Fright night

9th December 2005 at 00:00
MR James remains the master of the ghost story - especially at Christmas, as Jerome Monahan explains

October 28, 1893 the Chitchat Society, a literary club open to members of Kings and Trinity College, Cambridge, held its 601st meeting. Eleven people were present and the evening's key event was the reading of two ghost stories. Their author was the recently appointed dean of Kings, Montague Rhodes James, and the tales he told were "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook" and "Lost Hearts".

So far so esoteric, but it is fair to say that with those stories a new age of supernatural fiction was born. The stories were the first in a succession of disturbing, unsettling narratives that James took delight in preparing to be read to gatherings of his students in his chambers at Christmas, and later for pupils at Eton, where he would end his days as provost. They found a broader audience thanks to their publication in four collections, the first two, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911) entirely eligible for key stages 34 as works of literature before the First World War. James's Collected Ghost Stories was published in 1931, five years before his death. They have never been out of print since.

That James should choose Christmas to entertain his friends with spooky tales puts him in a long literary tradition, fitting for dark, cold nights, warm fires and deep shadows beyond the candle-light. "A sad tale's best for Winter; I have oneof sprites and goblinsI There was a man Dwelt by a churchyard: I will tell it softly..." says Shakespeare's Mamilius (A Winter's Tale, Act II Scene 1). In fact it is just this tale that James takes it upon himself to complete in 1924, one of his last batch, and Christmas features in a number of his other tales too, for example in "The Story of an Appearance and A Disappearance" (1913) in which the narrator forgoes the pleasure of family celebrations to investigate the grim circumstances of his Uncle Henry's vanishing.

There are more prosaic reasons to link this time of year with ghost literature. As Tony Lythe points out in his introduction to his York Notes on the Mystery Stories of the Nineteenth Century (Longman), with the removal of taxes on printed material in the 1850s and the growth of literacy, a phenomenon accelerated by the 1870 Education Act, a vast hunger for sensational stories grew up. It was a market that magazines such as the Strand, All The Year Round and Household Words (the last two edited by Charles Dickens) emerged to cater for, winning huge readerships at Christmas when bumper holiday editions filled with ghostly tales proved very popular.

Not that James was a fan of much of this ghostly fiction, a good deal of it highly sentimental. He had very distinct ideas on what were the correct ingredients of the form, and wrote setting out his principles in prefaces to his collections and a number of key essays. For one thing he was a believer in the need for contemporary settings. His scholarly Oxbridge heroes scouring old bookshops, auctions, or libraries in some lonely East Anglian seaside town while on an out-of-season holiday may seem decidedly quaint to today's young readers. But they were a marked improvement on the18th- century travellers forced to stay in gothic, crumbling castles that still remained a feature of many late-Victorian tales that passed for scary. And it is just this prescription that presents a challenge to young writers today, to find modern equivalents to James's locations and protagonists.

James was also a believer in creating a slow, suspenseful build-up, leading to a ghastly crescendo. In one much-quoted passage from his introduction to a 1924 collection of stories, Ghosts and Marvels, he stipulates: "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." It is a useful formula for young writers tempted to bring their monsters too precipitately to the fore and, once having got them there, have them commit explicit, blood-soaked atrocities.

While James's creatures are quite capable of perpetrating horrors, it is their ominous, slowly encroaching menace that makes them so unpleasant.

Once they have fixed their attention on a particular character, often for no better reason than that he has found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, they are implacable in their pursuit and feral in their behaviour. Not for them the task of haunting the spot where they were wronged or bringing comfort to grieving relatives; a Jamesian ghost is a decaying, mad and malevolent thing. And they are no great respecters of personal body space either - the first encounter with them is more than likely to be through touch. The worst instance of this, arguably, being in the tale "Casting the Runes" (1911) when poor cursed Mr Dunning seeking his watch one night under his pillow finds something altogether different awaiting his fumbling fingers: "What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being."

It is passages like this that have given certain critics a field day, suggesting all sorts of Freudian undertones hinting at a deep-seated repugnance for sex, sufficient to explain Monty James's lifetime bachelorhood. It is not a view that finds favour with Rosemary Pardoe, editor of Ghosts and Scholar's magazine ( "He was most likely fairly asexual - though there are female characters in his stories, some of them attractive enough to excite his heroes' praise," she says. "For me it is a failing of Jonathan Miller's famous 1968 Omnibus TV version of Oh, Whistle And I'll Come to You, My Lad that he chose to include this theme." James was himself explicit in his rejection of sex in supernatural tales, particularly eschewing Dracula, which, with its lithe temptress vampires seemed to him to be "laying on the butter too thick".

