If you glance at any anthology of classic ghost stories you are likely to find in the table of contents “Count Magnus”, or perhaps “The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”, or “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”. These are just three of the stories of one of the great masters: M. R. James.
Motagu Rhodes James (1862-1936) hardly seems a likely author in this genre. He was above all a scholar; an antiquary, mediaevalist and church historian whose particular expertise was Apocryphal texts (Jewish and early Christian religious writings not accepted into the Authorised Bible). He served as Provost of Eton and Fellow and Provost of King’s College, Cambridge; but is best known to the general public as the author of ghost stories, which he originally wrote to read at Christmas to his friends. I have heard it alleged that they would threaten to lock him in the cellar until he wrote one! He produced his first story in 1894: thirty of his stories were published in collections between 1904 and 1931. In the 1970s dramatisations of his stories were televised every year under the appropriate title of “A Ghost Story for Christmas”. We can be confident that some of his best stories will continue to appear in anthologies for as long as these continue to be published.
James’s stories are almost all set in the England of his own day, though frequently they refer back to manuscripts or other writings from an earlier period. For the most part they are not, strictly speaking, ghost stories, since very few ghosts as such are involved: they most typically involve malignant spirits or demons whose essence is never explained or accounted for. Usually the “spirit” (for want of a better word) seems to have been raised by someone in the past, perhaps to guard buried treasure, and is awakened by an incautious man of the present day who is investigating a manuscript, tomb or painting (as in “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book”; my personal favourite), or even casually inviting the spirit to appear to him (“Count Magnus”). We are never told precisely how the spirit was invoked in the first place, since James avoided any detailed “occultism” such as we find in the stories of, for instance, Algernon Blackwood; nor are we told how to get rid of the spirit once it has reappeared, except by such time-honoured methods as burning the particular manuscript or picture. The usual solution is simply to flee the scene, leaving the impression that the spirit is still lurking somewhere. The general message is that we should leave well alone. James is not a bloodthirsty writer; although several of his stories do lead to a death, he usually refrains from gory details, and in many other stories the incautious heroes escape intact.
James has several strong points. He is very good on his descriptions of the spirits, where the information is usually sparse but effective. The spirits are almost always entirely non-human; thin, hairy, dwarfish, dirty. Often they are initially sensed or touched rather than seen. Sometimes they take bizarre forms: a roll of dirty flannel with eyes (“The Uncommon Prayer-Book”), a bed sheet that shapes into “a face of crumpled linen” (“Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad”), an engraving that changes every day (“The Mezzotint”), or grotesque carvings that come to life (“The Stalls at Barchester Cathedral”). In many stories (such as “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance”), the horror occurs in a dream. James is almost invariably successful in building up a dark and threatening atmosphere in preparation for the appearance of the spirit. (I remember reading James for the first time when I was still at school. It was dark, I was alone, because my parents had gone out for the evening, and after reading several of James’s stories I felt very uneasy going outside to get the coal! Of course, I told myself that there was nothing there, but even so ……..!)
Naturally, James has his weaknesses. Modern readers might find his stories slow to get going; and he is far too fond of introducing characters who are made to talk at length in lower-class dialects, often making stupid and irrelevant comments, which can often be irritating to the reader. But very few of his stories fail: he has always had an audience of appreciative followers, and will continue to do so.
The BBC has, over the years, attempted manydramatisations of James's stories, under the general title of "A Ghost Story for Christmas". The classic production was in 1968: "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You. My Lad", directed by Jonathon Miller and starring Michael Hordern. The Christmas we are promised a new version, starring John Hurt. It is a little disconcerting to learn that the story will be "modernised" (how can you have really sinsiter ghosts under electric light? Surely much of the atmosphere should depend on the light being limited to a single flickering candle, which duly goes out at the crucial moment?). But if a TV adaptation leads to more readers for M. R. James, it can only be a good thing.
For many years now, Rosemary Pardoe has edited a magazine called “Ghosts and Scholars”, devoted to material about M. R. James and to new stories in the James tradition. This can be found by entering her name into the Google search engine.