M.R. James, Master of the Victorian Ghost Story

The first ghost stories were meant to be told to others, preferably at night or in the evening by an open fire to an attentive audience of elders as well as children. This is how it was done for thousands of years. The written ghost story was rare for literacy itself was rare. But ghosts are mentioned in the Odyssee and in the Old Testament. Pliny the Younger (50 AD) tells of a haunted house in Athens and ghosts had their role to play in tragedies as well as comedies. In Renaissance England Shakespeare used them to good effect. Think of the ghost of Hamlet’s father and especially of Banquo’s ghost that returns to haunt Macbeth. And in the latter case I would like to refer to the wonderful first episode of Blackadder where Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder is haunted by Richard III’s ghost (played by Peter Cook) in a hommage to Shakespeare. 


But that’s enough wikipedia and popular culture for now. For those of you who think: what about Japanese ghost stories or the ghosts of 1001 Nights? Wonderful as they are, I am not an expert in these although I do recommend Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of oriental ghost stories. These are still in print and can be easily purchased.


What I really want to talk about is the written English ghost story by discussing one of its greatest masters: M.R. James.


Montague Rhodes James was born on 1 August 1862 in Goodnestone Parsonage, near Canterbury, Kent, the fourth child to Reverend Herbert James and Mary Emily James-Horton. When Montague was 3 years old the family moved to the rectory in Great Livermere in Suffolk. The village of Great Livermere and the bleak Suffolk landscape and its North Sea coast would serve as an inspiration for his ghost stories many times over. Montague himself was a precocious child, unusually clever and bookish. One anecdote of his youth tells of a time when he was ill and bedridden and the only thing that could console him was the reading and deciphering of a large 17th-century Dutch bible.


At 13 he won a scholarship to Eton for his self-penned latin verses and prose. At Eton he excelled in Divinity, the Classics and French. Afterwards he attended King’s College, Cambridge and became one of the most important medieval and biblical scholars in Europe and eventually provost of King’s. In 1918 he would return to Eton, arguably the place where he was happiest, and was the provost there until his death in 1936. He never married but was popular with his students and deeply loved by his many friends. According to some he had ‘a genius for friendship.’

Having said that, he was also a deeply conservative man who opposed any modern reform of the schools he worked at. A true Victorian, he was born too late for he had to live through the first part of the 20th century as well.


His ghost stories he saw as quaint diversion. Initially he just wrote them for Christmas, to read to his colleagues at the chit-chat society in Cambridge. And although his scholarly work is still valid, it were these ghost stories that would make him immortal. They were his true legacy. For they are wonderful. Not spectacular, not extremely bloody or gory but restrained, with just the right amount of dread and horror. To a 21st century audience they might seem old-fashioned and definitely locked in the past, with its British gentlemen happily cycling around on their bicycles or going by steam-train to look at antique objects or old churches in a wonderfully simple 19th-century Europe where these upper middle-class men had absolutely no doubts about their own role in the world. But to James his audience his ghost stories must have been incredibly modern. No old castles, no deep dungeons of the Inquisition, no haunted queens or kings, no obscure locations in Transsylvania. To his readers it must have seemed as if the ghost story could happen to them as well.  


The general build-up of an M.R. James ghost story is as follows: An English gentleman, usually a scholar or antiquarian discovers something unusual: an ancient object like a book or antique binoculars, a buried flute, a diary or a painting. Or he encounters an intriguing situation such as a mysterious guest at an inn or a locked room in a hotel. Events in the story or information given by bystanders indicate that the gentleman should NOT inquire further. He should not buy the book, look through the binoculars, blow the flute, read the diary or examine the painting etc. Nor should he try to meet the mysterious guest or open the locked room. But he shows hubris and does it anyway. Punishment follows in the arrival of the ghost and the gentleman, if he survives this encounter, is affected by it for the rest of his life.


Every little event in the story is a clue. Not, as in a detective story, a clue to find out who did the crime, but a clue to the eventual arrival of the ghost. And when it comes it is always evil. No friendly ghosts, no beautiful castle maidens or heroic knights in armour. James his ghosts are always elemental, representations of pure horror and evil. The ghost in ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ is a biblical demon with a hairy, spider-like quality. The guardian in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is a large, frog-like creature covered in slime. In ‘Count Magnus’ the count’s familiar is a hooded figure dressed like a monk but with octopus-like tentacles that can rip the skin of people’s faces. The ghost of the evil landlord in ‘Rats’ is dressed in chains and has the gait of a skeleton scarecrow come alive. And the ghost of the hanging judge in ‘The Rose Garden’ looks like a perverse Guy Fawkes mask: silent, with a large smooth pink face with beads of sweat on its forehead, its eyes closed and only one tooth in its wide open mouth. Also, James his ghosts never speak. They can scream, laugh or groan or even sing but they never communicate to explain their actions. 

To anyone interested in high quality, well-written ghost stories, Montague Rhodes James cannot be ignored. Collections of his work are still regularly published and any good anthology of English ghost stories will contain at least one of his tales. I highly recommend you read them.