M.R. James: The Grandmaster of Horror

An antiquary is either an expert on, or collector of antiques, or both. The protagonists in GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY by M.R. James generally hale from this studious bunch, who tend to come into contact with some hideous spectral entity as a result of their antiquarian quests.

Montague Rhodes James was born on August 1,1862, in Goodnestone, Kent, England. He was a noted mediaeval scholar and antiquary. He enjoyed great success in his fields of study, eventually going on to become Provost at both Kings College, Cambridge, and Eton College. He also held the position of the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge for a time.

Despite his impressive scholarly achievements, James is remembered today for the ghost stories he wrote to read to friends and family at Christmas. These spine-chillers led many to name him The Father of the Modern Ghost Story, inspiring the likes of H.P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Ramsey Campbell and Stephen King. James set forth three elements he felt a good ghost story should contain.

1. The setting should be familiar to the reader.
2. The characters should be ordinary people.
3. The ghosts need to be malevolent.

In the anthology MY FAVORITE HORROR STORY, Ramsey Campbell wrote the following about James.

“…I think, no writer in the field has shown greater willingness to make his tales as frightening as possible. He can convey more spectral terror in a single glancing phrase than most authors manage in a paragraph or a book.”

The most famous story by M.R. James is probably “The Casting of the Runes” (1911), adapted in the classic film, The Night of the Demon (1958). In it a man is passed a piece of paper with odd runes scrawled on it which will bring forth a monstrous demon unless he is able to pass it back.

Here’s a look at a few of his short stories:

1- “Number 13” (1904) – A man staying in room 12 of a hotel begins to realize another room takes the space between his and room 14 at times during the night. There was no room numbered 13 due to superstition. In the mysterious extra chamber, from which an eerie red glow emanates, he hears strange talking and sees disturbing shadows. This is a favorite of mine. The bizarre things attached to this spectral room point to a diabolical, demonic entity taking up residence in the extra-dimensional room.

2- “The Mezzotint” (1904) – A mezzotint is an old printing style effective for conveying subtle changes in lighting. The mezzotint in this story shows a manor house. Determining which one isn’t easy since its identifiers are partially missing. The buyer of the piece thinks it’s nothing special until a grotesque figure begins to appear, moving steadily closer to the house. This fantastic tale reminds me of the episode of ROD SERLING’S NIGHT GALLERY called The Cemetery starring Roddy McDowall.

3- “The Ash Tree” (1904) – The descendants of Matthew Fell, a squire whose testimony led to the execution of a witch, are found dead in their bedroom for the past 50 years. The witch promised “There will be guests at the Hall” just before her death. The men’s bodies are found blackened and swollen in the morning in a bedroom that overlooks a nearby ash tree. Hideous things scuttle within the wretched tree.

4- “Lost Hearts” (1904) – A young boy is sent to live with a relative at his secluded estate. The man seems unnaturally interested in the boy’s age. The boy begins to see a pair of spectral children wandering about. He also catches a glimpse of something monstrous in the communal bathroom.

5- “Count Magnus” (1904) – While researching a book on Sweden, a travel-writer comes across information on a 17th century nobleman called Count Magnus. He had a dark history, including references to alchemy and having embarked on the Black Pilgrimage (something few are willing to give any details about). The travel-writer becomes intrigued with a portrait of the evil Count on the wall. As his interest grows, padlocks begin to fall off the Count’s coffin.

6- “School Story” (1904) – A man recounts a tale about a favorite teacher from his school days and the odd events that preceded his disappearance. The teacher seemed to be receiving ominous messages from a ghostly presence.

7- “The Diary of Mr. Poynter” (1919) – A woman and her nephew buy a dead man’s diary from an auction. They commission some curtains to be made mimicking a design found in the book. After the curtains are hung, the nephew finds the pattern disturbing.

8- “The Uncommon Prayer-Book” (1919) – An unused church contains a rare collection of old prayer-books. These books have an uncanny knack of being found open when no one has been around.

9- “The Wailing Well” (1927) – Written for a Boy Scout troop, this story features a group of boy scouts camping near a forbidden area containing an old well. They are told it’s haunted by four ghosts and to stay away from it. One rebellious boy thinks they are lying and decides to go see for himself. This is another chilling tale with marvelous descriptions of the rotting things that hover near the well.

10- “An Episode of Cathedral History” (1914) – Renovations at a church exposes a tomb hidden beneath the pulpit. Unexplained dread and sickness begins to assail the town, along with odd screams in the night and a strange lurking entity.

11- “The Residence at Whitminster” (1919) – A young lord is taken in to live at Whitminster. His dark practices there elicit the attention of diabolical forces for years to come.

12- “A Warning to the Curious” (1925) – A man tells a group of men on vacation in Seaburgh about finding a lost Anglo Saxon crown on the beach said to protect the land from invasion as long as it’s undisturbed and that a strange figure has been pursuing him ever since. This one is also favorite of mine!

2 thoughts on “M.R. James: The Grandmaster of Horror

  1. The Ash Tree is one of my all time favorites. Also, of those you mention, I liked The Mezzotint. Of stories you don’t mention, I’d like to give a shout out to “Mr. Humphrey’s Inheritance” or it might be “Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance.” “Canon Alberic’s scrapbook” was memorable for me as well.

    Thanks for sharing MRJ’s basic requirements too. Good post.

    1. Those are great as well! I’m certain I’ll be doing another M.R. James article in the future where I’ll cover those as well. Also planning on doing one on the great H.R. Wakefield soon.

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