[Note: This is an expanded reprint of a column which originally appeared in the March 6, 2003, issue of Hellnotes.]
The old adage that one needs a horrible life in order to write effective horror fiction does not apply to M.R. James. Unlike Poe, Lovecraft, Blackwood, and others, James did not have a troubled life. He was happy, content, and successful, and he was respected and loved.
Montague Rhodes James, known as Monty to some, was born August 1, 1862, in Kent, England, where his father was a clergyman. The family, which included older siblings, soon afterwards moved to Suffolk. He had a happy, loving childhood. In school, he did well in his studies and was popular with fellow students, in part because of his ability to spin frightening tales. His adult life was spent as a successful academic.
At age 14, James entered Eton College and later studied at Kingâ€™s College. While at Kingâ€™s, he was an assistant in classical archaeology at Fitzwilliam Museum. After writing his dissertation, The Apocalypse of St. Peter, at Kingâ€™s, he was elected a Fellow and earned a position as a lecturer in divinity, and he eventually became dean of the college. In 1905, he became Provost of Kingâ€™s, and he was later vice-chancellor of Cambridge University. In 1918, he was named Provost of Eton College, a position he held until his death on June 12, 1936.
Jamesâ€™s academic specialty was the scholarly study of early Christian manuscripts, for which he won awards and was internationally renown. He was also a medievalist, linguist, and biblical scholar. He published widely in these disciplines, and was in demand as a translator.
His personal life was equally successful as he had a wide circle of friends and he was considered brilliant, charming, and affable. He spent his life as a bachelor and seemed quite happy with that situation.
How could a man living a comfortable, satisfying life write such chilling stories? James supposedly suffered from nightmares as a child, so this may be the source of his interest in horror. Or perhaps it was his childhood fascination with the sufferings of Christian martyrs. Or maybe it was the reports of the gruesome deaths of many of his students on the battlefields of World War I and the desolation of the deserted campuses during this time. All is speculation as there is no evidence as to the source of his horrific imagination.
Though he was a great scholar in his day, James is now mostly known for his ghost stories, of which he wrote approximately 40. He was the last great master of the Victorian ghost tale and is considered the Father of the Modern Ghost Story. His trademark is to never completely reveal the ghost, leaving the horror up to the imagination of the reader. His influence is so well regarded that “Jamesian” has entered our vocabulary as describing stories written by others that are in his style.
The background of Jamesâ€™s stories is usually academic or ecclesiastic life or archeological exploration, the setting is often a library or old church, and an ancient manuscript is frequently central to the plot. His horrors are wildly imaginative, including weird carvings in a deaconâ€™s chair that come to life, a moldy sack in an old well that suddenly puts its arms around a trespasser, a creature that seems to be made of bed linens, and a man-sized insect.
James published four 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 (1925). These books were later combined, with a few additional stories, into one volume, Collected Ghost Stories (1931). James also wrote a short childrenâ€™s fantasy novel, The Five Jars (1922).
Many of Jamesâ€™s stories were written to be read by candlelight on Christmas Eve to a group of students and friends at Kingâ€™s College and Eton. The BBC continued this tradition by occasionally broadcasting readings or dramatizations of James stories during the Christmas season.
Among Jamesâ€™s best known stories are “Mezzotint,” in which an engraving isnâ€™t what it appears to be; “Casting the Runes,” about the strange effects of a simple piece of paper; “Oh, Whistle, and Iâ€™ll Come to You, My Lad,” in which whistling down the wind takes on a whole new meaning; and “Number 13,” about a strange hotel room that sometimes is there and sometimes isnâ€™t.
James admired the work of J. Sheridan LeFanu, whose ghost stories James edited. James was well regarded by H.P. Lovecraft, who included him as one of the four then-living masters of weird fiction in the final chapter of “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”
Another admirer of James was Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote the glowing essay “The Weird Works of M.R. James” in 1934. Smith wrote, “His work is marked by rare intellectual skill and ingenuity, by power rising at times above the reaches of pure intellection, and by a sheer finesse of writing … The peculiar genius of M. R. James, and his greatest power, lies in the convincing evocation of weird, malignant and preter-natural phenomena …”
Suggested Reading: Casting The Runes and Other Ghost Stories, in hardcover or trade paperback by Oxford University Press, contains 21 stories, including those mentioned in this article. Coming in late 2007 from Ash-Tree Press is a second, expanded edition of A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James, which contains all of his published ghost stories, which are fully annotated; unpublished stories and fragments; The Five Jars; his play Auditor and Impresario; the introductions and prefaces to his collections; his other writings on the supernatural; a select bibliography; a selection of letters; recent scholarly articles on his work; and other material.
Many of Jamesâ€™s stories are available on the Internet, as are H.P. Lovecraftâ€™s and Clark Ashton Smithâ€™s essays.
Ghosts & Scholars is a non-profit journal featuring Jamesian ghost stories as well as scholarly articles on James and others, reviews, and columns that was published until December 2001. It was succeeded in 2002 by Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter (hardcopy and on-line), which continues the non-fiction offerings only. Back-issues and subscriptions are available at: M.R. James Newsletter