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|M. R. James|
M. R. James, c. 1900
|Born||Montague Rhodes James|
1 August 1862
|Died||12 June 1936 (aged 73)|
|Pen name||M. R. James|
|M. R. James|
M. R. James, c. 1900
|Born||Montague Rhodes James|
1 August 1862
|Died||12 June 1936 (aged 73)|
|Pen name||M. R. James|
Montague Rhodes James OM, MA, FBA (1 August 1862 – 12 June 1936), who used the publication name M. R. James, was an English author, medieval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge (1905–1918), and of Eton College (1918–1936). He is best remembered for his ghost stories, which are regarded as among the best in the genre. James redefined the ghost story for the new century by abandoning many of the formal Gothic clichés of his predecessors and using more realistic contemporary settings. However, James's protagonists and plots tend to reflect his own antiquarian interests. Accordingly, he is known as the originator of the "antiquarian ghost story".
James was born in Goodnestone Parsonage, near Dover in Kent, England, although his parents had associations with Aldeburgh in Suffolk. From the age of three (1865) until 1909 his home, if not always his residence, was at the Rectory in Great Livermere, Suffolk. This had also been the childhood home of another eminent Suffolk antiquary, "Honest Tom" Martin (1696–1771) "of Palgrave." Several of his ghost stories are set in Suffolk, including "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'" (Felixstowe), "A Warning to the Curious" (Aldeburgh), "Rats" and "A Vignette" (Great Livermere). He lived for many years, first as an undergraduate, then as a don and provost, at King's College, Cambridge, where he was also a member of the Pitt Club. The university provides settings for several of his tales. Apart from medieval subjects, James studied the classics and appeared very successfully in a staging of Aristophanes' play The Birds, with music by Hubert Parry. His ability as an actor was also apparent when he read his new ghost stories to friends at Christmas time.
James is best known for his ghost stories, but his work as a medieval scholar was prodigious and remains highly respected in scholarly circles. Indeed, the success of his stories was founded on his antiquarian talents and knowledge. His discovery of a manuscript fragment led to excavations in the ruins of the abbey at Bury St Edmunds, West Suffolk, in 1902, in which the graves of several twelfth-century abbots described by Jocelyn de Brakelond (a contemporary chronicler) were rediscovered, having been lost since the Dissolution. His 1917 edition of the Latin Lives of Saint Aethelberht, king and martyr (English Historical Review 32), remains authoritative.
He catalogued many of the manuscript libraries of the Cambridge colleges. Among his other scholarly works, he wrote The Apocalypse in Art, which placed illuminated Apocalypse manuscripts into families. He also translated the New Testament Apocrypha and contributed to the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1903). His ability to wear his learning lightly is apparent in his Suffolk and Norfolk (Dent, 1930), in which a great deal of knowledge is presented in a popular and accessible form, and in Abbeys (Great Western Railway, 1925).
James also achieved a great deal during his directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge [1893–1908]. He managed to secure a large number of important paintings and manuscripts, including notable portraits by Titian.
James's ghost stories were published in a series of collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925). The first hardback collected edition appeared in 1931. Many of the tales were written as Christmas Eve entertainments and read aloud to friends. This idea was used by the BBC in 2000 when they filmed Christopher Lee reading four stories in a candle-lit room in King's College. James perfected a method of story-telling which has since become known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale usually includes the following elements:
According to James, the story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself, 'If I'm not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'" He also perfected the technique of narrating supernatural events through implication and suggestion, letting his reader fill in the blanks, and focusing on the mundane details of his settings and characters in order to throw the horrific and bizarre elements into greater relief. He summed up his approach in his foreword to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels (Oxford, 1924): "Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, 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."
He also noted: "Another requisite, in my opinion, is that the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable 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."
Despite his suggestion (in the essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write") that writers employ reticence in their work, many of James's tales depict scenes and images of savage and often disturbing violence. For example, in "Lost Hearts", pubescent children are taken in by a sinister dabbler in the occult who cuts their hearts from their still-living bodies. In a 1929 essay, James stated:
Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don't let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, 'the stony grin of unearthly malice', pursuing forms in darkness, and 'long-drawn, distant screams', are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded; the weltering and wallowing that I too often encounter merely recall the methods of M G Lewis.
