'Tis the Season = M.R. James

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Collected Stories lives on my bedside cabinet but Xmas = M.R. James time for real. Read "Casting the Runes" again the other night cos it's pleasant enough to not kick the nightmares in i.e. at least it ends well. That thing he wrote for the Boy Scouts is maybe the wickedest piece of child-scaring I've ever read.

I know there's some James love on this board, let's try and work out why he's the best Christmas writer ever.

http://uktv.co.uk/ can fuck right off imo (Noodle Vague), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:27 (ten years ago) link

Right, you've inspired me to get out my collections--will report back!

The Complete Stories is almost certainly my most revisited book but it mysteriously seems to go missing all the time. Like right now damnit.

George Mucus (ledge), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:36 (ten years ago) link

Not been updated for ages, and not the most accessible of sites, but if you love MRJ, you need to know about this:

http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~pardos/GS.html

Soukesian, Friday, 13 November 2009 23:37 (ten years ago) link

He always makes me want to chase up people like Arthur Machen and I think this is partly some proto Wicker Man "british isles is evil and old" imaginary anti-nostalgia but I have never read a writer who can properly compete.

http://uktv.co.uk/ can fuck right off imo (Noodle Vague), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:38 (ten years ago) link

The White People by Machen is definitely worth a read.

George Mucus (ledge), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:39 (ten years ago) link

Online here: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ca/whtpeopl.htm

Much more dense and trippy than James. Some elucidation here: http://www.violetbooks.com/REVIEWS/rbadac-numinous.html

George Mucus (ledge), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:40 (ten years ago) link

I read some Machen on the net one time but I need proper fo' real books.

BBC sussed this shit cos they always do James adaptations over the christmas-tide. I suppose it ties into hiding in our mead-halls over the winter solstice atavism too.

http://uktv.co.uk/ can fuck right off imo (Noodle Vague), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:41 (ten years ago) link

Hard to pick a favourite James story but the Scouts one is definitely one of the darkest and most horrible.

George Mucus (ledge), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:42 (ten years ago) link

Hard to look at an unmown summer field without feeling it, too.

http://uktv.co.uk/ can fuck right off imo (Noodle Vague), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:46 (ten years ago) link

'Rats' is a really intense shocker. 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook' and 'Count Magnus' also jump to mind.

Doesn't seem to be online, but there is an occasionally reprinted chapbook called "The James Gang", listing MRJ influenced authors of ghost stories. From memory: H.R. Wakefield, E.F. Benson. L.T.C Rolt, A.N.L. Munby, Andrew Caldecott and so on . .

Soukesian, Friday, 13 November 2009 23:53 (ten years ago) link

Benson is a guy who always cropped up in childhood ghost compilations and I should maybe try and track down his collected ghost stories next.

http://uktv.co.uk/ can fuck right off imo (Noodle Vague), Friday, 13 November 2009 23:56 (ten years ago) link

Wordsworth do a cheap (3-quid) omnibus of the ghost stories of Benson and his brother.

E F Benson lived in Lamb House in Rye after the death of Henry James in 1915... my Wordsworth collection of Henry James' supernatural stories sits right next to my Wordsworth collection of M R James' supernatural stories...SPOOKY

Ward Fowler, Saturday, 14 November 2009 08:49 (ten years ago) link

Getting back to M.R. James, he was an academic expert on the biblical apocrypha, and the medieval literature around it, knew a lot about medieval ideas on demonology and witchcraft and seems to have been at least open to the idea that some of it was true. This certainly gives his stuff its antiquarian depth, and must have something to do with its psychological edge.

Soukesian, Saturday, 14 November 2009 19:14 (ten years ago) link

There's a good essay by someone called Jacqueline Simpson in Folklore about the origins (particularly Scandinavian) of his ghosts, the rules that they obey.

Here we go -

"The Rules of Folklore" in the Ghost Stories of M. R. James

Jacqueline Simpson
Folklore, Vol. 108, (1997), pp. 9-18

Interestingly, the device he used in Casting the Runes (of the unwitting acceptance of a message resulting in death unless it can be passed on to another unsuspecting victim - later used in, amongst others, the various Ringu/Ring films) Simpson claims is completely original.

Casting the Runes also has that memorable image of the insects crawling out of the slide projection screen at a children's party - possibly a precursor to that brilliant and startling moment in the Ring films.

'virgin' should be 'wizard' (GamalielRatsey), Saturday, 14 November 2009 20:27 (ten years ago) link

That's fascinating - he puts that over so convincingly that I just assumed it was a real tradition. Be interested to know if the writer of Ringu was referencing either the James story or the Night of the Demon movie.

