The Unfinished Ghost Stories of M.R. James

by Rosemary Pardoe

(from Ghosts & Scholars 4)

Most of us have wished that there were more ghost stories by M.R. James, and perhaps we have dreamed of discovering a new tale, hidden away and forgotten. King's College Library and the University Library, Cambridge, possess the next best thing: a collection of early drafts of unpublished ghost stories by MRJ. A couple of these are mentioned in his essay, "Stories I Have Tried to Write" (Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James); others appear to be unfinished and quite different versions of published stories; and still others are so incomplete that it's hard to tell what they might have been.

Few people seem to know of the existence of these drafts, and those who do have been deterred from reading them by MRJ's quite appalling handwriting. However, with a certain amount of difficulty, I have managed to make transcriptions of them all in the course of several trips to Cambridge.

In all there are seven complete and partial drafts:

(1) (CUL Add.7484.1.27, 28b). Untitled. A complete but rough version of the 'Two Students at King's' plot described in "Stories I Have Tried to Write". Approximately 4000 words. [Published as "The Fenstanton Witch" in G&S 12]

(2) (King's, MRJ A/10). Untitled. A complete but very brief version of the 'Marcilly-le-Hayer' plot described in "Stories..." Approximately 1200 words. [Published in G&S 22]

(3) (King's, MRJ A/11). Untitled. A long but incomplete story concerning a "John Humphreys". Although very dissimilar this is clearly a forerunner of "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance". Approximately 5500 words. [Published as "John Humphreys" in G&S 16]

(4) (King's, MRJ A/12). Untitled. The start of a story which would probably have been of the same type as A/11. Approximately 1750 words.

(5) (CUL Add.7484.1.28(i),(ii)). Untitled. The start of a story which seems to be along similar general lines to "An Episode of Cathedral History". Approximately 1750 words.

(6) (King's, MRJ A/14a). "A Night in King's College Chapel". A short but complete and quite polished tale in the same humorous vein as "After Dark in the Playing Fields". Approximately 1750 words. [Published in G&S 7]

(7) (King's, MRJ A/13). "Merfield House". Two false starts for a black magic story. The writing is not in MRJ's normal hand, and I am not entirely convinced that this draft is by MRJ at all. The Modern Archivist at King's has suggested that MRJ was writing in a deliberately archaic hand for reasons of his own. Approximately 1400 words altogether.


(1) This tale is much as described in "Stories I Have Tried to Write". Two fellows of King's (Nicholas Hardman and Stephen Ashe) in the reign of Queen Anne (not the sixteenth century as given in "Stories..."), are practitioners of the black arts. When they hear that Mother Gibson, the witch of Fenstanton, has died following a ducking, they resolve to travel to that "lost place" to obtain some grave material, for their own nefarious purposes: "if we get the three locks of hair & the winding-sheet we are masters of the elementals".

Travelling along the Huntingdon road to Fenstanton at dead of night, they pass the turn to the village of Lolworth where a funeral is taking place, and there they see a group of figures approaching them: "There appeared to be seven people clustering round one in the middle, and their action and gait was like that of watchmen who had taken a prisoner... Hardman and Ashe drew toward the hedge to let these men pass, & their eyes were riveted upon the face of the captured man. It was not lightly to be forgotten, for it is not often that any one beholds the face of a man who has lost all hope, and yet has room in his brain for an unspeakable fear...they saw moreover that in spite of his fear & desperation, the captive could look nowhere save straight in front of him, for anything seemed tolerable rather than to see the faces of the seven who were about him. When they pictured the scene themselves thereafter, they realised that his was the only face of which they had caught a sight at all: nay it even seemed to them that there was no other face for their eyes to catch."

This splendid scene does not seem to be connected in any way with the plot of the story; probably it is merely inserted to show that Hardman and Ashe were unnaturally sensitive to occult happenings on that night.

At last they reach the graveyard at Fenstanton where they begin their magical rites with the aim of raising the dead witch in order to obtain the relics they want. Unfortunately for them, something goes wrong, and instead of the woman, there appears on her grave, a "figure, one would say at first sight, of an enormous bat, with folded wings & hints of head approaching the human form. In a short moment Hardman caught sight of the folds of wrinkled skin or hide that hung down from the cheeks, of the wide ears which shone transparent in the moonlight, & of the two lines of flickering fire which marked the two almost closed eyes. And further...he saw the earth heap upon which this being was crouched stir & wave beneath it... This terrible appearance rose to its height and for a minute seems to look about for a victim whom it knew to be near..."

When it sees Hardman it leaps towards him and he knows no more. In fact Hardman remains "stricken" for the rest of his life, and both he and Ashe abjure their evil practices.

The description of the demon is unusually excessive for MRJ. Undoubtedly, had he decided to rewrite the story, he would have toned it down and left a good deal unsaid.