Although not overtly sexual, plots of this nature have been perceived as unintentional metaphors of the Freudian variety. James's biographer Michael Cox wrote in M. R. James: An Informal Portrait (1983), "One need not be a professional psychoanalyst to see the ghost stories as some release from feelings held in check." Reviewing this biography (Daily Telegraph, 1983), the novelist and diarist Anthony Powell, who attended Eton under James's tutelage, commented that "I myself have heard it suggested that James's (of course platonic) love affairs were in fact fascinating to watch." Powell was referring to James's relationships with his pupils, not his peers.
Other critics have seen complex psychological undercurrents in James's work. His authorial revulsion from tactile contact with other people has been noted by Julia Briggs in Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (1977). As Nigel Kneale said in the introduction to the Folio Society edition of Ghost Stories of M. R. James, "In an age where every man is his own psychologist, M. R. James looks like rich and promising material. ... There must have been times when it was hard to be Monty James." Or, to put it another way, "Although James conjures up strange beasts and supernatural manifestations, the shock effect of his stories is usually strongest when he is dealing in physical mutilation and abnormality, generally sketched in with the lightest of pens."
In addition to writing his own stories, James championed the works of Sheridan Le Fanu, whom he viewed as "absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories", editing and supplying introductions to Madame Crowl's Ghost (1923) and Uncle Silas (1926).
James's statements about his actual beliefs about ghosts were ambiguous. He wrote, "I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me."
H. P. Lovecraft was an admirer of James's work, extolling the stories as the peak of the ghost story form in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" (1927). Another renowned fan of James in the horror and fantasy genre was Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote an essay on him. Michael Sadleir described M. R. James as "the best ghost-story writer England has ever produced". Marjorie Bowen also admired James's work, referring to his ghost stories as "the supreme art of M. R. James". Manly Wade Wellman esteemed James' fiction. In his list "The 13 Most Terrifying Horror Stories", T. E. D. Klein placed James's "Casting the Runes" at number one. Ruth Rendell has also expressed admiration for James's work, stating, "There are some authors one wished one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, M. R. James is one of these." David Langford has described James as the author of "the 20th century's most influential canon of ghost stories".
Sir John Betjeman, in an introduction to Peter Haining's book about James, shows how influenced he was by James's work:
In the year 1920 I was a new boy at the Dragon school, Oxford, then called Lynam's, of which the headmaster was C. C. Lynam, known as 'the Skipper'. He dressed and looked like an old Sea Salt, and in his gruff voice would tell us stories by firelight in the boys' room of an evening with all the lights out and his back to the fire. I remember he told the stories as having happened to himself. ... they were the best stories I ever heard, and gave me an interest in old churches, and country houses, and Scandinavia that not even the mighty Hans Christian Andersen eclipsed.
Betjeman later discovered the stories were all based on those of M. R. James.
H. Russell Wakefield's supernatural fiction was strongly influenced by the work of James. A large number of British writers deliberately wrote ghost stories in the Jamesian style; these writers, sometimes described as the "James Gang", include A. N. L. Munby, E. G. Swain, "Ingulphus" (pseudonym of Sir Arthur Gray, 1852–1940), and R. H. Malden, although some commentators consider their stories to be inferior to those of James himself.  Although most of the early Jamesian writers were male, there were several notable female writers of such fiction, including Eleanor Scott, (pseudonym of Helen M Leys, 1892–1965) in the stories of her book Randall's Round (1929) and D. K. Broster, in the collection Couching at the Door: Strange and Macabre Tales (1942). L. T. C. Rolt also modelled his ghost stories on James's work, but unlike other Jamesian writers set them in industrial locations, such as mines and railways.
The stories of M. R. James continue to influence many of today's great supernatural writers, including Stephen King (The Shining, etc.) and Ramsey Campbell, who edited Meddling with Ghosts: Stories in the Tradition of M. R. James and wrote the short story "The Guide" in tribute. The author John Bellairs paid homage to James by incorporating plot elements borrowed from James's ghost stories into several of his own juvenile mysteries. Jonathan Aycliffe's novel Whispers in the Dark is influenced by James' work.
