Classic Crime

M.R. James

MONTAGUE RHODES JAMES was born in Goodnestone Parsonage in the village of Goodnestone, near Canterbury, Kent, on August 1st, 1862. Educated at home until the age of eleven, in 1875 he was awarded a scholarship to Eton College, where he became one of the foremost scholars of his generation, distinguishing himself in Divinity, the Classics and French.

After moving to King’s College, Cambridge, he decided not to follow the family tradition of joining either the clergy or military but to stay in academia, and his career progressed rapidly. ‘Monty’, as he was affectionately known to his many friends and admirers, served as Fellow, Dean and Tutor before, in May 1905, he became Provost of King’s. In September 1918 he accepted the Provostship of Eton, where he remained until his death.

M.R. James did not start writing fiction until he was in his early thirties, when he originally conceived the idea of his now-celebrated ‘antiquarian ghost stories’ as Christmas entertainments, to be read aloud at gatherings of friends and fellow members of Cambridge’s select Chit-Chat Club.

After having been invited to write a story to read to the gathered assembly, James in fact concocted two tales – ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ and ‘Lost Hearts’ – which he first presented to an appreciative audience at the weekly meeting on October 28th, 1893. He was asked to repeat his performance each year, ideally on Christmas Eve.

‘Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo,’ he later explained. ‘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.’

James’ friends had been urging him for years to publish his ghost stories in book form and, although initially disinclined to the idea, he did eventually agree to have them collected in four hardcover editions.

The first, ‘Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary’, contained eight stories and was published in November 1904 to some somewhat lukewarm reviews.

‘The second volume, ‘More Ghost Stories’, appeared in 1911,’ explained the author. ‘Some years ago I promised to publish a second volume of ghost stories when a sufficient number of them should have been accumulated. That time has arrived, and here is the volume.’

This second collection did much to enhance James’ reputation as a writer of supernatural fiction, and his celebrity admirers included Arthur Machen, Montague Summers, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Houseman, Theodore Roosevelt and even the Prince of Wales.

It was followed by ‘A Thin Ghost and Others’ in 1919 and a fourth collection, ‘A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories’, in 1925.

The first omnibus edition of the author’s short stories, ‘The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, appeared in both Britain and America 1931. As the author explained in his Preface: ‘I am told they have given pleasure of a certain sort to my readers: if so, my whole object in writing them has been attained.’

Montague Rhodes James was awarded the British Commonwealth’s prestigious Order of Merit in June 1930. He was a confirmed bachelor and never married, preferring his life of academia, and he died peacefully in his lodge on Friday, June 12th, 1936 at the age of 73. He was buried in Eton town cemetery three days later.

Review: Curious Warnings

I guess my favourite M.R. James story is ‘A Warning to the Curious’, simply because I find it the most quintessential of all the author’s supernatural fiction.

It has the desolate coastal setting, the narrative-within-a-narrative structure, a legendary ‘cursed object’ (in this case an ancient holy crown) and the hint of something very nasty indeed seeking revenge for being disturbed:

And there were tracks on the sand as of someone running who wore shoes; and there were other tracks made before those – for the shoes sometimes trod in them and interfered with them – of someone not in shoes . . . All we could do was to notice these marks as we hurried on. But there they were over and over again, and we had no doubt whatever that what we saw was the track of a bare foot, and one that showed more bones than flesh.

If you were to read just one James story, then this is the one that I would recommend, simply because it has within it everything that defines his work and makes it quite so unique.

Of course, he used these elements (with different variations) in other stories, most notably one of his best-known works, ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. In that story, instead of a crown, the cursed object that brings forth the vengeful revenant is a bronze whistle, which the antiquarian protagonist discovers hidden in some coastal ruins.

He soon finds himself being pursued by a flapping apparition that had ‘a horrible, an intensely horrible, face of crumpled linen.’

Once again, James merely sketches in the horror and allows the reader’s imagination to do the rest.

A very different kind of Jamesian story is ‘Count Magnus’, which is more along the lines of a traditional macabre tale as its protagonist is menaced by an almost vampire-like alchemist and the thing that he brought back with him from the Black Pilgrimage.

There are further hints of vampirism in ‘An Episode of Cathedral History’, as the moving of a church pulpit releases something long-dead, while the shambling horrors encountered in ‘Rats’ and ‘Wailing Well’ are more akin to the traditional zombie.

Of course, possibly James’ most famous story is ‘Casting the Runes’, a timeless tale of occult revenge, which was filmed in 1957 as ‘Night of the Demon’ (aka Curse of the Demon) and has frequently been adapted for radio and television.

Earlier this year, Britain’s Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp of the ‘Cambridge academic and author of chilling ghost stories’ as part of its ‘Britons of Distinction’ set, which just so happened to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the author’s birth.

Despite their somewhat archaic language and dry protagonists, James’ antiquarian ghost stories are as popular and influential today as when they were first published, more than eighty years ago.

It was an honour to compile ‘Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James’, and I truly hope that the book will introduce the author’s work to a whole new generation of readers, who will discover for themselves that the most disturbing horror fiction does not always have to be the most explicit.

STEPHEN JONES lives in London, England. He is the winner of three World Fantasy Awards, four Horror Writers Association Bram Stoker Awards and three International Horror Guild Awards as well as being a twenty-one time recipient of the British Fantasy Award and a Hugo Award nominee. A former television producer/director and genre movie publicist and consultant (the first three Hellraiser movies, Nightbreed, Split Second etc.), he has written and edited more than 120 books, including A Book of Horrors, Coraline: A Visual Companion, Horror: 100 Best Books and Horror: Another 100 Best Books (both with Kim Newman) and the Dark Terrors, Dark Voices and The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror series. You can visit his web site at

Copyright © Stephen Jones 2012

Reviewed by: S.J.

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