(2) Again this is more or less as described in "Stories...", and the plot outline is not actually much longer than the one given there. The narrator buys half a dozen old books including a novel, Caroline of Lichtenfeld (not Madame de Lichtenstein) which he takes on a train journey to Troyes the next day. Browsing through it he reads a section concerning a Madame Giraud (formerly Eugenie Dupont) of Marcilly-le-Hayer, whose rich husband, Emile, disappears in somewhat mysterious circumstances. As the book says, deliciously, "But...if any one were to go to Marcilly le Hayer & call at the house with the three gables, and ask to see the mistress, and ask her what she keeps under the pavement in the further corner of the stable, he could then find out whether she was interesting or not". Later, the narrator happens to visit Marcilly, and discovers there a house with three gables exactly as described in the book, wherein lives one Madame Giraud, whose maiden name was Dupont. Needless to say, when he returns to the book he finds that the entire section which he read on the train is missing (and the name on the flyleaf is "Emile Giraud").

The connection between a female passenger who shares the narrator's carriage ("an elderly lady, silent, and wearing a slight black moustache and a highly determined expression") is less clear in this draft than it is in "Stories...".

Interestingly enough, the dialogue which MRJ 'quotes' from Caroline de Lichtenfeld is all in French, which perhaps gives some insight into the way MRJ's mind worked when he was thinking up a story.


(3) This very long account, quite well-composed as far as it goes, concerns a young man called John Humphreys who inherits a manor house in the country. Almost immediately he begins to experience unpleasant happenings, one of which is repeated in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance": the 'small Irish Yew' sequence here involves Humphreys in an embarrassing and amusing scene with his gardener, Mr Barker, when he asks that worthy to remove the offending tree only to find that it is not there at all. Barker and Johnson were the two imaginary Suffolk villagers whom MRJ and his brother, Herbert, invented and in whose guise they held hilarious conversations whenever they met. MRJ used Barker, under many different names, in his stories; and the character always provided the best sort of light relief - just as it does here.

Further amusement is provided by Mr Runton, the bailiff, who succeeds in making his business "appear highly intricate by starting in the middle and going alternately back to the beginning & forward to the end."

Returning to the 'meat' of the story, however, John Humphreys is troubled by strange shadows, odd noises in the house, and the feeling of being psychically pursued. Falling asleep in his library one evening, he dreams that he is reading (in a book which is, in reality, blank), a dialogue between himself and another who suggests that he should turn the page to see "who's after you". This Humphreys does and sees "so terrible an image of corruption and malice and fear, peering out of a dark background that it scared him clean out of sleep." He awakens to the feeling of a "ragged" hand on his head, and later this ghostly hand touches him again in the middle of an open and empty field, bringing with it an intense depression and despair.

In addition there is the envelope containing nothing more than "Two or three pins somewhat bent, a small ball of thread tightly rolled, a few withered leaves & some brown dust", which he finds on his path. Could this be the origin of the section in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" where MRJ warns the reader to "Be careful how you handle the packet you pick up in the carriage-drive, particularly if it contains nail-parings and hair. Do not, in any case, bring it into the house. It may not be alone..."?

A mysterious lady is seen in the garden and seems to be extraordinarily interested in Humphreys and his property; but the most subtly disturbing of all the occurrences is the first, when Humphreys - returning from a walk in the fields - sees a figure in the distance. At first it is some way off and is of little interest to the walker, but later he asks himself, "whether he knew or ought to know the person in black who was coming across the fields, and was by this time within a hundred yards of him." Shortly afterwards this figure resolves itself into "a tall post newly covered with black and glistening tar which stood by the path on his left". On a return visit to the field the post is no longer there, and apparently never has been.

This is so reminiscent of John Gordon's excellent House on the Brink, with its recurrent image of the black and glistening log, that one is almost tempted to think that Gordon must have read MRJ's draft. Almost certainly, though, the resemblance is pure coincidence.

Finally the gardeners discover a "horrid little doll of black wax" and bring it to Humphreys, and at this point the text comes to an abrupt and frustrating end. Presumably MRJ felt that after 5500 words the plot had not developed sufficiently - certainly it has the makings of a short novel rather than a short story - and so he lost patience with it. It is entertaining to wonder how the story would have developed. Would the mysterious lady have proved to be responsible for everything? And would she perhaps have been an unknown relative with a grievance who felt that she had a right to John Humphreys' inheritance? If so, then this draft is closely connected with the next one.


(4) Although quite polished, the narrative ends before anything supernatural takes place. It concerns one Henry Purdue who inherits a house in the country from his aunt and uncle. His only other living relative is a cousin, Caroline Purdue, who is the daughter of another uncle and aunt ("very odd squalid creatures [who] died off, I think from drink"). Although not outwardly bearing a grudge against Henry because of his inheritance, she makes things very difficult for him by dogging his footsteps as much as she can. In church she is always to be found in Purdue's pew, looking at him through her veil. When Henry tries to 'buy her off' by offering her an addition to her income and a house elsewhere in the county, she realises for the first time that she is an unwanted presence and becomes very angry. At this point the account takes the form of entries from a diary kept by Henry Purdue, but no more than a couple of lines into the first entry, the draft ends. Undoubtedly Caroline Purdue was going to wreak her revenge on Purdue - who was probably due to suffer in much the same way as John Humphreys.


