Category Archive 'M.R. James'

31 Oct 2016

M.R. James, the Greatest Writer of Ghost Stories


M.R. James, 1862-1936

For Halloween, Neil Clark offers an introduction to the Antiquarian Ghost Stories of M.R. James:

James died 80 years ago, in June 1936, just three years before the outbreak of World War II. Barring three that appeared in magazines later, all his ghost stories were published in one collection in 1931. And what a volume it is! “Do I believe in ghosts?” James asks in the introduction. “To which I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.”

Montague Rhodes James was the son of an Anglican curate and educated at Eton, England’s most prestigious public school, and King’s College Cambridge, where he studied classics. He didn’t stray too far from these two historic educational institutions in his adult life. He spent 36 years living at King’s, where he was at various points dean, tutor, and then provost. When he was in his mid-fifties, he accepted the provostship of Eton.

It’s been claimed that what James was really terrified of was not ghosts and ghouls but progress. His stories, we’re told, are all about keeping the modern world at bay.

Well, James was a medievalist, paleographer, and biblical scholar, so it’s reasonable to assume he had a particular affinity for the past. But 21st-century hipsters who pass on him because they believe James is too old-fashioned for the iPhone age and consequently has nothing to say to us are missing something really special.

While he may have spent most of his life in a cloistered environment, James was anything but blinkered. He traveled extensively—by bicycle—in Britain and in Europe. The man who became the world’s leading authority on Apocryphal literature and who claimed to have visited all but two of the cathedrals in France was interested in new things too—in his final days his sister Grace revealed that he took great delight in “a radio-gramophone of the latest type,” which his friends had bought him.

Monty James was a convivial sort, as pipe-smokers usually are, and seems to have got on well with almost everybody. His stories are often disturbing, but James himself, despite later claims that he was a repressed homosexual, seems to have been a cheerful soul. He possessed a good sense of humor and was still chuckling away even when he was dying of cancer. He took a lot of things seriously, but, most importantly, not himself. “Do you know, I have written an immense deal of stuff and find myself almost incurably frivolous,” he said in his later life.

Many of James’s stories were first told to his pupils and students, who adored him, in front of a roaring log fire in his study at the old Provost’s Lodge at King’s.

The Encyclopedia of Horror tells us that James established three simple rules for his ghost stories.

Firstly, the ghosts had to be evil. If you want comical spirits who make us laugh, then James is not your man—try H.G. Wells’s The Inexperienced Ghost or just watch Ghostbusters. “Must there be horror? you ask. I think so … you must have horror and also malevolence,” James wrote in 1931.

Secondly, there had to be no “unnecessary occult verbiage” by way of explanation. James’s second name was Rhodes, but the “R” could equally have stood for reticence, which he believed was “not less necessary” an ingredient than horror and malevolence.

Finally, the stories had to be set in everyday surroundings so that the reader believes the same thing could happen to him. Most of James’s hauntings take place in the recent past. “It cannot be said too often that the more remote in time the ghost is the harder it is to make him effective,” James explained.

Read the whole thing.

A sample story: Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

20 Dec 2012

A Description of M.R. James

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Montagu Rhodes James (1862-1936), Provost of Kings College 1905-1918 and of Eton 1918-1936.

The hero of Shane Leslie’s “The Cantab” (1926) is matriculating at King’s College, and having forgotten the name of the college’s Provost attempts to get the Dean to mention his name:

“Again Edward sought a line on the mysterious Provost. How was he to know and venerate him? The Dean answered, ‘The Provost is essentially himself. Though a Deacon, he has reformed this College and made it tolerable to a layman. He knows all the ghost stories of the last thousand years. He walks in the paths of medieval Apocrypha and finds relaxation in obscure Hagiology. You may overhear him humming the Archbishops of York backwards, or counting the Spanish Cathedrals in feet. He is likely to be consulted when those Books are opened with which we are threatened on the last day.’ The Dean leaned back with a grey smile.”

24 Aug 2011

Political Advice

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In the late Montague Rhodes James‘ memoir of his time at school and university, Eton and King’s (1926), James remembers in particular Mrs. Ann Smith, an elderly college servant at King’s College, who tidied up college rooms and made the students’ beds for them.

James describes her as “tall and austere in aspect,” but with a gift for “noteworthy speech” and prone to apply the mot juste. Mrs. Smith was also evidently capable of penetrating political acumen.

“Politics, I don’t think she studied much, but after a General Election she has said to me, ‘Well Sir, simple as I am, I’ve always heard there was never better times than when the Conservatives was in power.'”

M.R. James, in later years

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