Montague Rhodes James is not a household name, but abbreviate it to M. R. James, and it becomes instantly recognizable to aficionados of a particular literary genre—the ghost story. As recently as Christmas 2010, the BBC in the United Kingdom screened an adaptation of James’s best known story, “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (though the title had shrunk in the wash to Whistle and I’ll Come to You) starring John Hurt. In fact, this was only the latest in a nearly fifty-year-old BBC tradition of adapting James’s stories—including “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” and “The Ash-Tree”—for the Christmas schedule. Back in 1968, “Oh, Whistle...” was again the choice, that time dramatized by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern.
But why Christmas—the Feast of the Nativity, one of the devotional highlights of the Christian year—as a time for stories of hideous terrors? James wrote his first ghost stories as a young Cambridge scholar, and they were designed for reading aloud. In time, it became a tradition that on Christmas Eve fellow-scholars and friends would meet for dinner, then move to James’s private quarters where “Monty,” as he was known to his friends, would sit by a roaring fire and read, by the light of a single candle, a tale of creeping, insidious horror.
For many Christians, particularly those of us within the Evangelical tradition, an interest in or taste for ghost stories can make us a bit suspect. A church leader might take us aside and suggest that our enthusiasm is akin to—or might lead to—involvement in séances and spiritualism and perhaps even black magic. And yes, I’ve been the subject of such pastoral advice.
It is a view that I would contest. Ghost stories are a distinguished branch of fiction—especially of the short story—and often display tremendous emotional and symbolic power. Christians who shun them are missing something highly significant, in the work of M. R. James particularly. To understand why, it is helpful to look first at something of James’s own background.
James is remembered today almost entirely for his ghost stories, which he would find both absurd and amusing, for he wasn’t primarily an author of fiction at all but an academic and antiquarian. He was born in Kent in 1862, the son of an Evangelical Church of England clergyman. When James was young, his family moved to Suffolk, to the Rectory at Great Livermere. James was educated at Eton and Cambridge and then embarked on a long, scholarly career as Director of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, and, in his later years, Provost of Eton.
Eventually, James would publish thirty-three ghost stories and a number of short articles and prefaces outlining his thoughts on the genre, but his major work was carried out in a much loftier register. When he was an undergraduate, he began the epic work of cataloging Cambridge University’s manuscript collections, something he only completed decades later, in 1925. His papers and monographs and translations are in areas such as archaeology, bibliography, biblical studies (he was an acknowledged expert on the New Testament Apocrypha), and, crucially, antiquarianism. His massive output of academic work has not yet been fully catalogued. Perhaps it needs a modern M. R. James to undertake the task.
Many of James’s stories take place in the world of the bibliophile, the antiquarian, the dusty, unworldly academic. In the earliest story to be published, “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” just such a fussy academic encounters demonic horror when he takes possession of a scrapbook containing a variety of leaves from medieval manuscripts. The main character in “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” is a skeptical scientist who conjures up ancient menace when investigating a historic site for an antiquarian colleague (and this is truly a story that will have you constantly looking over your shoulder should you ever again visit a wind-lashed, out-of-season coastal town). The hero of “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” buys the eponymous volume at an auction and with it brings creeping evil into his home.
Reading these broad outlines you might get the impression that James’s stories are creaky period-pieces, of interest only to the kind of dusty academics featured in them. Yet James’s heroes, with their boyish excitement at finding a lost quarto or digging a prehistoric barrow, are convincingly and sympathetically portrayed. For someone who “never cared to try any other kind” of fiction, James is a master of the short story form. His stories are carefully paced and build the suspense until climaxes which, while they might seem restrained and allusive to fans of modern stalk-and-slash horror films, produce a chilling effect on discerning readers, haunting the imagination and lurking in the memory long after reading.
James is superb at evoking place, whether he’s writing about a cathedral in semi-darkness, an East Anglian seaside resort on a bitter winter afternoon, a somnolent university library, or a country house chapel in a lonely valley. Every location is pictured clearly and sharply, made familiar, and then gradually turned sinister and threatening.
His stately style can seem old-fashioned, but his use of multiple viewpoints and quotations from diaries and journals and other sources was actually highly innovative in the genre at the time. The first, lengthy paragraph of “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” is a quotation entirely in Latin (even modern literary avant-garde writers might balk at that). “I suppose I shall have to translate this,” the character then says to himself, and the reader nods in agreement. Wry, donnish humor is another James specialty.
James’s father had hoped that he would go into the church (as his brother Sydney did), but while he never took Holy Orders, James largely retained the faith of his father. It might seem unusual for someone with an Evangelical heritage to be so involved in the writing of ghost stories, yet James had little interest in the supernatural per se. Yes, he famously wrote on being asked whether he believed in ghosts, “I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.” Yes, the late story, “A Vignette,” set in the garden and surrounding countryside of the Great Livermere rectory, has been suggested as partly autobiographical. But James scorned both supernatural research and spiritualism, as befitted the Evangelical Christian of his age or, indeed, of ours.
It is also telling that there are few sad or lonely ghosts in James, and certainly no friendly ones; “[T]he ghost should be malevolent or odious,” he wrote in the preface to one of his collections. “[A]miable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” If people encounter the supernatural in a James story, they pay the price. Karswell, the evil necromancer of “Casting the Runes” is ultimately killed by the demon he has summoned for someone else. Poschwitz, the book-dealer who steals the eponymous item in “The Uncommon Prayer Book” is struck down in the moment of his triumph.
But there are also people who suffer despite tangling with the dark side only by accident. Mr. Dennistoun, who acquires “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook,” does so with no knowledge that it is the key to the strange presence that haunts the church in St. Bertrand de Comminges, and Parkins, the skeptic of “Oh, Whistle...,” has no idea that the item he finds could summon up such horrors.
Another innocent victim is Paxton. In “A Warning to the Curious,” he discovers the location of the last of the buried silver Saxon crowns that, according to legend, protect England from invasion. He digs for it, finds it, removes it, and is subsequently menaced by the terrifying guardian of the crown and has to seek help from the story’s narrator to return the crown and undo the evil.
“A Warning to the Curious” is perhaps the key to understanding James. His stories are not invitations to meddle with forbidden things but, rather, warnings to the curious. Yes, they are primarily entertainments intended to provide a pleasurable shiver, but James’s background and beliefs would not allow him to treat ghosts and hauntings and the spirit world lightly. His ghost stories are an unlikely yet powerful deterrent.
Besides the BBC’s Christmas productions, M. R. James has rarely been adapted for television and hardly at all for the big screen. Most significantly, “Casting the Runes” was adapted by the British ITV network in 1979, while Night of the Demon was a 1958 British cinema production based on the same story. Perhaps this will change as a series of James anniversaries piles up like rush-hour traffic. The year 2011 sees the seventy-fifth anniversary of his death and the eightieth anniversary of the publication of his Collected Ghost Stories, while 2012 is the hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth.
But it is better to stick to the page. If you haven’t already encountered James’s brilliant short stories, a treat lies in store. Dim the lights, stoke up the fire, and prepare to experience the most pleasurable terrors in fiction.
David McVey is a writer and lecturer who worked for many years at the University of the West of Scotland. He specializes in writing short stories—including the occasional ghost story.