There have been numerous television adaptations of James's stories, mostly in Britain. Two of the best-known TV dramas include Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968, directed by Jonathan Miller) and A Warning to the Curious (1972; directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark), starring Sir Michael Hordern and Peter Vaughan respectively. Both were released on DVD by the British Film Institute but are now out-of-print. The latter was part of an annual series titled A Ghost Story for Christmas. Five dramatizations of James stories were included: The Stalls of Barchester (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash-tree (1975).
The first TV adaptation was American—a 1951 version of "The Tractate Middoth" in the Lights Out series, called "The Lost Will of Dr Rant" and featuring Leslie Nielsen. It is available on several DVDs, including an Alpha Video release alongside Gore Vidal's Climax! adaptation of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde, starring Michael Rennie.
Although ITV produced four black-and-white adaptations of James's ghost stories between 1966 and 1968, no surviving copies are known to exist. However, a short preview trailer featuring several scenes from Casting the Runes survived and has been shown at cult film festivals. It is also available on Network DVD's Mystery and Imagination DVD set. "Casting the Runes" was also adapted for television in 1979 as an episode of the ITV Playhouse series with Lawrence Gordon Clark directing and starring Jan Francis as the lead protagonist (a man in previous adaptations).
In 1975 Yorkshire Television produced a twenty-minute adaptation of "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance" for schools.
In December 1986 BBC2 broadcast partially dramatized readings by the actor Robert Powell of "The Mezzotint", "The Ash-Tree", "Wailing Well", "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Rose Garden". In a similar vein, the BBC also produced a short series (M. R. James' Ghost Stories for Christmas) of further readings in 2000, which featured Christopher Lee as James, who (in character) read adaptations of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", "The Ash-tree", "Number 13" and "A Warning to the Curious".
The 1970s Ghost Story for Christmas tradition was briefly revived in December 2005, when BBC Four broadcast a new version of James's story "A View from a Hill", with "Number 13" following in December 2006. These were broadly faithful to the originals and were quite well received. A heavily revised version of Whistle and I'll Come to You was broadcast by BBC Two on Christmas Eve 2010.
All the BBC adaptations made between 1968 and 2010 have been released in October 2011 as a five-disc boxed set in PAL format in Australia only by Shock DVD, as "The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James". The release will also feature Christopher Lee's reading of James' stories from 2000.
In January 1981, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an Afternoon Play called "The Hex", written by Gregory Evans and loosely based on "Casting the Runes", starring Conrad Phillips and Kim Hartman. The play was subsequently transmitted, in translation, in several other countries.
In 1997–1998 Radio 4 broadcast The Late Book: Ghost Stories, a series of 15-minute readings of M. R. James stories, abridged and produced by Paul Kent and narrated by Benjamin Whitrow (repeated on BBC 7, December 2003–January 2004, September–October 2004, February 2007, October–November 2011). The stories were "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book", "Lost Hearts", "A School Story", "The Haunted Dolls' House" and "Rats".
In the 1980s, a series of four double audio cassettes was released by Argo Records, featuring nineteen unabridged James stories narrated by Michael Hordern. The tapes were titled Ghost Stories (1982), More Ghost Stories (1984), A Warning to the Curious (1985) and No. 13 and Other Ghost Stories (1988). ISIS Audio Books also released two collections of unabridged James stories, this time narrated by Nigel Lambert. These tapes were titled A Warning to the Curious and Other Tales (four audio cassettes, six stories, March 1992) and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (three audio cassettes, eight stories, December 1992).
In Spring 2007 UK-based Craftsman Audio Books released the first complete set of audio recordings of James's stories on CD, spread across two volumes and read by David Collings. The ghost story author Reggie Oliver acted as consultant on the project.
April 2007 also saw the release of Tales of the Supernatural, Volume One, an audiobook presentation by Fantom Films, featuring the James stories "Lost Hearts" read by Geoffrey Bayldon, "Rats" and "Number 13" by Ian Fairbairn, with Gareth David-Lloyd reading "Casting the Runes" and "There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard". Volume Two was to follow in the summer.
Over the 2007 Christmas period Radio 4 revived the tradition of James's ghost stories for the festive period with a series of adaptations of his most popular tales. Each lasted around 15 minutes and was introduced by Derek Jacobi as James himself. Due to the short running times the tales were fairly rushed, with much of the stories condensed or removed. Stories adapted included "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", "Number 13" and "Lost Hearts".
