M.R. James: An Informal Portrait by Michael Cox (G&S 6)
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James selected and introduced by Michael Cox; M.R. James: 'Casting the Runes' and Other Ghost Stories edited and introduced by Michael Cox; A Warning to the Curious: The Ghost Stories of M.R. James selected and introduced by Ruth Rendell (G&S 9)
M.R. James - Two Ghost Stories: A Centenary edited by Barbara and Christopher Roden (G&S 17)
The Five Jars by M.R. James (G&S 20)
A Pleasant Terror: The Life and Ghosts of M.R. James (TV documentary) (G&S 21)
Go to Page One for Reviews
A Pleasing Terror: The Complete Supernatural Writings of M.R. James (G&S 33)
Dromenon: The Best Weird Stories of Gerald Heard (G&S 33)
Shadows in the Attic: A Guide to British Supernatural Fiction, 1820-1950 by Neil Wilson (G&S 32)
Christopher Lee's Ghost Stories for Christmas (TV readings) (G&S 32)
The Angry Dead by Mary Ann Allen (G&S 31)
On the Fringe for Thirty Years: A History of Horror in the British Small Press by David Sutton
Dark Matters by Terry Lamsley (G&S 31)
Sex and Rockets: The Occult World of Jack Parsons by John Carter
The Lost Will of Dr Rant (TV play) (G&S 30)
The Collected Strange Stories of Robert Aickman (G&S 30)
In Violet Veils and other tales of the Connoisseur by Mark Valentine (G&S 29)
Ghosts and Grisly Things by Ramsey Campbell (G&S 29)
The Phantom Coach and Other Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by Augustus Jessopp (G&S 28)
Skeletons In The Closet by William I.I. Read (G&S 28)
This book was in draft form when R.W. Pfaff's Montague Rhodes James (reviewed in G&S 3) was published in 1980. The reader might then think that a second biography of MRJ would be redundant, but in fact the two complement each other very well. Dr Pfaff's work is unlikely ever to be superseded as the best source of accurate and detailed bibliographical information, whereas Michael Cox concentrates more on Monty James the man: his character and his relationships.
MRJ was a loveable and much loved man who had a "genius for friendship" (to quote the Cambridge Review), and this can clearly be seen in the immense number of friends whose anecdotes and letters are quoted throughout the book. Only rarely does a note of criticism creep in. As one who has encountered the full horror of MRJ's handwriting, I can sympathise with the 'lady typist' who, after tackling the transcription of some of his work, said that "she wished these 'University Gentlemen' could write better - and that she, at any rate, wouldn't send any son of hers to the University - prize waste of money in her opinion!" Rather more serious are the sometimes harsh comments made about MRJ in the diaries of A.C. Benson (his friend for over fifty years). Some of these may well have been justified, and much has been made of them by other reviewers, but I'm inclined to think that Benson's attitude was coloured to a degree by jealousy of MRJ's tranquil and, superficially at least, complacent nature. The much-troubled Benson was never able to achieve such a state of mind, so it was perhaps natural for him to think it somehow wrong when he saw it in other people.
Michael Cox provides further insight into James's character by quoting extensively from his letters and notebooks. Two of the greatest puzzles of MRJ's life have always been why he consistently resisted pressure to be ordained and also to get married (although gossip linked his name romantically with at least two young women in the course of his life). Mr Cox gives us no complete answers (that would probably be an impossibility), but I for one now think I understand MRJ's motives rather better than I did.
The interest in ghosts started quite young. By 1878 (at the age of sixteen) MRJ was already entertaining his school-friends with the telling of ghost stories, "in which capacity I am rather popular just now". There is no way of knowing whether Monty made up these tales himself or was merely reading the creations of others, but one of a pair of articles on ghosts which he contributed to an Eton magazine in 1880 contains what is almost certainly an original, fictional anecdote ("...a form that crouched there in the long grass. It was covered with what looked like a stained and tattered shroud, and he could dimly discern its long skinny clawed hands...").
