About M R James
‘If any of my stories succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained...’ - M R James, Preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904
Montague Rhodes James [1862 - 1936] more than succeeded in this modest ambition. Over a century after their first publication, his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary remain the most admired supernatural tales in the English language.
The author, an eminent medieval scholar, first performed the stories to friends at King's College, Cambridge, where he was a fellow and later Provost. The following article was written by Christopher Frayling for the programme for Nunkie Theatre Company's A Pleasing Terror:
Those who have seen the film Night of the Demon, or enjoyed the various TV dramatisations of the M R James ghost stories, tend to forget the circumstances in which the antiquarian's tales were first told.
Imagine the scene. The choir of King's can be heard singing Once in Royal David's City. The muffled, black-gowned figures of the senior members of College - a mass of fluttering draperies - are walking across the lawn towards the great Chapel. It is the end of a Michaelmas term in the first decade of the twentieth century. And in the Provost's candle-lit suite of rooms, Monty James is hurriedly putting the finishing touches to one of the tales which will be collected in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) and More Ghost Stories... (1911).
His eyes are set in a furrowed but faintly amused face. Perhaps he is reflecting upon the illuminations in the magnificent 13th century Apocalypse in Trinity College Library, which he is in the process of cataloguing. Death on a Pale Horse. Demons treading out the vintage. Hell's mouth itself, with the teeth of a huge devil chewing on lost souls. On his writings on the subject of ghost stories James distinguished between his scholarly life and his ‘Christmas productions’ - but it is clear that in reality there was a deep connection between the two.
Now, by the light of a single candle, Monty is performing his story - the ink still wet on the page - to a group of undergraduates, dons, visiting fellows and a chaplain. He evidently enjoys his power to unsettle people, to make their flesh creep, in a completely untheatrical way. He also enjoys putting on a Cockney accent or a Suffolk tradesman's accent for the non-academic characters. The atmosphere isn't intense and religiose - far from it - it is like a party for very clever children, all dressed in evening clothes. The audience enjoys swapping Latin phrases, or obscure bibliographical references.
The claret-cup is circulating, as is a plate of anchovy toast and a box of snuff. Like the wine, Monty's prose has a vintage, old world, rich and fruity quality to it. The stories - with their understatements, their withholding of unnecessary information, their antiquarian settings which are shattered by the arrival of a visceral demon, and their lonely bachelor scholars who may be a little too smug for their own good - were intended to be savoured in the same way.
- Christopher Frayling, November 2005