuries. Now, beyond a gatehouse decorated with mythical horned beasts (known as ‘yales’), the college is one of Cambridge’s most attractive enclaves, boasting extensive gardens that must have been a Paradise Gained for Milton. Yet in the heart of any paradise there is almost always a serpent and at Christ’s this takes the form of an unusual and unsettling ghost story. Alfred Ponsford Baker, a graduate of the college, used Christ’s as the setting for a novel entitled A College Mystery. Published in 1918, this tells the story of how the ghost of Christopher Round came to haunt Christ’s College. Although it was ostensibly a work of fiction, it has since come to be widely accepted as true.

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Ghost Stories for Christmas

21 Dec

Although Halloween is the time of year that is popularly associated with ghost stories, it should not be forgotten that traditionally Christmas is every bit as appropriate a time for telling tales of the supernatural. Over the years, dozens of newspapers and magazines have echoed the words of the editor of Eve magazine addressing his readers in 1921: ‘Ghosts prosper at Christmas time: they like the long evenings when the fire is low and the house hushed for the night. After you have sat up late reading or talking about them they love to hear your heart beating and hammering as you steal upstairs to bed in the dark…’. It was the master of the ghost story genre, M R James, who arguably enshrined the traditional of the festive spine chiller, although others had contributed to this before him, most notably Charles Dickens and J S Le Fanu. At the dawn of the 20th century, James was telling ghost stories to friends at Christmas gatherings in the shadowy, candle-lit gloom of his rooms at King’s College, Cambridge. It is therefore fitting that, many years later, the works of James inspired a BBC series, A Ghost Story for Christmas,whose remit was to provide a television adaptation of a classic ghost story referencing the oral tradition of telling supernatural tales at Christmas.

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The Benson Brothers

11 Oct

The instance of there being two talented sibling writers in the same family is rare but for there to be three famous authors born to the same parents is truly exceptional. The most famous case, of course, is the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Less well known but still of great interest are the three brothers A C, E F and R H Benson, born between 1862 and 1871, who between them managed a literary output consisting of over a hundred works of fiction and non-fiction, both short and long. While ghost stories formed only a relatively small part of their collective output, it was the contribution that each brother made to the supernatural genre by the quality of their work that is most remarkable.

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