While in Cyprus eight years later (some four years before the writing of the first published ghost tale), he sent a charmingly Gilbertian poem to his sister Grace, which ends with the lines:
As well as frequent mentions throughout the book, Michael Cox devotes an entire chapter to the ghost stories. As in the case of Dr Pfaff's book there are many snippets of new information to be found here, not least the revelation of the existence of "The Malice of Inanimate Objects".
The book's great strength in this chapter, as elsewhere, is in its profuse quotations from MRJ, his friends and his readers. We learn, for instance, that after reading "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", Arthur Machen wrote MRJ a fan letter; that A.E. Housman thought the couplet in "A Neighbour's Landmark" was "good poetry"; and that Thomas Hardy, "in a fit of enthusiasm" as a result of reading some of MRJ's stories, sent him a Christmas card!
James's attitude to real ghosts seems to have been summed up perfectly in a remark which he made to Shane Leslie (given in the latter's Ghost Book): "Some of these things are so, but we do not know the rules!" This belief is born out in several comments included in Mr Cox's book. In a debate on the existence of ghosts, during his early days at Eton, MRJ echoed the feelings of us all when he said that he "could not but believe in anything and everything when in bed." Years later he did, indeed, have an eerie experience in bed one night when he heard a tapping at his window "and then for several seconds an appearance of a curtain being pulled aside from the window again and again". One repeatedly gains the impression that he rather enjoyed frightening himself.
Aside from the text, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait features a very fine selection of photographs. We are all used to seeing the same three or four pictures, mostly showing MRJ as a pleasant-looking, slightly portly middle-aged gentleman, so it comes as a surprise to find that in his younger days Monty James could really be quite handsome when he tried. There are photographs here too of his splendidly patriarchal father, his fragile but determined-looking mother, and some of his friends such as A.C. Benson and the tragic James McBryde, who died after completing only four illustrations for the first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. McBryde is shown with his wife Gwendolen, but sadly there is no good picture of their daughter Jane, who was born six months after her father's death in 1904, and of whom MRJ became legal guardian. The very photogenic Cropper sisters all appear though; with Sibyl (Billy) Cropper bare-foot and impish in a family photo taken two years before MRJ wrote her the wonderfully funny letters which she later edited under the title "Letters to a Child" (see G&S 3).
Michael Cox has produced an entertaining and likeable "informal portrait" of M.R. James, which I would recommend to anyone curious about the man. I would go further, however, and say that people who are only interested in his ghost tales will also find this book worth buying, or at least worth ordering from their local library.
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M.R. James went out of copyright at the end of 1986 [but is now back in copyright in the UK until 2006] so no doubt we can expect to see a number of new collections of his ghost stories in print in the next year or two. Equally certainly, most will be of little value to anyone who already owns an edition of the Collected Ghost Stories. Ruth Rendell's A Warning to the Curious is a good example. Considered in isolation without regard for the availability of the stories elsewhere, it is actually not at all a bad book. The stories are headed with a series of extremely attractive woodcut-style illustrations by Kate Simunek, and Ruth Rendell's introduction is inoffensively enthusiastic. But all of the thirteen tales are easily obtainable in the Collected Ghost Stories, and £9.95 is a lot to pay for some nice illustrations and a capable eight-page introduction.
The two books edited by Michael Cox are in a completely different class, as might be expected from M.R. James's biographer. The Ghost Stories of M.R. James is profusely illustrated throughout by Rosalind Caldecott. Her pencil sketches rarely depict dramatic scenes, concentrating instead on buildings and architectural details from the stories, but they are none the worse for that. Restrained and subtly atmospheric, they are a sheer delight. The fifteen stories include one, "A Vignette", which does not appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, so is relatively harder to find. It is not this, however, which makes the book a valuable addition to any Jamesian library. Rather it is Michael Cox's superb 31-page introduction, which combines a synthesis of the appropriate sections from his MRJ biography with much new information and background. Some of the photographs and illustrations accompanying the introduction are also from the biography, but others are less familiar. Of the latter, much the most interesting to me are the previously unpublished sketches by James McBryde which were intended for Ghost Stories of an Antiquary but remained unfinished at McBryde's early death in 1904. Rough as these are, they are of considerable importance.