Soukesian, Saturday, 14 November 2009 20:41 (ten years ago) link

The whole slide projection sequence in "Casting the Runes" is vivid and memorable. If anything the "happy" ending undermines the horror a little bit.

I'm sure that there are folkloric precursors to the cursed message, even if James invented the specifics himself. The Black Spot in Treasure Island is kind of an influence I think. Not to take anything away from James himself tho.

Azzingo da Bass - Dom's Night (Noodle Vague), Saturday, 14 November 2009 21:04 (ten years ago) link

I think the Black Spot (god how that gave me nightmares as a child - that and Blind Pew) was just a signal, like a white feather, that some sort of (man made) retribution or communal judgement was at hand, but yes, certainly I'm sure cursed objects, papers etc are a strong element of lots of folk beliefs - I suspect that she was referring to either the unwitting nature of the person receiving the message, or the element where if it gets passed on, the curse moves entirely over to the other person, possibly both - as you say, the specifics.

I've read (nowhere particularly authoritative I don't think) that Ringu was influenced by Casting the Runes, but at the time I read that, I felt that was perhaps a little tenuous, I'm not really sure now, but not knowing anything about the genesis of the film, am only really going on instinct.

'virgin' should be 'wizard' (GamalielRatsey), Saturday, 14 November 2009 21:50 (ten years ago) link

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2386/is_v108/ai_20438230/?tag=content;col1

Here's a link to that Jacqueline Simpson article by the way.

Azzingo da Bass - Dom's Night (Noodle Vague), Saturday, 14 November 2009 22:27 (ten years ago) link

Thanks!

xpost: I wouldn't be one bit surprised if Night of the Demon (the film of Casting the Runes) is well-known and respected in Japan. I don't know if MRJ's stories are, but it would be nice to make the connection.

I have a vague recollection that Ringu was based on some kind of actual school playground urban legend, but I could be wrong.

Soukesian, Saturday, 14 November 2009 23:04 (ten years ago) link

A big problem I have with lots of non-James stuff is the characters often explicitly hypothesise about the nature of the hauntings, go on about the spiritual dimension, speculate about mechanisms for passing from one side to the other, etc etc. It always comes across as thoroughly bogus and destroys any suspension of disbelief. I can't recall James ever doing this, his horrors just are, and you accept them thoroughly.

George Mucus (ledge), Monday, 16 November 2009 10:49 (ten years ago) link

Same point made in the article above, I discover.

George Mucus (ledge), Monday, 16 November 2009 11:02 (ten years ago) link

A collection of James' own pieces on the history and construction of ghost stories:
http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/james/mr/collect/appendix.html

George Mucus (ledge), Tuesday, 17 November 2009 14:50 (ten years ago) link

i only learnt today his first name is montague

thomp, Tuesday, 17 November 2009 14:56 (ten years ago) link

James' ghosts and demons are almost never communicable with, which is another point in their favour. They're almost always implacable forces of evil once they've been disturbed, with no chance for the victim to reason with them. At best, you can dodge them or put them onto somebody else's trail.

eman moomar (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 17 November 2009 15:52 (ten years ago) link

Also they're generally real physical things - revenants and demons - rather than wispy spooks and spectres. Not that there aren't scary stories with spooks and spectres, but James' ghoulies seem to generate a more palpable fear.

George Mucus (ledge), Tuesday, 17 November 2009 15:59 (ten years ago) link

Yeah as in they will mess you up for real so shutting your eyes going "not scared not scared" won't cut it. As real things I guess they are also that much more tied to their landscape too, hence landscape = fear.

eman moomar (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 17 November 2009 16:02 (ten years ago) link

This stuff was all very real to him, that's what makes it so intense. His ghosts are as real as his haunted houses - he would have been able to tell you all about their architecture - and as solid as the old-testament universe that he saw behind the Edwardian world he lived in.

Soukesian, Tuesday, 17 November 2009 22:21 (ten years ago) link

two years pass...

44 sleeps till christmas a website just told me! fuck off. coincidentally i am reading m r james for the first time and huh.

Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me, said Katriona's hologram. (thomp), Monday, 12 November 2012 01:52 (seven years ago) link

well that made me very efficiently spooked when i was walking around the house in the dark last night but i don't really know how else i felt about it

Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me, said Katriona's hologram. (thomp), Monday, 12 November 2012 23:19 (seven years ago) link

