Christmas is, by tradition, a time for ghost stories. And MR James is my favourite writer in this genre. James was himself a devotee of mystery fiction and particularly a fan of Sherlock Holmes.
But he is, of course, best known to us as the greatest writer of traditional English ghost stories. Ruth Rendell famously commented that “There are some authors one wishes one had never read in order to have the joy of reading them for the first time. For me, MR James is one of these”.
I couldn’t agree more – We’ve both loved MR James for a great many years and read and re-read his wonderful ghost stories, always finding some new delight. So with Christmas in mind, here goes.
Montague Rhodes James (1863-1936) was the finest medieval scholar of his generation, spending a great deal of his academic time seeking out and recording manuscripts that might otherwise have been lost. He was born near Bury St Edmunds, the son of a clergyman and, in the course of a long and distinguished life was assistant director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Provost of King’s College, Cambridge and Provost of Eton.
It’s worth pointing all that out, because many of his leading characters are academics in a similar way, solitary characters who seek out lost manuscripts or who investigate strange elements of our mysterious past – encountering the forces of the supernatural along the way.
James wrote his ghost stories originally as entertainments for his college fellows, and would read them out loud by candlelight, sometimes around Christmas. Newspaper or magazine publication would follow and then volume publication in collections such as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Warning to the Curious and more. Collected Ghost Stories is a volume worth getting as it includes most of the canon, though there are a few omissions.
What I admire best about James is that he would have been a superb writer of short stories whatever genre he had chosen. He was an exceptionally good writer. Some of his succinct descriptions of landscape are quite beautiful and atmospheric – whether the story be set in the English countryside or in the shadows of some great cathedral. He had the enviable gift of summoning up a sense of place in a very few words. There is also a subtlety that you rarely get with some writers in this genre and occasionally a delicious sense of humour.
A View From a Hill is one of my favourite stories, if not one of the strongest of James’s ghost stories from a chills point of view. Its depiction of rural Herefordshire is deftly done, from its opening on a lonely railway halt to the views of a lonely landscape.
I’m not going to say too much about the story because you may want to read it and I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment. Sufficient to say that an academic, Fanshawe, visits a remote part of Herefordshire to visit his friend Squire Richards, the owner of a small country manor. Fanshawe’s host lends him a pair of binoculars with a mysterious provenance. But is what he sees of the landscape through the binoculars quite the same as what is actually there?
The BBC, in their splendid series of filmed Christmas ghost stories by M.R. James, did a version of A View From a Hill, though there were changes to the plot which took the story rather a way from what James actually wrote. Even so, as with all the films in the series, it was beautifully shot and well acted. Well worth seeing even if you admire the original more.
As Christmas approaches, we have been watching again some of these films of James’s stories, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (and we do commend the box set from the BFI, with its excellent extras and introductions if you want to give yourself a Christmas treat). So far we’ve watched “The Stalls of Barchester”, “A Warning to the Curious” and “Whistle and I’ll come To You,” 2010 version (though the last is a disappointing take on the original story.)
But do seek out the original stories which, around a century after they were penned, are as addictive and readable as ever. If you are reading them for the first time, I do envy you. If you are revisiting an old favourite, then enjoy these tales once more.
Do I believe in ghosts? Well, all I will say is that I’ve seen things I can’t rationally explain.… What they are though? Well, who can say? Fortunately, none have been as malevolent as the demons created on the page by MR James.
I’ve always wanted to write a ghost story in this classic English tradition, but it’s a hard task. A ghost story either works – gives you a chill – or it doesn’t. And, as James himself suggested, has the electric light killed the dark potential of the classic ghost story? It takes great ability to pull a chilling ghost story off. But I’ll keep trying.
Meanwhile, draw the curtains, turn down the lights and enjoy these classic stories by the master himself – and have a very enjoyable Christmas.