Better still is Casting the Runes, which contains twenty-one stories including the three not in the Collected Ghost Stories ("A Vignette", "The Experiment" and "The Malice of Inanimate Objects"). For about half of the stories Michael Cox has been able to produce a revised text with reference to the original manuscripts at King's College and Eton. The more marked differences between manuscript and printed versions are discussed in the "Explanatory Notes" to each tale, where setting, background and puzzling passages/words are examined as well. These alone would make the book invaluable, but there is also a 20-page introduction with a brief biography of MRJ, general details on the ghost stories and some well-reasoned opinions on their contents. This is followed by a chronology of MRJ's life. Finally, an Appendix contains selections from MRJ's non-fiction writing on supernatural tales, including his articles from The Bookman and the Evening News, and his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write". I would have liked to see this Appendix annotated too; there is much which could have been said, for instance, on the unfinished ghost story drafts still existing at Cambridge, and their relationship to "Stories I Have Tried to Write". My only other criticism of Casting the Runes is that is it not a complete edition of MRJ's published stories. Twelve tales are excluded and therefore not annotated. [These twelve and "Stories I Have Tried to Write" were later annotated in G&S, and the notes can all be found in the G&S Archive.]
The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, although good value for money, is essentially a luxury item which not everyone will be able to afford. The same definitely cannot be said of Casting the Runes. At £3.95 for a decently produced paperback, every G&S reader can and should own a copy.
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The significance of 28th October 1893 ought to be known to all aficionados of the English ghost story. On that date "Mr James read 'Two Ghost Stories'" to the 601st meeting of the Chitchat Society at King's College, Cambridge. The 'Two Ghost Stories' were "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" and "Lost Hearts", the first-known of a group of tales which have become among the best-loved in the English ghost story tradition. To commemorate the centenary of this momentous occasion the Ghost Story Press has issued a facsimile edition of those two stories with accompanying notes.
One sometimes wonders whether there is any attraction in such editions for the general reader as opposed to the scholar. For the sake of an interpolated comma here, a changed name there, is it honestly worth the effort? The answer must surely be yes, because anyone who genuinely loves the work of a particular author, scholar or not, nurses a quiet desire to see what the manuscript actually looks like. There is an undeniable thrill in seeing, if not actually being able to handle, the original that no printed page can ever generate. What, for instance, is the significance of the bold "No.4" at the head of the manuscript of "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book"? Is this the fourth draft or are there three missing stories about which to speculate? More facetiously, would we have been forever deprived of Bill Read's Dennistoun tales had James stuck to his original plan of naming his hapless hero Anderson? Somehow it doesn't have the same ring of ill-informed foolhardiness.
Perhaps the biggest surprise is the comparative legibility of James's handwriting when he was notorious for his illegible scrawl. Rosemary Pardoe, in her splendidly informative Afterword, proposes that we are in fact reading final drafts, neatly transcribed for publication. There are differences between the drafts and the published texts, sometimes small but nevertheless of interest. We assume that it was James himself who made these alterations, though he was no lover of proof-reading. Nevertheless, the changes demonstrate that he was always aware of the scope for revision, as in the slight but devastatingly effective amendments to the text of "Lost Hearts", not to mention the demands of magazine publishers for more punctuation than James was wont to provide.
The holograph text can sometimes solve those niggling discrepancies within a story, though in the case of "Lost Hearts" we are doomed to eternal speculation as to why, when the procedure specifies persons under twenty-one, Mr Abney is set on his sacrifices being under twelve. If an error was made, it was James who made it but the manuscript remains silent.
A facsimile edition is always more valuable if accompanied by notes, explication and, ideally, comparative texts. This edition is well served, not only by Rosemary Pardoe's notes but also by Michael Cox's introduction, detailing the publishing history of James's stories and the history of the Chitchat Society. The final printed texts for both stories are also included and, a delightful bonus, the two illustrations made by James McBryde for "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book", the latter including an unexpectedly cuddly demon lurking at Dennistoun's elbow, inevitably the wrong elbow.