As of 2010 the audiobooks site LibriVox offers a set of audio readings (available as free downloads) under the collective heading "Ghost Stories of an Antiquary".
The only notable film version of James's work to date has been the British adaptation of "Casting the Runes" by Jacques Tourneur as Night of the Demon (1957; U.S. title The Curse of the Demon), starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis. Another looser adaptation of "Casting the Runes" borrowing elements from the earlier film is Sam Raimi's 2009 film, Drag Me to Hell. The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960) appears to[weasel words] quote the padlocked coffin scene from "Count Magnus", while Michele Soavi's 1989 film La Chiesa (The Church)—which features a script co-authored by Dario Argento—borrows the motif of the "stone with seven eyes", as well as a few other important details, from "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas".
In 2006–2007, Nunkie Theatre Company toured A Pleasing Terror round the UK and Ireland. This one-man show was an atmospheric retelling of two of James's tales, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" and "The Mezzotint". In October 2007, a sequel, Oh, Whistle..., comprising "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" and "The Ash-tree", began to tour the UK. A third James performance, A Warning to the Curious, comprising the eponymous story and "Lost Hearts", began touring the UK in October 2009. Although Nunkie's Robert Lloyd Parry said in 2009 that the last would probably be his final M. R. James tour, he continued to tour the three aforementioned productions in subsequent years; and in 2012 he announced a fourth production, Count Magnus (consisting of "Count Magnus" and "Number 13"), to premiere on 28 September of that year.
In the summer of 2011, the Crusade Theatre Company toured a new stage adaptation of "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" in England.
The composer Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji wrote two pieces for piano with a link to James: Quaere reliqua hujus materiei inter secretiora (1940), inspired by "Count Magnus", and St. Bertrand de Comminges: "He was laughing in the tower" (1941), inspired by "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book".
H. Russell Wakefield's story "He Cometh and He Passeth By!" (1928) is a homage to James' "Casting the Runes".
Between 1976 and 1992, Sheila Hodgson authored and produced for BBC Radio 4 a series of plays which portrayed M. R. James as the diarist of a series of fictional ghost stories, mainly inspired by fragments referred to in his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write". These consisted of Whisper in the Ear (October 1976), Turn, Turn, Turn (March 1977), The Backward Glance (22 September 1977), Here Am I, Where Are You? (29 December 1977), Echoes from the Abbey (21 November 1984), The Lodestone (19 April 1989), and The Boat Hook (15 April 1992). David March appeared as James in all but the final two, which starred Michael Williams. Raidió Teilifís Éireann also broadcast The Fellow Travellers, with Aiden Grennell as James, on 20 February 1994. All the stories later appeared in Hodgson's collection The Fellow Travellers and Other Ghost Stories (Ash-Tree Press, 1998).
On Christmas Day 1987, "The Teeth of Abbot Thomas", an MRJ parody by Stephen Sheridan, was broadcast on Radio 4. It starred Alfred Marks (as Abbot Thomas), Robert Bathurst, Denise Coffey, Jonathan Adams and Bill Wallis.
In 2003, Radio 4 broadcast The House at World's End by Stephen Sheridan. A pastiche of James's work, it contained numerous echoes of his stories while offering a fictional account of how he became interested in the supernatural. James was played by John Rowe, with Jonathan Keeble playing James's younger self.
In 2008 the English experimental neofolk duo The Triple Tree, featuring Tony Wakeford and Andrew King from Sol Invictus, released the album Ghosts on which all but three songs were based upon the stories of James. One of the songs, "Three Crowns" (based on the short story "A Warning to the Curious"), also appeared on the compilation album John Barleycorn Reborn (2007).
In February 2012, the UK psychedelic band The Future Kings of England released their 4th album, Who Is This Who Is Coming, based on James's "Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad". An instrumental work, it evokes the story from beginning to end, with the tracks seguing into one another to form a continuous piece of music.
In August 2013, The Fan Museum in London announced a performance, on 25 and 26 October 2013, of The Laws of Shadows a new play by Adrian Drew about M. R. James. The play is set in James's rooms at Cambridge University and deals with his relationships with his colleague E. F. Benson and the young artist James McBryde.
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Augustus Austen Leigh
|Provost of King's College, Cambridge|
|Provost of Eton|
Lord Hugh Cecil