“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.”
Montague Rhodes James was a British writer and scholar. While his academic work in the field of Medieval Studies remains relevant to this day (you can find a bibliography of his works here), it is something altogether different that he is now best known for; namely, his ghost stories.
He was born in the village of Goodnestone, Kent, in 1862, where his father Herbert was serving as a clergyman. From the age of three up until his late 40s, his home would be in the Suffolk village of Great Livermere (itself said to be haunted!). His actual residences, though, would be boarding schools and colleges that he attended and later worked at, among them some of the most prestigious institutions, such as Eton and King’s College. He actually died at Eton in 1936; married to his job, it’s been claimed he remained celibate his whole life.
His fiction writing style is easily recognisable and referred to as ‘Jamesian’. It includes themes and settings that in many ways reflect his own private and professional life (rural England, old schools and monasteries; characters who are scholars and well educated gentlemen; mysterious, ancient objects that often play a key role in the narratives, etc.).
As a writer, he was quite conservative, preferring 19th century writing to contemporary literature. These influences can be clearly felt in his works, which can read like Victorian horror and gothic fiction. Still, he did add innovative elements that make his stories original, rather than an imitation of older writers. Some of the stories are particularly gruesome, with images of violence and cruelty that are more characteristic of 20th century horror writing. His conservatism in matters literary and political is one of several things he has in common with another 20th century horror writer – H. P. Lovecraft, who happened to be a big fan of James, unsurprisingly.
Some of James’ tales were originally published in college magazines, later to be reprinted in various collections. However, those best known today come from the four books of short stories published during his lifetime (links here included will take you to free e-book versions downloadable in various formats): Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1903), More Ghost Stories (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919) and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925).
Interestingly, many of these stories were originally written as a form of Christmastime entertainment: James would read them to his friends, in the Victorian tradition of fireside-type readings. Surprised about the connection between ghost stories and Christmas, of all holidays? You shouldn’t be – telling and reading such stories is a very old tradition that was given new prominence in the Victorian era and the subsequent decades (one only needs to think of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, but there are other, far scarier, examples).
You don’t need to wait for Christmas to enjoy James’ eerie tales – I love them any time of year! Apart from the links to the actual books given earlier, you can also explore numerous adaptations of his works, many of which you can now access online. Here are just a few suggestions to get you started:
- Night of the Demon (a 1957 film adaptation of James’ story Casting the Runes)
- The Mezzotint (audio version, read by Michael Horden)
- Whistle and I’ll Come to You (an episode of the Classic Ghost Stories podcast, read by Tony Walker); you can also watch a somewhat abridged TV adaptation from the 1968, produced by the BBC and starring Michael Hordern.
- The Lost Ghost Story with Mark Gatiss, a 2013 BBC documentary on the life of M. R. James
For more resources on all things M R James, visit the Grammaticus profile on Pinterest and the special board I’ve dedicated to this master of English horror writing.
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