Like fellow groundbreaking authors Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, M.R. James created stories of the weird and fantastic which reached a mainstream market that, hitherto, took very little interest in anything that stepped beyond the bounds of good manners.
Born in 1862, Montague Rhodes James came from Wingham in Kent. An outstanding academic, James was educated at Eton and then King’s College, Cambridge. James remained at Cambridge for the rest of his career, progressing from Fellow to Dean, then Tutor, and finally Provost. As part of his job he hosted many academic gatherings. It was during these that James constructed many of his earlier stories to entertain friends.
James’ ghostly short stories first saw publication in 1895, when two tales, Lost Hearts and Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book appeared in a magazine. Then in 1904 Ghost Stories of the Antiquary was published. This was followed by four collections of short stories, published over the next thirty years, including the anthology Ghosts and Marvels in 1924. James’ final anthology, Collected Ghost Stories, has never been out of print.
While James’ ghost stories were written in the intellectual style you’d expect from a Cambridge academic, their twists and turns lead the reader through a chillingly compelling read. The conclusions of his tales invariably finish in a way which, far from being reassuring (as was usual for fictional conclusions of the time), left the reader with a spine-tingling, often horrific image lingering in the mind long after the book had been put down.
M.R. James’ skill came from the teasingly gradual build up of horror within his work. Rooted in reality, he always maintained a human dimension, which meant that the terror, once it arrived on the page, was all the more frightening. An excellent example of this comes in Casting the Runes. In this short story a traditional battle between good and evil is fought on a small scale between the two main characters, Dunning and Karswell. Although the tale is simply told, and set within our own world, it hums with a simmering air of the supernatural which is both fascinating and unsettling.
Casting the Runes was adapted into the classic British horror film Night of the Demon (US title The Curse of the Demon) in 1957, by director Jacques Tourneur. It was deliberately shot in black & white to emphasise the dread atmosphere of occult terror, which suggested more was going on behind what actually appears on-screen. This is precisely the feeling of uncertainty that James himself managed to convey on paper, and is why he is admired by major writers such as Stephen King and Adam Nevill to this day.
In an essay he wrote in 1934, Clark Ashton Smith said of M R James, “It is safe to say that few writers, dead or living, have equaled him in this formidable necromancy and perhaps no one has excelled him.”
Dr Kathryn Bates is a graduate of archaeology and history. She has excavated across the world as an archaeologist, and tutored medieval history at Leicester University. She joined the administrative team at Oxford Open Learning twelve years ago. Alongside her distance learning work, Dr Bates is a bestselling novelist, and an itinerant creative writing tutor for primary school children.