Montague Rhodes James, OM, MA, (August 1, 1862 – June 12, 1936), who used the publication name M. R. James, was a noted British mediaeval scholar and provost of King's College, Cambridge (1905–1918) and of Eton College (1918–1936). He is best remembered for his ghost stories in the classic 19th century Yuletide vein, which are widely regarded as among the finest in English literature.
He catalogued many of the manuscript libraries of the Cambridge and Oxford 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. The fact that he was not a "dry" scholar is shown 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 perfected a method of story-telling which has since become known as Jamesian. The classic Jamesian tale usually includes the following key elements:
According to James, the story must "put the reader into the position of saying to himself: 'If I'm not careful, something of this kind may happen to me!'" He also perfected the literary technique of the genre: narrating supernatural events principally 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."
A further important point he made was: "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 drugged by a sinister dabbler in the occult who then removes their hearts from their paralysed 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' 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."
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 actual beliefs about ghosts were ambiguous. He wrote, "I answer that I am prepared to consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me."
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. "Casting the Runes" was also adapted for television in 1979 as an episode of the ITV Playhouse series.
From 1971 to 1978 the BBC broadcast a new ghost story each Christmas in a 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).
In 1975 Yorkshire Television produced a twenty-minute adaptation of "Mr Humphrey's Inheritance" for schools. In 1979 they produced a contemporary version of "Casting the Runes", with Lawrence Gordon Clark directing.
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.
Towards the end of the 1980s the BBC producer Sheila Hodgson authored and produced a series of plays for BBC Radio 4 which innovatively cast M. R. James as the diarist of a series of fictional ghost stories inspired by fragments referred to in his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write". The actor Michael Williams appeared in some of these as M. R. James. Many of these are believed lost owing to the BBC's pre-2000 policy of not keeping copies of broadcast radio drama.
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). The stories were "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", "Lost Hearts", "A School Story", "The Haunted Dolls' House" and "Rats".
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 his younger self.
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 M.R. James's ghost stories for the festive period with a series of adaptations of his most popular tales. Each lasted around 15 minutes and were introduced by Derek Jacobi as James himself. Due to the short running times the tales were fairy rushed with much of the story condensed or removed. Stories adapted included: Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, Number 13 and Lost Hearts.
The only notable film version of James's work to date has been the highly influential British adaptation of "Casting the Runes" by Jacques Tourneur as Night of the Demon (1957; U.S. title Curse of the Demon). The film is generally considered one of the high points of the British horror film, if not, indeed, of British Cinema generally.
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.
Sir John Betjeman, in an introduction to Peter Haining's book about James, shows how influenced he was by Dr 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.