Friday, 11 April 2014

J for James...M R James

Image of M R James circa 1900
 (Click link for details on Wikipedia)
Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), was generally known as M. R. James.

M. R. James was the originator of the 'antiquarian ghost story'.(1) He was also a medieval scholar and College provost. (King's College, Cambridge; 1905–1918, Eton College; 1918–1936). M R James's ghost stories were written with a view for them to be told to a select group of friends in a candlelight room at Christmas. However, following publication, public reception to these stories proved so popular that they have remained in print ever since. According to Ruth Rendell, M R James is the type of author which 'one wishes one had not read, in order to have the pleasure of reading them again'.

M R James was a consummate story teller and his characteristic style has become known as Jamesian. His stories typically involve nondescript protagonists intended to assist readers to visualise themselves in a similar scenario. Descriptive detail supplied when defining the setting ensures that the reader could clearly imagine the scene. Plot development is prolonged to build tension rather than rushed as with action stories, typically involving the discovery of antiquarian object which attracts the attention of malign supernatural elements. (2)

Spoiler alert, the following will briefly discuss the story 'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You' so if you have yet to read this story, you may want to do so before reading the following.

'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You' is a typical example of the Jamesian style. The story opens with an introduction to the personality of the main character Professor Parkins, clearly establishing his lack of belief in the supernatural which obviously foreshadows the arrival of supernatural elements into the story. The character introduction also sets the scene whereby Parkins is tasked with performing a reconnaissance of a Templar preceptory with respect to establishing whether it might offer potential as a site for subsequent archaeological excavation. During his examination of the site, Parkins discovers an inscribed whistle at the site which elicits his interest. Curiosity for the sound the whistle would make proves too tempting to ignore, so Parkins blows the whistle thereby summoning the spirit and leading to completion of the cycle of Jamesian elements within the story. Such elements, although predictable, definitely do not fail to disappoint!

1. Briggs, Julia (1986). 'James, Montague Rhodes'. In Sullivan, Jack, ed., The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural. New York: Viking Press.
2. James, M.R., 'Preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary'. In Joshi, S.T., ed. (2005). Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories: The Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Volume 1, Penguin Books.



This blog post was written in the spirit of the April 2014 A-Z Challenge whereby a post is written every day during the month of April (with the exception of Sunday). The theme of each post is meant to correspond with a letter of the alphabet in sequential order. Tomorrow's post will be on K. For details and to visit the A-Z Challenge website, click here.

1 comment:

  1. M.R. James is one of my favorite authors! Great post on a great story-teller!
    'Oh Whistle, and I'll Come To You' is quite a good story; 'A Warning To The Curious' is another of my favorites, and is in many ways similar - though with a more grim ending! I once made the mistake (although 'mistake' might be the wrong word) of telling a (very) simplified version of 'Number 13' to a group of kindergarten kids- and they became utterly obsessed with it, and demanded the story every time I saw them after that. I think they liked to think about the room being there or not, and they liked the counting aspect of the story (which I highlighted for pedagogic purposes); we'd say the room numbers as the protagonist went down the hall of his room together, and they'd start grinning like tiny lunatics when I said, "...number 13...". Much Discussion occurred about the room and the number of windows it had, etc.
    The only problem with telling Number 13 to kindergarteners is that, when they demand to hear it again, it is very difficult, sometimes, to remember how one adapted it so that it would make sense to small children.
    Perhaps a collection of M.R. James Stories For Tots is in order?
    Melanie Atherton Allen