If there is a ‘Shakespeare of the ghost story’, it is surely Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), better known to legions of ghost-story readers as M. R. James. No other writer of the ghost story has managed to summon the haunting aspects of the distant past quite so effectively and unnervingly as James. Indeed, he is often named as the founder of the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ for his keen perception that objects from centuries ago can harbour weird and unsettling associations for us.
As is often the case with master storytellers, James began composing his ghost stories for a close circle of friends and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, where James worked as a medievalist scholar, as Provost of King’s College, and eventually, as Vice-Chancellor of the whole university. He would read them out every year on Christmas Eve, before they were eventually published in a number of collections.
But what are the very best M. R. James ghost stories? Below, we select and introduce ten of his greatest, and say a little about why they are worth reading.
1. ‘Lost Hearts’.
This was only the second ghost story James wrote, but it remains one of his very best – as well as one of his most unsettling. It’s unusual in having not a donnish scholar or collector as its protagonist (a James staple) but a young orphan boy, Stephen, who is sent to stay with is cousin, an ageing recluse named Mr Abney. Stephen starts to see strange visions around the house – visions of other children whose hearts are missing. And Mr Abney is in pursuit of the secret to eternal life …
2. ‘A View from a Hill’.
Although not as famous as some of the other stories on this list, ‘A View from a Hill’ is, for our money, one of James’s best. It’s about an antiquarian named Fanshawe who goes to stay with his friend, a country squire. Fanshawe borrows a pair of old binoculars from his friend when they go exploring together. Through these binoculars, Fanshawe can see into the past, revealing an old abbey and church which were demolished centuries ago. And a gallows where criminals were hanged …
M. R. James’s ghost stories are a good example of how genuine fear in the reader is built up through a gradual accumulation of details: suggestion, as much as the big reveal. And the moment when Fanshawe first sees the substantial abbey, only to be told by his friend that it’s little more than a ruin, is one of the finest moments in James’s fiction.
3. ‘A Warning to the Curious’.
One of James’s most perennially popular stories, ‘A Warning to the Curious’ focuses on a young archaeologist named Paxton, who hears about a legend concerning three holy crowns, one of which remains buried somewhere on the south-east coast of England.
Paxton locates the crown, digs it up, and – well, let’s just say he quickly comes to realise that he should have let it rest. The moment when Paxton and the narrator learn that there was a third person, a ghostly presence, following them is another standout moment in James’s fiction.
4. ‘Number 13’.
A man goes to stay in an inn in Denmark. His room is Number 12, and strange things soon start to happen while he’s in there: furniture disappears, and the dimensions of the room appear to shrink. Noise can be heard from next door, but he’s told there is no room Number 13. When he knocks at Number 14, the room next door, he learns that the occupant thought he was the one making the noise! So what happened to the mysterious Number 13?
It was perhaps inevitable for a ghost-story writer to explore our cultural superstition surrounding this unlucky number (and many street planners and hotel-owners don’t have a room number 13 because of its negative connotations), but perhaps no writer has tapped into those fears more successfully than James does here.
Perhaps the most quintessentially Jamesian story of them all, this one was memorably adapted by the late Jonathan Miller in the 1960s, with Michael Hordern turning in a brilliantly understated performance. Whoever said that a white sheet couldn’t make a convincing and truly terrifying ghost needs to watch Miller’s adaptation, and read James’s story …
The tale, which is named after a 1793 poem of the same name by Robert Burns, concerns Parkins, a Cambridge professor who is on holiday on the Suffolk coast. The Jamesian object which triggers an outbreak of haunting in this story is a bronze whistle which the protagonist stumbles upon while investigating a preceptory that belonged to the Knights Templar.
You might not need us to tell you that Parkins will wish he had never disturbed that whistle, much less blown on it …
6. ‘The Ash-Tree’.
Severe arachnophobes may wish to skip this story, because of its ending, but it’s a classic James story so is well worth reading. Witchcraft is the main subject of this James tale, which takes us back to 1690 and a witch trial.
A landowner ensures a local woman is condemned as a witch and subsequently executed, but this same landowner dies shortly afterwards in mysterious circumstances. Half a century later, the landowner’s grandson takes up residence in the same house, and discovers the ash-tree in the grounds of the estate is causing problems. Is this tree somehow connected to the events of fifty years earlier?
In M. R. James’s ghost stories, objects are usually the link between the present and some horrifying past. And in this story, a scholar of medieval history (so far, so quintessential James) recounts how he found a series of clues which led him to hidden treasure: gold which belonged to an abbot. But if there’s one ‘moral’ in the M. R. James universe, it’s that you should never disturb concealed treasure, and if you do, you should promptly put it back …
8. ‘The Tractate Middoth’.
A university librarian is tasked with locating a tractate (a kind of treatise or essay) in the library. A mysterious figure, a clergyman dressed in black and shrouded in cobwebs, also appears in search of the document, which, it transpires, contains a key piece of evidence regarding the inheritance of a family estate. This is a slightly unusual James story in that it ends happily (not to give away too many spoilers), with the announcement of a marriage, though it doesn’t end happily for all parties.
An archdeacon dies in mysterious circumstances and his replacement, an ambitious man named Haynes, settles into the role. But he soon begins to be haunted by strange, carved figures in the stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Did Haynes have something to do with the death of his predecessor? The narrator thinks so.
10. ‘The Mezzotint’.
By now it should be apparent that M. R. James developed a clear formula for his ghost stories, which usually runs: bachelor who is either a scholar or collector of antiquities (or something history-related) comes into possession of an object from the past and then wishes he hadn’t.
And this story, the final pick in this selection of James’s best ghost stories, largely conforms to this pattern. The protagonist is a Mr Williams, who works as the curator of a university art museum, is sent a mezzotint – a black-and-white print or engraving – showing his house. But the print appears to change subtly each time it is looked at, with the position of the moon altering and, more unsettlingly, a strange figure appearing in the picture …