Ghosts of Christmas Past: The Stories of M. R. James

by Paul Anders (@Senobyte)

There is something about winter that makes people think of ghost stories. Maybe it’s something primal in us, the longer nights and the colder weather urging us to gather round the fire. Compelling us to tell stories about the dreaded things beyond the protective fortress of hearth and home.

Regardless of the social and psychological forces behind the link between winter and ghost stories, there is no denying the connection. One need only observe the enduring popularity of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as proof. However, Dickens was not the only British storyteller whose tales became associated with Christmas. For fans of horror literature in the UK, this time of year has also become intrinsically linked with reading the “antiquarian ghost stories” of M. R. James.

Some consider Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) a quintessential English scholar. The son of an Anglican priest, he showed an interest in history from a very early age. A graduate of Eton College, he went on to study at King’s College Cambridge where he began what he would consider his life’s work: cataloguing the university’s extensive collection of medieval manuscripts. In fact, even today, students examining the same collection rely upon James’s work. Following his graduation, James earned the position of Don, and later Provost, of King’s College. Over time he amassed recognition as a noted medievalist, many regarding him an expert in religious manuscripts of the era. 

Despite his success as an academic, James is most remembered as a writer, namely for his contribution to the English ghost story tradition. Scholars even coined the term “Jamesian” to represent his particular style. Nevertheless, during his own life, James considered his fiction-writing career as no more than a side gig.

It was in October 1893 that the world was first introduced to his tales. As host of a conversational club at Cambridge known as the Chit Chat Society, James one evening brought its members something rather different than their usual discourse and discussion of academic texts: his stories.

After an initial success, he soon established the tradition of reading new tales to his friends, often on Christmas Eve. He slowly built up a body of work with stories occasionally published in magazines during the 1890s, later collected in his first book Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904.

By reading this collection, one can discern the emerging link between his stories and Christmas. Imagine a dimly lit room in King’s College, burning candles and a roaring fire casting shadows over James’s figure as he narrates his latest tale to a gathering of friends.

Cover of the BBC's Ghost Stories for Christmas DVD release

Following James’s death, while there were some early attempts at adapting his works, it wasn’t until the 1970s that this Christmastime tradition continued. The BBC produced the series A Ghost Story for Christmas from 1971 to 1978, adapting five of his tales along with Charles Dickens’s “The Signal-Man” and a couple of original episodes written for television. Not long afterward, 1980 saw the series Spine Chillers run throughout November and December, featuring various actors reading classic ghost and horror stories aimed at older children—three of James’s tales were included among the episodes.

In 2000, the BBC would again produce a short series showcasing his work. Rather than creating a straight dramatization, though, they decided to cast none other than Christopher Lee to play M. R. James as if he were narrating his own stories (if you can find this, I highly recommend it).

More recently in 2005, the BBC revived A Ghost Story for Christmas and have since added new adaptations every few years. Writer, director, and self-professed horror fan Mark Gatiss took over the production in 2013.

While there have been other adaptations of James’s work in various anthology series over the years, it is the BBC versions that have solidified this intertwining of ghost stories and Christmas. With each new televised production of James’s stories, a new generation of horror fans are introduced to his work, myself included.

Photo of a man in victorian dress writing

Earlier, I referenced the works of M. R. James as “antiquarian ghost stories,” but what does that actually mean? The explanation is quite straightforward: a frequent character device used in his writing is that of an antiquarian or scholar stumbling across an item that leads to his encounter with the supernatural. Looking further into his writing style, one can see why he is now renowned for developing the “Jamesian” style of ghost story. Prior to his work, ghost stories tended to favour the Gothic tradition, always set in the past and prioritizing atmosphere over details. James turned this approach on its head and frequently set his tales in the modern day, yet still with a focus upon atmosphere. He often made use of landscape to set the mood, providing descriptions of a lonely English countryside to heighten a sense of isolation in his characters.

In addition to his setting, his narrative style too was a break from the accepted tradition. Possibly a result of his writing to entertain friends, his narratives seem almost conversational with their occasional asides from the narrator to the reader. Each tale presents a frame narrative from the point of view of a storyteller who has heard the events from the central character, or even someone who knew them, lending the stories an element of realism. The influence of this style can even be seen today in the way urban myths like “friend of a friend” stories or even creepypastas are told. James himself summarises his style best in the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary:

I think that, as a rule, the setting should be fairly familiar and the majority of the characters and their talk such as you may meet or hear any day.

While his influence is not necessarily widely known, he has been considered an inspiration for the likes of Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft, and he has even been discussed by Stephen King in his book Danse Macabre.

Rather than insist you immediately go out and read all of his works—although there is absolutely nothing wrong with that—I thought I would recommend a few to get you started.

“Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”
Why not start with the first story James wrote? Here, we see the beginnings of what would become his signature style with the scholarly gentleman uncovering a medieval artefact that leads to an encounter with the supernatural.

“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”
In one of his best tales, we see his style develop; while the scholar and the discovery of an artifact still remain, James hones his storytelling prowess to slowly build up the tension in a most beautiful way.

“Casting the Runes”
A departure from his normal fare, here we have a tale of a vindictive occultist and his victim’s attempt to escape a curse. This is the only one of his stories to see an adaption to the cinema with Night of the Demon (“Curse of the Demon” in the U.S.) in 1957.

Further reading

A Ghost Story for Christmas

Spine Chillers

A useful FAQ

Article on James’ writing style

The ghostly world of M. R. James (Short but informative piece on his life and work)

A head shot of Paul Anders
Paul Anders

Paul Anders is a coffee-loving Englishman who doesn’t care for stereotypes and is a lifelong fan of horror, weirdness, and all the tentacled elder things that go squish in the night.

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