Montague Rhodes James, OM, MA, (1 August 1862 – 12 June 1936), who used the publication name M. R. James, was an English 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, 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 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. The university provides settings for several of his tales. Apart from mediaeval 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 mediaeval 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:
- a characterful setting in an English village, seaside town or country estate; an ancient town in France, Denmark or Sweden; or a venerable abbey or university
- a nondescript and rather naive gentleman-scholar as protagonist (often of a reserved nature)
- the discovery of an old book or other antiquarian object that somehow unlocks, calls down the wrath, or at least attracts the unwelcome attention of a supernatural menace, usually from beyond the grave
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 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 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'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."
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 1952 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.
In 1975 Yorkshire Television produced a twenty-minute adaptation of "Mr Humphreys and His 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. 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 will be released on BBC DVD in Australia in October 2011. The release will also feature Christopher Lee's reading of James' stories from 2000.
Radio and audio
On 19 November 1947, the thirteenth episode of the CBS radio series Escape was an adaptation of "Casting the Runes".
On 12 January 1974, the CBS Radio Mystery Theater, hosted by E. G. Marshall, presented the episode "This will Kill You", which was an updated, loose adaptation of "Casting the Runes".
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. The Brides of Dracula (Terence Fisher, 1960) appears to 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".
The first stage version of "Casting the Runes" was performed at the Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds, England, on 9–10 June 2006 by the Pandemonium Theatre Company.
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. The final part of Nunkie's M. R. James trilogy, A Warning to the Curious, comprising the eponymous story and "Lost Hearts", will begin touring the UK in October 2009. Nunkie's Robert Lloyd Parry has said that it will probably be his last M. R. James tour.
In 2011, production began on a brand-new stage adaptation of 'Whistle and I'll Come to You' based on the story by M.R. James. It will be touring the UK this Summer.
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. 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. Other writers in the Jamesian tradition include A. N. L. Munby, E. G. Swain, and R. H. Malden, although their stories are generally considered to be inferior to those of James himself. 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.
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.
Works inspired by James
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".
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).
- Apocrypha Anecdota. 1893–1897.
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge University Press, 1895. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108003964
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Jesus College. Clay and Sons, 1895. Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9781108003513
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Peterhouse. Cambridge University Press, 1899. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108003070
- The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Emmanuel College. Cambridge University Press, 1904. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108003087
- The Western Manuscripts in the Library of Trinity College. 4 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1904. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108002882
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1905. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108000284
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Gonville and Caius College. 2 vols. Cambridge University Press, 1907. Reissued by the publisher, 2009; ISBN 9781108002486
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1912. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108004855
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Manuscripts in the Library of St John's College, Cambridge. Cambridge University Press, 1913. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108003100
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the McClean Collection of Manuscripts in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Cambridge University Press, 1913. Reissued by the publisher, 2009. ISBN 9781108003094
- The Biblical Antiquities of Philo. 1917.
- Henry the Sixth: A Reprint of John Blacman's Memoir. 1919.
- The Wanderings and Homes of Manuscripts. 1919.
- The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament. 1920.
- A Descriptive Catalogue of the Library of Samuel Pepys. Sidgwick and Jackson, 1923. Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9781108002059
- The Apocryphal New Testament. 1924.
- Lists of manuscripts formerly in Peterborough Abbey library: with preface and identifications. Oxford University Press, 1926. Reissued by Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 9781108011358
- The Apocalypse in Art. Schweich Lectures for 1927.
- The Bestiary: Being a Reproduction in Full of the Manuscript Ii.4.26 in the University Library, Cambridge. Printed for the Roxburghe club, by John Johnson at the University Press, 1928.
- Descriptive Catalogues of the Manuscripts in the Libraries of Some Cambridge Colleges. Cambridge University Press, 2009. ISBN 9781108002585
- New and Old at Cambridge' article on the Cambridge of 1882. 'Fifty Years', various contributors, Thornton Butterworth,1932
First book publications
- The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James. 1931.
- Best Ghost Stories of M. R. James. 1944.
- The Ghost Stories of M. R. James. 1986. Selection by Michael Cox, including an excellent introduction with numerous photographs.
- Two Ghost Stories: A Centenary. 1993.
- The Fenstanton Witch and Others: M. R. James in Ghosts and Scholars. 1999.
- A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings. 2001.
- Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. 2005. Edited, with an introduction and notes, by S. T. Joshi.
- The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories. 2006. Edited, with an introduction and notes, by S. T. Joshi.
- Abbeys. 1926.
- Suffolk and Norfolk. 1930.
- The Five Jars. 1920.
- As translator: Forty-Two Stories, by Hans Christian Andersen, translated and with an introduction by M. R. James. 1930.
- ^ James, Montague Rhodes in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.
- ^ M. R. James. "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories". The Bookman, December 1929.
- ^ Punter, "The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day", Vol. II, "Modern Gothic", p. 86.
- ^ Pardoe, Rosemary (2000). "The Lost Will of Dr Rant (TV play)". Ghosts & Scholars. http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/RevsArchive.html#anchor53786. Retrieved 1 March 2010.
- ^ "Casting the Runes". http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0492874/.
- ^ http://www.ezydvd.com.au/DVD/complete-ghost-stories-of-mr-james-the-5-disc-box-set/dp/821269
- ^ M.R. James Events Reviews at www.users.globalnet.co.uk
- ^ BBC Suffolk feature at www.bbc.co.uk/suffolk
- ^ "Crusade Theatre Company". http://www.crusadetheatre.co.uk/.
- ^ Introduction to Joshi, S. T. (editor). Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303939-3
- ^ Preface to Campbell, Ramsey (editor). Meddling with Ghosts: Stories in the Tradition of M. R. James. The British Library, 2002. ISBN 0-71-231125-4
- ^ Pardoe, Rosemary (30 August 2007). "M. R. James on TV, Radio and Film". Ghosts and Scholars. http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/MediaList.html. Retrieved 30 September 2009.
- ^ http://www.discogs.com/Triple-Tree-Ghosts/release/1482003
- ^ http://www.discogs.com/Various-John-Barleycorn-Reborn/release/1070437
- ^ Corpus Christi College Cambridge: The Parker Library at www.corpus.cam.ac.uk
- Bleiler, E. F. The Checklist of Fantastic Literature. Shasta Publishers, 1948.
- Cox, Michael. M. R. James: An Informal Portrait. Oxford University Press, 1983. ISBN 0-19-211765-3.
- James, M. R. A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings, ed. Christopher Roden and Barbara Roden. Ash-Tree Press, 2001. ISBN 1-55310-024-7.
- Joshi, S.T. Introductions to Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories. Penguin Classics, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303939-3 and The Haunted Dolls' House and Other Ghost Stories. Penguin Classics, 2006. ISBN 0-14-303992-X.
- Pfaff, Richard William. Montague Rhodes James. Scolar Press, 1980. (concentrates on his scholarly work)
- Sullivan, Jack. Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood. Ohio University Press, 1980. ISBN 0-8214-0374-5.
- Tolhurst, Peter. East Anglia—a Literary Pilgrimage. Black Dog Books, Bungay, 1996. ISBN 0-9528839-0-2. (pp. 99–101).
- Wagenknecht, Edward. Seven Masters of Supernatural Fiction. Greenwood Press, 1991. ISBN 0-313-27960-8.
- Peter Haining, M. R. James - Book of the Supernatural. (1979) Introduction by Sir John Betjeman Articles and rare items about MRJ. (ISBN 0-572-01048-6)