The Ghost Story Press and the book's editors, Christopher and Barbara Roden, must be congratulated on the production of this volume, a combination of utility and aesthetic delight. What James would have made of it, one can only speculate, particularly as he did not share my enthusiasm for "Lost Hearts" and might well be bemused to see it thus commemorated. Nevertheless, this book is a fitting celebration of one of the most important events in English literary history.
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There was a time when it seemed almost de rigeur for academic gentlemen to pen stories for children. Lewis Carroll, J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis instantly spring to mind. Whatever their individual motives, simple entertainment seems not to have been their only intent. Carroll dazzles us with his punning wit, as well as encoding the mysteries of mathematics, while Lewis unashamedly uses his fiction, however charmingly written, to promulgate his Christian beliefs, and Tolkien mourns a lost world of myth and chivalry. But if Oxford was a hotbed of academic entertainment for children, did Cambridge intellectuals while away their spare time writing edifying texts for their young friends?
One, at least, did: M.R. James, whose delightful children's novel, The Five Jars, seems inexplicably to have been overlooked by genre historians and aficionados alike. Whether this came about through changes in fashion or just simple scarcity - only two reprints in seventy-three years, and one of those an American library edition - is impossible to say; either way, this handsome new edition provides a welcome opportunity to re-assess one of James's lesser-known works.
Lesser-known, perhaps, but by no means inferior. Narrated by "M (or N)", almost certainly intended to be James himself, The Five Jars tells the story of his discovery, after swallowing a magic flower bulb, of a box containing jars filled with mysterious potions. Appropriate application brings to his attention the world of the animals and fairies which surround him. Here he meets the Right People, the good fairies, and becomes aware of the others who want to steal his box for their own nefarious purposes. Aided by the adolescent boys of the Right People, and a motley assortment of birds and animals including his own cat, M eventually defeats the powers of darkness, after which, it has to be said, the book falls away rather with a charming but ultimately pointless visit to the Right People's homes.
Mary Butts in 1934 rightly if gushingly praised the book "which, with its ordinariness, is steeped in the magic which belongs to Dr James and to no one else on earth." And how right she was to comment on its prosaic quality. M's battle with evil forces is conducted in the familiar surroundings of his country home, somehow comforting and that little bit more threatening all at once. His foes assume the likenesses of local people and seek to draw him away from his precious box with all-too-domestic distractions. (One wonders vaguely what MRJ's own domestic life was like, given his apparent familiarity with the deeds of careless maids.) His defenders and their methods are equally comforting and down-to-earth. Most enchanting is M's epic battle with the bat-ball, a particularly unpleasant and extremely Jamesian creation, and his enthusiastic routing of it with a garden squirt, though his seemingly endless supply of horseshoes also stands him in good stead.
James shows a truly lyrical turn of phrase in his description of being led upstream by the voice of the brook, looking for the bulb which will confer on him the magic sight necessary to find the box. In particular, I very much liked the passage describing what happened to the silver demanded by the brook. Sheer poetry.
Less pleasing to Mary Butts and also to Rosemary Pardoe, who contributes the excellent introduction to this new edition, are the boys of the Right People. Butts sees them as "too much well-bred boys, dressed up", while Rosemary Pardoe sees them as "uncomfortably old-fashioned" and wonders whether they may not "already have seemed old-fashioned to all but the upper classes in 1922". I find these remarks themselves a little unconvincing given the fact that, at the time he began writing The Five Jars, James was becoming increasingly involved with the running of Eton and would shortly become its Provost. Thus, the children he would most often meet would be precisely those well-bred upper-class boys. I, for one, tend to think of the Right People as more akin to a magically transformed Eton Scout Troop. A more pertinent question to ask at this juncture would be why, bearing in mind this novel was written for a girl (Jane McBryde), James thought the activities of miniature Elizabethan schoolboys might make a suitable subject. Allowing for the mores of the time, and the fact that MRJ seems not to have intended his novel to have a moral, one shudders only slightly on discovering that the main ability of the fairy girls is to become invisible.