A more fertile source of inspiration is doubtless James's own scholarly work, cataloguing the entire Cambridge collection of medieval manuscripts and conducting definitive studies of the New Testament Apocrypha (texts not deemed sufficiently authoritative to make it into the Bible proper).

It was here that he may have met the demons and spirits that feature so often in his tales and where his often-repeated device of having a hero delving into forgotten documents and obscure volumes had its origins. There may have been a broader, late-Victorian urge at work too, the need to suggest an unfathomable spiritual existence to offset the increasingly mechanised and materialistic world that industry and science was creating for post-Darwinian mankind.

In the end James regarded his ghost stories with some embarrassment, supplying poorly written drafts to his publishers and dismissing his work in the prefaces that accompanied them in successive collections: "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."

However, while most of his lifeworks remain forgotten, it his ghost stories that continue to live, causing new generations of readers all sorts of delightful discomfort.


A survey for Ghosts and Scholars magazine produced the following top 10:

1 Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad

2 Casting the Runes

3 A Warning to the Curious

4= Count Magnus and The Mezzotint

6 Canon Alberic's Scrapbook

7 The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

8 Lost Hearts

9 Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance

10= An Episode of Cathedral History, The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral and A View from a Hill.

Though not included in this list, Rats deserves special mention and classroom time, not least because it is among the shortest of MR James's tales.

There are a number of tales that James wrote specifically for young children including A School Story and The Wailing Well.


Ash Tree Press, links to a number of writers who continued writing tales in the Jamesian tradition


BBC links, including one to the November 2002 Great Lives discussion about MR James

In addition, this Christmas, there will be a showing on BBC4 of a new adaptation of the MR James tale A View from the Hill (10.00pm, December 23). Repeat screenings of a documentary about MR James and two of the previous Ghost Story at Christmas adaptations are also planned.

Channel 4 Learning - Hooked on Horror video 919XShopRef=66Prime=YesshopListRec=24089

The site below includes online access to many MR James stories. Also links to authors in the Jamesian tradition


Use film versions

Over several Christmases in the 1970s, the BBC made a point of adapting an MR James story for the holiday schedules. These Ghost Stories For Christmas have subsequently acquired a cult following. The British Film Institute (bfi) has made one of these broadcasts available, A Warning to the Curious, and have issued it with Jonathan Miller's version of Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come To You My Lad, starring Michael Hordon. The accompanying teaching resources are free at

Explore description

MR James was a master of description, his sketches of countryside and small- town geography and architecture are masterful and do much to create the sense of normality that helps make the supernatural, when it emerges, all the more believable. Get students to analyse the opening description of Seaburgh in A Warning to the Curious identifying the elements that make it convincing.

Complete the tale

The Game of Bear is one of the incomplete stories that have been gathered by Rosemary Pardoe at the Ghosts and Scholars site. Ask students to come up with their versions explaining why it is the narrator finds the game the children are playing so intolerable.

Use drama

In drama lessons it is possible to explore the conventions and cliches of traditional ghost stories using the part of the bfi resource focused on this theme. Ask students to create a series of frozen images from Dickens' mock-gothic tale of the traveller and the mysterious maiden, arranging them in order of "cheesiness".

Read them out

This Christmas Robert Lloyd Parry will be telling two MR James tales to audiences in Cambridge. While learning the tales, Canon Alberic's Scrapbook and The Mezzotint, Lloyd Parry increasingly appreciated the carefully crafted build- up in each story. His enjoyment suggests that students might well benefit from having to read one or more of MR James's tales for whole-class performance. After all, they were created to be read aloud.

Analyse the protagonist's predicament

It is crucial in a ghost story that you empathise with the protagonist's fate, feeling that their encounter with the supernatural is unavoidable. A great, classroom-friendly tale with which to explore this is the story that was runner-up in a story-writing competition that MR James judged for the Spectator magazine in 1930. Happily, Emma Duffin's The Houseparty is online at

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