M.R. James’ ghost stories have been making people wary of the dark for well over a century now. James helped usher in a new era of horror, taking literature beyond the gothic ghost stories which came before, and in a real sense, brought contemporary situations to horror. Even if his protagonists led lives not shared by most members of society, then or now, British or otherwise, the fear translates.
M.R. James was born Montague Rhodes James in 1862, the son of a cleric, and went on to become a scholar of medieval literature, specializing in ancient Christian and British historic manuscripts, as well as becoming Vice Chancellor at Cambridge and Provost of King’s College and Eton. Despite his success as an author of horror stories, academia was his world.
His friends called him Monty, and he was by many accounts the formal British gentleman and scholar portrayed in so many cliched forms over the past hundred years. But quirksome and with a mischievous glint in his eye, he had more P.G. Wodehouse about him than Downton Abbey. Despite not showing any proclivities towards vices or even the ladies other than as a friend – for all we know he died a virgin at the age of 73 – one area in which he strayed from his strict religious upbringing and moralistic surroundings was a love of ghost stories.
He was very fond of entertaining, friends, colleagues and students alike, which were usually men, as was to be expected from someone in his position. This has led to much speculation about his sexuality, which misses the point of James. Simply put, he didn’t put his sexuality out there, because he didn’t think it relevant. When it came to ghost stories, he didn’t care to blend sex with horror. Writing of other horror authors, James said “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.”
Nor have I with the speculation on James’ sexuality. Of all the horrors he wrote about, the modern tendency to look for clues to his personal life would likely horrify him most.
It’s doubtful that M.R. James considered himself a horror writer, but instead a scholar. For M.R. James, ghost stories were something he did to entertain others, as well as himself. James was known to push the boundaries of his mind and talents. Even as he downplayed the results. Writing in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James writes “Few people can resist the temptation to try a little amateur research in a department quite outside their own, if only for the satisfaction of showing how successful they would have been had they only taken it up seriously.”
As a scholar, James was brilliant, one of the best alive in his time. Yet he didn’t look down on others, and through his ghost stories, he managed to speak to people in a way that connected, in language direct as well as elegant. You don’t feel spoken down to reading an M.R. James ghost story.
How the tradition of reading an M.R. James ghost story at Christmas began
When M.R. James was 31 and a lecturer at Cambridge college, he was a member of the Chitchat Society. The group was comprised of scholars and associates of King’s College at Cambridge as well as Trinity College, for the purpose of “the promotion of rational conversation.” According to the minutes book, The Chitchat Club aimed to achieve this “by the intellectual discussion of an original paper read by the member in whose rooms they had met.” They met regularly, to discuss literature and other interesting topics, imbibe a bit and cut loose as only 19th century scholars could.
It was late in 1893 that M.R. James read his first ghost story to the Chitchat Society, Canon Albert’s Scrapbook, or as it was called at the time, A Curious Read. It was a hit from the start, and as the years went by, the author reading his stories aloud became a tradition, particularly when he started reading the tales at Christmas. It’s one of the tragedies of the modern age that we’ve lost this habit of reading aloud. It’s a performance that any literate person can share in, and much of literature was meant to be read this way. But it requires patience, sitting quietly, and it takes longer to read aloud than silently to one’s self. But the results are worth it.
James didn’t invent the idea of reading ghost stories at Christmas. That practice even predated Dickens which predated James. Few of James’ Christmas ghost stories are even set in the holidays. But he perfected the ghost story, and his Christmas readings at the Chitchat club and later in whatever position he held became legendary. Oliffe Richmond was in the audience at least once and wrote of what he saw. Following dinner, the group would move to James’ personal quarters and then “Monty disappeared into his bedroom. We sat and waited in the candlelight… “Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light.”
It was the popularity of M.R. James ghost stories told at these gatherings, and a desire to help the career of a young illustrator that persuaded the author to publish his first collection. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary appeared in 1904, and little could James have known that he had sealed his place in popular culture for all time, and not just the tiny ripple of scholarly advancement and continuity he had hoped to make in academic quarters.
Ghost and more in the stories of M.R. James
M.R. James downplayed the importance of his ghost stories. He wrote that “The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of them 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.”
