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An English Chill

Rediscovering the ghost stories of M. R. James.

Mar 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 26 • By SARA LODGE
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M. R. James was a medieval scholar and cataloguer of manuscripts first, a ghost-story writer second. Some of his 33 tales are underdeveloped or have weaknesses, as when he is attempting a working-class voice. But the best continue to exert an uncanny hold over the British imagination: They have achieved cult status. This is partly because many have been adapted into 45-minute BBC dramas, some of which are themselves classics of the genre.

Last year, to celebrate James’s 150th birthday, Oxford University Press produced a new edition of the stories, with a helpful introduction and notes by Darryl Jones. Additionally, a box set has been released of the BBC adaptations from 1968 to 2010. Both are enjoyable. Jonathan Miller’s loose film adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You (1968) and Lawrence Gordon Clark’s version of A Warning to the Curious (1972) are particularly menacing. The box set also includes a recording of Christopher Lee reading some of the tales. Lee was interviewed for admission to Eton by M. R. James, and it is tempting to suppose that some instinct for the sinister passed between them.

 

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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