Yet, if James found himself unable to create female characters with whom to delight his ward, then neither did he feel the need to stint the horrific elements of his tale. Quite apart from the truly malevolent bat-ball, the novel is permeated with a pleasantly thrilling but low-key sense of threat. One thinks of the mysterious being "with red rims to its eyes and the expression of a parrot", and the "odd man" who wants to borrow the squirt. More threatening still are the pillars of mist which appear in the garden, immortalised in Gilbert James's illustrations for the original edition, and by Antony Maitland in this one; and which seem to have strayed in from one of James's other stories. As Rosemary Pardoe observes, MRJ well understood that children love to be scared.
Rosemary also wonders whether The Five Jars might originally have been considered "strong stuff", hence its apparent neglect over the years, and expresses the fervent hope that now attitudes towards children's reading are more lenient, it may perhaps come into its own. Sadly, I can't quite see The Five Jars competing with Point Horror, but those children and adults who love the work of E. Nesbit and Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies, will undoubtedly take pleasure in this novel, which seems to me to have a similar flavour. What did Jane McBryde make of this gift from "Mouse", her pet name for James? Her reaction was not recorded. However, the reviewer for the Eton Chronicle speaks for me at least when he reported how he had heard from the Provost that his new book was "for juveniles": "I asked him whether he meant people even younger than me, and he said he did. He was wrong."
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If M.R. James wrote his ghost stories purely to entertain his friends, why do they seem to strike such resonances in readers? Why are they so terrifying? Clive Dunn's fifty minute documentary sets out to try to answer this question. In the words of its fictional narrator, nicely played by Dangerfield's Bill Wallis, "was there something that made [Monty James] believe that evil and malice could become palpable?"
Dunn's search takes Wallis and the viewers to Aldeburgh, Felixstowe, Cambridge, Eton and finally to Livermere Rectory, where MRJ spent much of his childhood. We are offered snippets from various previous TV adaptions and some new dramatisations of episodes in MRJ's life, with Michael Elwyn well cast as Monty. There are also numerous talking heads giving their opinions on MRJ. Maybe there are just too many, although I would have been happy to hear more from Michael Cox and Ronald Blythe ...and even Jonathan Aycliffe (with whom I don't always agree) talks a lot of sense here, while Christopher Lee clearly speaks from the heart of his affection for the tales. Jonathan Miller and Julia Briggs, on the other hand, could both have been dispensed with at no cost (ghost stories are "conundrums and jokes spun by clever boys", being an example of the standard of Miller's thoughts on the subject).
Somewhere in the middle of the film, it begins worryingly to look as though its thesis will revolve around a Freudian explanation. The viewer is told that MRJ's relationship with James McBryde wasn't "overtly sexual", the obvious implication being that something was going on between them aside from deep friendship. And Laurence Staig opines that the ghost stories are full of sexual imagery. But mercifully, we quickly pass on to look at the events described in "A Vignette", where MRJ appears to be in "confessional mood" according to Michael Cox. Does it depict a supernatural experience in MRJ's childhood, which affected him throughout his life? Were his stories an effort to come to terms with some such occurrence? It's not a new theory, but it's a very valid one. The documentary concludes that this probably was the case, and offers in evidence local beliefs in Livermere that the area around the gate in the story was, and still is, haunted (someone needs to look into this more deeply). The programme crescendos neatly with a series of fictional scenes juxtaposing the discoveries of Wallis, the modern narrator, with those of an earlier antiquarian investigator, both of whom seem to see rather more at Livermere than is good for their peace of mind.
A Pleasant Terror is, in general, a successful, entertaining and well-researched production, which crams in a lot of serious points, but still has time to offer some chills. I particularly enjoyed the climax, though this might be confusing to non-MRJ fans who won't know that the imaginary antiquary and his flight from Livermere are original to the documentary, and not part of an MRJ tale. I'm not sure, however, that MRJ would have liked the film. If, as I suspect, it comes close to the truth of the matter, he might not have been very comfortable about admitting it to himself.
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Copyright © 2000 Rosemary Pardoe.
Copyright on all reviews retained by the reviewers. Not to be reprinted
or reproduced without their permission.
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Last altered: February 20, 2002.