Though his plots and ideas resonated with the common man, his protagonists tended to be scholars and antiquarians, earning him the title of the father of the antiquarian ghost story, a field of writing which grew increasingly popular.
The concept of lost secrets and arcane knowledge, helped bring to life the work of another horror author, H.P. Lovecraft who was greatly influenced by M.R. James’ ghost stories. Writing in 1927 in an essay, Supernatural Horror in Literature, Lovecraft writes “Montague Rhodes James has an intelligent and scientific knowledge of human nerves and feelings; and knows just how to apportion statement, imagery, and subtle suggestions in order to secure the best results with his readers.”
Like Lovecraft, many of James’ stories don’t deal with ghosts at all, but instead invoke horror and terror through secret, sometimes invisible agents. In some even, the source of terror was nothing more than an object.
James dispensed of some of the more gothic elements, which helps to make his writing cleaner, as well as shorter, though he was himself a fan of some gothic horror writers.
Instead he put his somewhat unique characters in ordinary settings, which many of us can and do find ourselves. In that manner, it’s possible to feel what his characters feel. The stoic, formal British character, the stiff upper lip is often tested by the weird, the grotesque, pushing at them to accept that all is not as as they believe. As their formal British facade crumbles in the face of the unknowable, the result is sheer terror. For it’s not just physical danger which defines the horror, but the loss of self, the crumbling of the psyche.
Or as Clark Ashton Smith wrote in 1934, “The peculiar genius of M. R. James, and his greatest power, lies in the convincing evocation of weird, malignant and preternatural phenomena such as I have instanced. It is safe to say that few writers, dead or living, have equaled him in this formidable necromancy and perhaps no one has excelled him.”
M.R. James’ ghost stories are known for fanatical attention to detail, his ability to describe a setting in perfect detail. When the horror comes the detail gives way to an open ended description, perfect for you to get the idea, but allow your imagination to fill in the details. As Shirley Jackson proved in The Haunting of Hill House, or even Stephen King has toyed with, nothing an author can write can terrify as much as our own thoughts, creating the face of the monster out of our own individual fears.
M.R. James’ ghost stories can be equally entertaining to read for their description of the English countryside, or his character studies, just as much as for the elements of horror. It’s that balance of light and dark, the dichotomy of the pastoral settings, the quirky British tendency that even if things are as they should be, they aren’t quite right, that sets James apart from his contemporaries. And it’s his light touch, his skilled use of language that further set him apart as the master.
M.R. James and his techniques of terror
“I heard one cry in the night, and I heard one laugh afterwards. If I cannot forget that, I shall not be able to sleep again.”
M.R. James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
Perhaps it could be said that M.R. James was the first modern horror writer. If you read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Bram Stoker’s Dracula even, though both contain moments of pure terror, there are so many paths branching out in different directions that the sense of horror is seldom overbearing.
M.R. James’ ghost stories hurtle along towards the inevitable, horrifying conclusion with very little wasted language and few elements that let the mind stray elsewhere.
“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.”
The terrors that M.R. James introduced were different than the ghost stories of the past. Dickens, in his own classic Christmas ghost story, A Christmas Carol, managed to tell of the supernatural in a way which provoked little fear. Perhaps because we don’t identify with Scrooge, his miserly ways are beyond most of us. Though Ebenezer experiences sheer terror, we’re rooting for the ghosts in that tale.
James dispensed of the moralizing and went for the jugular. It was his intention to scare the shit out of his audiences.
Lovecraft wrote in a letter to Emil Petaja in 1935, that “M.R. James joins the brisk, the light, & the commonplace to the weird about as well as anyone could do it — but if another tried the same method, the chances would be ten to one against him. The most valuable element in him — as a model — is his way of weaving a horror into the every-day fabric of life & history — having it grow naturally out of the myriad conditions of an ordinary environment…”
Even when writing literary criticisms on the horror genre, James has an amazing skill with language … “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.”
James famously wrote that “A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself: “If I’m not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!”
