As we enter the month of December, the nights begin to draw in and a bitter chill creeps across the land. It’s the perfect season to sit next to a fire and read, or tell, ghost stories. One man who knew this all too well was author M.R. James, whose brand of ‘antiquarian horror’ became, for many years, as synonymous with yuletide as mince pies and crackers.
In honour of the season, we at Vampire Squid would like to shine a light on one of horror fiction’s most influential writers, and honour his life and legacy.
Born in 1862 to an Anglican clergyman father in Kent, James’ life and work were heavily influenced by the landscape of Suffolk. Many of his most famous tales set in areas nearby.
After graduating to King’s College, Cambridge, James began life as an academic, eventually becoming a don and provost. These twin obsessions, the rugged Suffolk landscape and the musty atmosphere of academia, would soon be combined in his ghost stories.
In addition to his fiction work, James was also a celebrated academic figure, with a fascination for the medieval period. He was one of the first medievalists to focus his studies on the analysis and cataloguing of medieval manuscript illustrations. These interests often find their way into his stories, which almost always revolve around dark forces unleashed by tampering with medieval artefacts. It seems certain that the demons that populate his tales originated in the apocalyptic depictions on these illuminated texts.
These days, we tend to see M.R. James’ work as cosy and comfortable, playful fantasies accompanied by crackling fires and pipe smoke. This modern view of his work belies how revolutionary his stories were at the time of their publication. James threw off the trappings of gothic cliché, and brought the ghost story into the modern age, with contemporary settings and characters.
Despite his work to update the traditional ghost story format, James himself was a deeply conservative figure, with a loathing for the works of contemporary authors such as James Joyce and Aldous Huxley.
James first began to write his ghost stories at Cambridge University. He would tell these stories to his peers seated around the fireplace, and this tradition is reflected in the relaxed, anecdotal style of the tales, which occasionally feature witty, knowing asides to his audience.
James’ work is subtle, with most of the blanks being filled in by the reader’s imagination. He rejoices in the mundane, layering detail into his descriptions of the everyday, only to make his horrors more visceral by contrast.
A classic Jamesian tale features 3 main components:
1. A protagonist – usually a transparent stand-in for James himself- bookish and intellectual, but often rather vague. A Jamesian protagonist is most comfortable when surrounded by relics and curios of the past, but of course the past often refuses to stay buried…
2. A setting – Usually these tales take place off the beaten track, in those last outposts still unaffected by modernity. Whether it’s a remote stretch of the English coast or a backwater village with a crumbling abbey nearby, James’ horror begins where the tarmac and concrete run out.
3. An antique macguffin – curiosity, in a James story, got the cat haunted. In Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, one of the quintessential James works, a holidaying academic finds an ancient whistle buried on beach. Blowing into it, he finds himself stalked by strange forces beyond his control. This basic structure underpins many of James’ works. His pages spill over with intrigued academics disturbing the relics of the past.
It is often tempting when considering an author, particularly one whose work focusses on the macabre, to try and pinpoint the personal demons that that their invented monsters were conjured to fight. H.P. Lovecraft, for example, constructed his eldritch monstrosities because no matter how terrifying he made them, they could never match the fear that he felt at facing his own personal failings.
Where M.R. James is concerned, many scholars agree that the fuel of his nightmares was his own repressed sexuality. Although James would enjoy several platonic relationships with colleagues and pupils over the years, the popular belief was that he never allowed himself to express his homosexuality in any overt way (it was, of course, illegal at the time).
The subject remained an open secret in the corridors of Cambridge, with James belonging to several drinking and dining societies and enjoying after-dinner wrestling matches with his peers, many of whom noted his ‘enthusiasm’ for this activity.
Viewed through this lens, the works of M.R. James take on a new light. The obvious and ever-present fear and revulsion, but also hypnotic fascination, with the tactile immediately jumps out. James’ characters fear being touched by the monsters that pursue them, but they also find themselves strangely drawn to the idea. This duality, it isn’t hard to imagine, is analogous to James’ own deep-seated frustrations.
M.R. James’ stories were not always associated with Christmas, but thanks to a series of successful BBC adaptations, starting with Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You in 1968, they were soon seasonal fixtures. The tradition of ‘a ghost story for Christmas’ continued until the mid-70’s, with a string of masterful adaptations including The Stalls of Barchester, A Warning to the Curious, Lost Hearts, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas and The Ash-Tree.
On the big screen, James’ most famous and successful adaptation was The Night of The Demon, a re-working of Casting the Runes, in which an American academic is marked for death by an English occultist, loosely based on Alistair Crowley. The fire Demon that pursues him is an extraordinary piece of effects work for 1957.
M.R. James’ prose was admired far and wide, his fans including HP Lovecraft, whose short story Pickman’s Model shares a twist with James’ early outing Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook. These days almost every successful modern horror writer, particularly those who write in the gothic mode, cite James as an influence. Alongside Robert Aickman and Algernon Blackwood, his legacy as a master of the English ghost story is assured.