Montague Rhodes James certainly knew how to write a good, scary tale. In fact, he is generally considered to be the master of the English ghost story, an honour which is thoroughly deserved.
Born in 1862 in Kent, James attended Eaton College, and later King’s College, Cambridge, where he won many awards and scholarships. James started to write ghost stories as a sideline from his academic studies, and to entertain his colleagues. In October 1893, James presented the first of these tales, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook’ (originally called ‘A Curious Book’), to the Chit Chat Society, a regular gathering of colleagues – mostly from King’s and Trinity Colleges – who shared a keen interest in literature. The story went down well, and started the ball rolling for James’s regular sessions of ghost story telling.
We don’t really know exactly when James first started telling ghost stories to his friends at Christmas time, but the practice was well underway by 1903, when he regaled his audience with one of his most frightening tales: ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’. This story bears all the hallmarks of a typical M. R. James creation: the ancient relic, the perturbing dream, and the shock factor of the final terrifying awakening of the spirit.
James loved books, academic literature and ancient tracts, and these interests certainly had a great influence on his stories. His fiction also set the benchmark to which the work of all subsequent ghost story writers would be compared.
Before he died, James published four collections of his fiction: Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost And Others (1919), and A Warning To The Curious And Other Ghost Stories (1925). An amalgamation of all four, The Collected Ghost Stories Of M. R. James, was published in 1931. After this volume, a further three stories were published: The Experiment (1931), The Malice of Inanimate Objects (1933), and A Vignette (1936).
Both film and television have adopted the work of M. R. James. For instance, the Hollywood movie Night of the Demon (1957) was based on his short story ‘Casting The Runes’, and is regarded as one of the most terrifying films about demonology ever. However, the movie has also received criticism for not staying true to the plot and spirit of the original story. Also, especially over the Christmas period, the BBC has produced many versions of the stories of M. R. James, and unlike the aforementioned movie, these have come very close to evoking the mood and atmosphere of his work. The best of these productions was ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, which was first screened in 1968. Many years later, on Christmas Eve 2010, a remake was screened, with John Hurt in the main role. This production, however, was let down by yet more tinkering around with the plot of the original story, and was in fact a very poor version compared to the 1968 one.
There is no doubt that M. R. James left a fantastic legacy in regard to the art of good ghost story writing, and although his style has been emulated by many writers of creepy fiction over the years, his sheer brilliance has rarely been matched, and never surpassed.