Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Terrifying Tuesdays: Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)

The ghost stories of M. R. James are considered to be among the best of the genre.  Born in Kent, England, and educated at King's College, Cambridge, James was an eminent medieval scholar and a provost at Cambridge and later at Eton College.  His life as an antiquary heavily influenced the style of his supernatural writings, which became known as "antiquarian ghost stories".  He first wrote many of these tales to be read aloud at Christmas Eve gatherings.  His story-telling method, now known as "Jamesian", is characterized by several distinct elements, including a setting in an English or European town or village, or at an abbey or university, a gentleman scholar as protagonist, and the discovery of an antiquarian object to which an unsavory supernatural force is connected.  The supernatural entities in a James story are always of a menacing rather than sympathetic nature, and the outcome of a tale is often unpleasant.  However, overt violence is rare, as James preferred to let the reader imagine such events through implication and suggestion.  His ghost stories were published in four collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904); More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911); A Thin Ghost and Others (1919); A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925).

More information about M. R. James can be found at The Literary Gothic and at Ghosts & Scholars.  All of his ghosts stories can be found at A Thin Ghost.  Although now out of print, one of the most thorough collections of all of James' ghost stories as well as other works is found in the 712-page volume, A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M. R. James, published by Ash-Tree Press.  Illustrations and articles by others about James are included as well.

Several of James' ghost stories were adapted for television.  Only one tale, "Casting the Runes", was the basis for a motion picture.  This was the 1957 film "Night of the Demon" (aka "Curse of the Demon"), which has been described elsewhere on this blog.

Collections of M. R. James' ghost stories are fairly easy to find (check out Barnes & Noble) and a book of his complete works is a worthy addition to any library, whether devoted to supernatural fiction or not.  A revival of the Christmas Eve telling of ghost stories is long overdue, and James' tales should top the list!

"Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad"

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