James didn’t shy from the gruesome. In the story, Lost Hearts he writes of children having their still beating hearts carved from their chest after being given sanctuary in the country house of an eccentric English gentleman who pursued immortality through the occult. He could write the macabre, the gruesome and based many of his creatures descriptions and other horrors on the ancient manuscripts which he studied. “At first you saw only a mass of coarse, matted black hair; presently it was seen that this covered a body of fearful thinness, almost a skeleton, but with the muscles standing out like wires. The hands were of a dusky pallor, covered, like the body, with long, coarse hairs, and hideously taloned. The eyes, touched in with a burning yellow, had intensely black pupils, and were fixed upon the throned King with a look of beast-like hate. Imagine one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human, and you will have some faint conception of the terror inspired by the appalling effigy.”
What makes a Jamesian ghost story?
James work has proved so popular that he has many imitators, and few if any equals.
His stories were usually set in a village or country manor, typically Britain but sometimes as well on the European continent. Often the setting is a college or university, or even the seaside. Usually there is some reason why the characters find themselves isolated and alone, even if there are others nearby. His settings are easily explained as these were the places he knew well.
His characters were typically men, mainly clerics or scholars, again drawing on what he knew best. They tend to be somewhat oblivious to their surroundings. A seaside visitor might be so enraptured by the scenery as to miss several omens, and find himself wandering into danger without realizing it, even as the reader sees the horrifying steps before the protagonist takes them.
Finally, there’s some arcane knowledge discovered. Often it’s a book, an object, a painting or sketch, a manuscript or even a message hidden inside a book that creates the mystery that draws in the scholar. They become so obsessed with solving the mystery that they ignore the dangers till it’s too late.
A Jamesian story moves inexorably towards its conclusion, the pitch rising continually higher. James himself wrote that “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.”
The legacy of M.R. James and the Christmas ghost story
M.R. James died peacefully in 1936 in his bedroom at Eton College. He lived his life in the confines of academia. He travelled Europe extensively, as well as his own country of Britain, often by bicycle.
During his lifetime, he released four collections of ghost stories. His popularity never waned, but beginning in 1968 with a BBC production of Whistle and I’ll Come to You, it took on a new twist.
The BBC continued the trend by producing M.R. James stories for Christmas, in a series titled A Ghost Story for Christmas, which led to five dramatizations of his tales in the seventies.
Then in 2000, also from the BBC, our era’s Count Dracula, Christopher Lee read a collection of stories, in the character of M.R. James, by candlelight at King’s College.
The popularity of those led to more Christmas ghost stories from the BBC since, including one for Christmas of 2019. And just as Dicken’s Christmas ghost story led to a resurgence of Christmas traditions, so has James’ stories led to a revival of the tradition of ghost stories during the holidays.
M.R. James was the definition of a gentleman and a scholar
It always surprises me to hear of women being fans of M.R. James. It’s true that the horror in his stories is universal. But the characters, based on the types of people he knew best were usually male. Particularly the main characters. Unlike for instance, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s tales of Sherlock Holmes, which was another conservative British bachelor scholar, before the movies sexed him up this past decade, the adaptation of James’ stories are still cloaked in that masculine, academic realm.
It’s a testimony to the sheer horror, the terror of M.R. James ghost stories that the appeal is universal.
There’s an appeal to that kind of lifestyle. At several points in my own life, I’ve sworn off the comforts and curses of romantic love, and felt assured that lost in my own pursuits, both scholarly and antiquarian, I could live out my days more contentedly than in the fervent swelling of youth. But like a character from one of James’ stories, I too missed the warning signs and finally have found myself in the clutches of that most unknown and unknowable creature. The right woman.
James never gave away his secret, how he felt about ghosts, whether he believed or not. All he said on the subject was “I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.” But he did allude in an unpublished work written near his death to an experience as a child which may have made him a believer.
But like his sexuality, there is no need to understand the man to understand his gift. As he himself wrote, “God never labels his gifts; He just puts them into our hands.” Perhaps James did believe in the supernatural, but that misses the point. James knew fear, and the possibility that there is more to this world than meets the eye. That’s all he needed to know to create some of the greatest horror stories in the canon.
James left a lot to the reader’s imagination, and so as we read his tales, together we create horrors that are unique to each of us. As for the mysteries of James himself, for those who care, the answer can be summed up I his own words … “The reader must judge for himself.”