The Father of the Modern Ghost Story? The Reserved Brilliance of M.R. James

Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more……) – MR James from Stories I Have Tried To Write

Calling a particular author the father of the ghost story is perhaps going too far, particularly when there are other famous authors who have worked the field. Let me temporise then, and say that there is a particular style of ghost story which is now so obvious to us that it seem impossible that a particular person popularised that style. James invented, or at least turned into a subgenre, the following formula:

  • A reserved, generally scholarly man goes to a distant place.
  • It is superficially pleasant, but hints at darkness and decay.
  • He comes into contact with an ancient manuscript or artifact.
  • Increasingly bizarre and terrifying things occur to him.
  • He escapes back to our mundane world.

Now, you may be thinking “That’s almost every ghost story ever, with minor variations.” but it isn’t: it’s just James’s particular style, which has so influenced other authors that it seems to be a foundational style of storytelling.

The Library Service has a collection of MR James’s work, including some hidden gems.  His short stories were originally in small collections, have now been published in a large single volume called Collected Ghost Stories.  The BBC recorded many of James’s stories as Christmas specials, and we those on DVD. Two in particular I’d like to highlight. Whistle and I’ll Come to You contains the special made in 1968, but also a version released in 2010, with John Hurt in the lead role. The original is more faithful to the text, but the newer one has a more interesting colour palette, and shows the director’s interest in J-Horror. I’d also like to say how much I enjoyed Christopher Lee’s Ghost Stories for Christmas, which is perhaps the cheapest program ever made by the BBC.

This is basically a DVD of Christopher Lee sitting in a large chair reading MR James’s stories by candlelight. Now, that’s how James originally presented them: as candlelight readings to friends, and so the BBC can claim that this is original staging. It demonstrates what a powerful narrator Lee is that he can completely captivate an audience with no props, effects or scenery.

The Library Service has some MR James audio recordings, but there’s also an excellent Librivox recording of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. His works are also available in various free, e-formats through Project Gutenberg.