(5) Like the previous draft, this one ends before the supernatural happenings begin. It is set at the time when the Oxford Movement and the Gothic Revival were becoming popular. Mr Cave, a retired clergyman of some means, and with "a strong taste for Gothic architecture as it was then understood", moves into a house at Burford (Oxon) and quickly convinces the Rector, Mr Eldon, that his church should be 'restored'. This would involve the removal of much of the church furniture, including the grand alabaster tomb of Speaker Lenthall, a noted and apparently rather unpleasant Parliamentarian. Lentall has one surviving descendant, an old lady living in Burford almshouses; so Cave, his son, Mr Eldon and Mr Green the architect, set out to obtain her permission for the disposal of her ancestor's tomb. Here the story ends, but we can guess that something along the lines of "An Episode of Cathedral History" is in the offing.

The best feature of this promising early section of a story, is the character of Mr Cave's daughter, Miss Mary Cave. While the men are discussing the wonders of Gothicism and being amazed that in any age Speaker Lenthall's tomb "could have been thought to possess the least interest", the bright Mary Cave brings some common-sense to the proceedings with her, "I never could see the reason in refusing to admire a thing because it is not of a particular period or style. Surely there may be beautiful things made in more styles than one". This comment is greeted with "something of pity and amusement" and a declamation from her brother upon "the wonderful character of female taste".

MRJ is often accused of being a misogynist, but the females in many of his stories surely disprove this. He may perhaps have been afraid of women, but he certainly respected and liked them. His women are usually strong and intelligent; sometimes their bossiness is used as light relief, but the humour is always affectionate and never demeaning. It would be difficult to find a nicer character than Mary in "The Residence at Whitminster", and Mary Cave seems to be of much the same type, which makes it all the more disappointing that MRJ did not continue with the plot idea.


(6) "A Night in King's College Chapel". Although short, this story is really too well finished to be considered an early draft. It does come to an abrupt end which would indicate that it was originally intended to be longer, but it is quite complete as it is. The narrator falls asleep in King's College Chapel, and finds when he wakes up that he is locked in for the night. Much to his surprise, a number of the figures in the famous stained glass windows come to life, in a very amusing fashion. Reuben, quietly enjoying an evening pipe, is pelted with manna by the Children of Israel, who are then punished by "a smart application of Moses' rod". Job, sitting naked on his dunghill, is nagged so severely by his wife that the demon assisting her is forced to interpose, and says that he isn't "going to stand by & see the gentleman put upon. If Mr Job didn't choose to stand up for himself, and a more affable gent he never see, then it was time his friends stood up for him, & as to sitting on dunghills & having no clothes to wear well all he should like to know was, who brought him to it?" The angel carrying Habakkuk is frightened by Daniel's lions and drops the unfortunate prophet into the den from whence he makes a narrow escape; and poor Mrs Tobit has her troubles too. As well as being scared by the lions and by her son's dog, she also has her silk dress splashed by Jonah's whale. When she remonstrates with Jonah he retorts that he thinks it "a trifle mean to complain of a harmless animal like that whale which after all was very likely only an allegory". To which Mrs Tobit replies that, "if it was a whale it couldn't be an allegory. She hoped she'd learnt her geography better than that when she was a girl, & allegories didn't live at Ninevah but Egypt."


(7) "Merfield House". Of these two false starts for a tale of black magic, the first is by far the longer. The second (which is actually the one with the title) is no more than a paragraph. The narrator is a John Stedman who as a young boy accompanies his half-brother, Charles Horsley, on a Christmas visit to his uncle, at Merfield Hall in Bedfordshire (it is "Hall" and not "House" in this first narrative). While there he becomes aware that Horsley and his uncle are experimenting in the black arts. One experiment nearly goes badly wrong and Stedman, on hearing a "peculiar quick cry" ("I had never heard anything in the least like it, so fearfully lonely and desperate a tone was there in it"), hurries to the library to find them both lying on the floor. However they are not badly hurt, and on this note the account finishes. The second start is a little different, as well as being more relaxed and typical of James. In this one the House is in Northamptonshire and the central character is William Stedman.

There is undoubtedly a Jamesian feel to the draft which makes me think that the theory of the archivist at King's might well be correct.

Although in some cases it is not too difficult to see why MRJ gave up before completing a story, there are others where it is sad that he did. I would especially love to know how numbers (3) and (5) were due to develop. However, if the tale of John Humphreys (3) had ever been completed, we would never have had one of MRJ's best stories, "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance", to enjoy.


I'd like to thank Dr Michael Halls, the Modern Archivist at King's, for his considerable help; also the Rev. Dr Richard Pfaff for first putting me on the trail of the drafts, and Dr Darroll Pardoe for sharing with me the onerous task of transcribing MRJ's handwriting!

Copyright (c) 1982 Rosemary Pardoe

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