Authors: M. R. James

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English short-story writer and scholar

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1904

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, 1911

A Thin Ghost, and Others, 1919

The Five Jars, 1922

A Warning to the Curious, 1925

The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James, 1931 (as The Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M. R. James, 1984)

Book of the Supernatural, 1979 (pb. in U.S. as The Book of Ghost Stories, 1979)

Nonfiction:

Psalms of the Pharisees, 1891 (with H. E. Ryle)

The Testament of Abraham, 1892

The Gospel According to Peter, 1897

Ancient Libraries of Canterbury and Dover, 1903

Wanderings and Homes of MSS, 1919

Apocryphal New Testament, 1924

Eton and Kings: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875-1925, 1926

Biography

In his time, Montague Rhodes James was equally famous as a prolific antiquarian scholar and as a ghost-story writer whose sophisticated fictions maintain a continuing life in anthologies and on British radio and television. He was born on August 1, 1862, the youngest child of the rector of Livermere, Suffolk. He attended Temple Grove preparatory school, Eton College, and, as a scholarship student, King’s College, Cambridge, receiving his baccalaureate in 1885 and his master’s in 1889. His subsequent career was exclusively academic and administrative, though bicycling holidays took him to Ireland, France, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as to native sources of his research and some of his stories.{$I[AN]9810001020}{$I[A]James, M. R.}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;James, M. R.}{$I[tim]1862;James, M. R.}

The quality, range, and originality of James’s scholarly work was recognized in a succession of positions and honors. He won a fellowship at King’s College, where he lectured until 1893, and was elected dean of the college in 1889, tutor in 1900, and provost in 1905. He became director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 1893, the year he began the annual tradition of reading his ghost stories at Christmas. He was awarded a doctorate in literature by the University of Cambridge in 1895 and later honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin, St. Andrews University, and the University of Oxford, as his immense and estimable productivity continued. From 1913 to 1915, James was vice chancellor of Cambridge; in 1918, he became provost of Eton, and, in 1925, he was made a trustee of the British Museum. Among other distinctions, he was a member of several royal commissions, the British Academy, and the Society of Antiquaries. He was given the Order of Merit in 1930. Never married, the popular and good-humored “Monty” James died in Eton on June 12, 1936.

In spite of all these activities, James is more familiar as a master of the ghost story than as an outstanding scholar. He was a tireless cataloger of libraries and medieval manuscripts, with interests in biblical apocrypha and translation, Christian iconography and architecture, and related antiquarian subjects. His professional specialties, however, are often evident in his stories, where academic personalities, research investigations, real and invented documents in several languages, learned allusions, and pedantic asides appear. Exact details of churches, houses, and landscapes were drawn from the experiences of his bicycling vacations.

James’s devices and situations are singularly effective in his best-known stories. These include a pursuing spirit that inhabits bed linen (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”); a fortune in a well that embraces its finder (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”); an engraving that changes sinisterly with each viewing (“The Mezzotint”); and a vindictive alchemist who can effect a demon’s destruction of his enemies (“Casting the Runes”). Others beings and forces are hardly less powerful: a hairy creature emanating from a wallpaper pattern (“The Diary of Mr. Poynter”); a deceased count and his familiar (“Count Magnus”); a legacy whose cobwebbed protector is activated by a book (“The Tractate Middoth”); a cathedral tomb with an unpleasant tenant (“An Episode of Cathedral History”); and an avenging corpse that carries off its killer (“A School Story”).

A genial and gentlemanly humor often accompanies James’s tales of grisly revenants and malevolent guardians. Traditional gothic literary techniques are both honored and parodied; lower-class characters are comical in behavior and idiom; ironic and gratuitous narrative interpolations are frequent. James had a gift for understatement in his stories, believing in the principles of reticence and crescendo: Blatant horror never lingers but is implied, so effective is his control of atmosphere and suggestion. He also believed that contemporary actuality was best for this type of story and that its spirits should be malevolent. His horrors, usually distressingly tangible and punitive, were often called up from their inert condition by inadvertent human meddling.

The urbane, polished, and sometimes familiar manner of James’s stories is offset by their distinctively frightening content. It is this style which was completely original with James; yet it was partly an inevitable echo of his academic life. His collected stories have never been out of print; despite the limited number of his stories, James is still generally regarded as the principal modern exponent of the English ghost story.

BibliographyBriggs, Julia. “No Mere Antiquary: M. R. James.” In Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story. London: Faber and Faber, 1977. This chapter provides a good overview of James’s achievements in the genre, with a discussion of his methods of handling locale, the past, domestic terrors, mythology, and even ghosts themselves within his fiction.Cox, Michael. M. R. James: An Informal Portrait. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. A good, intimate biography that provides a detailed overview of the life of James. Only one chapter is devoted to the ghost stories, “A Peep into Pandemonium.”Joshi, S. C. “M. R. James: The Limitations of the Ghost Story.” In The Weird Tale: Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Ambrose Bierce, H. P. Lovecraft. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990. This critical chapter by an author who acknowledges his dislike for James’s ghost stories nevertheless sheds some light on the drawbacks of his method and general narrative strategies.Mason, Michael A. “On Not Letting Them Lie: Moral Significance in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James.” Studies in Short Fiction 19 (Summer, 1982): 253-260. This essay discusses how James’s ghost stories interweave moral values among the accurate evocations of the past, the subtle manipulations of reality, and the unsettling presence of an objective evil, which characterizes his tales of the supernatural.Michalski, Robert. “The Malice of Inanimate Objects: Exchange in M. R. James’s Ghost Stories.” Extrapolation 37 (Spring, 1996): 46-62. Argues that James’s ghost stories comprise a discourse about objects which have hidden spiritual powers; claims that the exchange of these objects implicitly comments on the exchange of objects in the modern capitalist world; provides a detailed description of the stories “Casting the Runes,” “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas,” and “A View from a Hill” to support this argument.Pfaff, Richard William. Montague Rhodes James. London: Scolar Press, 1980. Pfaff has written the most comprehensive biography of James as well as the most thorough examination of his writings, especially his academic work. Contains a comprehensive bibliography of James’s writings.Simpson, Jacqueline. “‘The Rules of Folklore’ in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James.” Folklore 108 (1997): 9-18. Notes parallels between the ghost stories of James and traditional folklore tales; compares James’s stories with Scandinavian folklore motifs.Sullivan, Jack. “The Antiquarian Ghost Story: Montague Rhodes James.” In Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1978. This chapter contains the best analysis of James’s ghost stories and their place within the English tradition. Sullivan is especially good in tracing the influence on James. He also traces the influence of James in his chapter “Ghost Stories of Other Antiquaries.”
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