+enjoyed the running jokes about golf
+favourite 'the mezzotint' = the cambridge types in it displaying utter aesthetic detachment at the supernatural stuff, just kinda 'huh, that ghoul totally stole a kid ... no biggie', like the inverse of Standard Lovecraft Emotion
+don't know how much of this stuff was as ... familiar? not predictable exactly ... at the head of the last century
+like the one with the ward of the guy who's an expert on sacrificial rituals and whose previous wards have vanished
+and he explains that afterwards!! in case you didn't figure it out!!
+whereas 'whistle and i'll come to you, my lad', there's a foregrounded MYSTERIOUS INSCRIPTION which he never explains!!
+contrast to the ones in canon alberic's treasure, which are explained and overexplained. is 'the gold-bug' the (modern) origin of this type of story?
+'room 13' or 'number 13' a fine display of the 'the space in the room is wrong' thing, which is probably my favourite horror topos or trope of all time

Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me, said Katriona's hologram. (thomp), Monday, 12 November 2012 23:23 (seven years ago) link

Mezzotint = owner is freaked out but god help him he has to watch = maybe archivist's reaction to the unstoppable brutality of the past

inscription in Oh Whistle doesn't feel untranslatable but again the finder's "pooh pooh"ing draws him in
room 13 is straight Poe but Poe is ugly at this kind of horror of physics too, James sells you the naivety of his protagonists imo

movember spawned a nobster (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 02:34 (seven years ago) link

I presume you've all googled the inscription.

Dog the Puffin Hunter (ledge), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 09:41 (seven years ago) link

Interesting display of (non-scholarly) detachment in "Rats".

Dog the Puffin Hunter (ledge), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 09:45 (seven years ago) link

sorry yeah i think i cd read the inscription anyway when i was undrunk

anyho the place is the thing, imagine how horrible non-rural UK ghost writing mostly cd be

only Brod can judge me (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 13:19 (seven years ago) link

the mezzotint guy didn't seem that freaked out by it. he was willing to give that it was enough of a suspension of normal circumstances that his scout could use his chair, that was the limit.

i enjoyed the presence in a couple of cases of references to psychical-research types at the periphery of the story, curious what it would do to the logic of these fictions if they'd moved any more central

Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me, said Katriona's hologram. (thomp), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 19:02 (seven years ago) link

basically after three stories i was thinking 'must get the collected stories as soon as possible' and after i finished the book i thought 'maybe i will get the collected stories one day when i see a copy'

Yorkshire lass born and bred, that's me, said Katriona's hologram. (thomp), Tuesday, 13 November 2012 19:04 (seven years ago) link

five years pass...

Is there a "best place to start" or just dive in with any book/edition?

djh, Tuesday, 2 January 2018 20:50 (two years ago) link

There are collected stories freely downloadable. Usually collections are largely chronological, it works well because a lot of his classics are in the first batch of stories but I think he gets richer and more interesting in some ways later on

you shoulda killfiled me last year (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 2 January 2018 21:57 (two years ago) link

cosine this

mark s, Tuesday, 2 January 2018 21:58 (two years ago) link

the penguin 'count magnus and other ghost stories' is his first two collections with no omissions and some extra stuff and s.t. joshi's notes are only a little bit annoying

the ghost of tom, choad (thomp), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 01:17 (two years ago) link

+don't know how much of this stuff was as ... familiar? not predictable exactly ... at the head of the last century
+like the one with the ward of the guy who's an expert on sacrificial rituals and whose previous wards have vanished
+and he explains that afterwards!! in case you didn't figure it out!!

apparently i have a long history of hating on 'lost hearts'

weird note: i have a strong memory of reading that particular copy of 'ghost stories of an antiquary' in the house i grew up in ... which on the evidence of this thread never happened, as my parents had left long before the date i say i'm reading it for the first time ~

the ghost of tom, choad (thomp), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 01:20 (two years ago) link

There are collected stories freely downloadable

MRJ might be the only author where I have a sudden luddite desire to claim that there's no substitute for reading him on paper. There is or was a cheapo wordsworth classics edition of the complete ghost stories, which has all but three.

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 09:14 (two years ago) link

There's a run of stories towards the end that up till now have never left any impression on my memory - An Episode of Cathedral History, The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance, Two Doctors, The Haunted Dolls' House, The Uncommon Prayer-Book. Just reread them all and I would need some convincing that this isn't the weakest set of the bunch.

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 09:19 (two years ago) link

An Episode of Cathedral History: this is good and important (= i have a *theory* abt it which i am waiting to deploy on freaky trigger).

All the others have one perfectly formed memorably nasty element but are otherwise slight (two doctors, which is largely period pastiche), formally a repeat (dolls house, as he admits), erm not un-racist (prayerbook), or technically flawed (disappearance, which i remain fond of for the punch-and-judy stuff).

mark s, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 10:08 (two years ago) link

caveat: i am the biggest MRJ-stan on the board and basically he did NOTHING BAD and EVERYTHING IS GOOD shut up

also ledge is clearly setting djh up for some kind of sacristan-style business with his "read it in an actual book"

mark s, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 10:14 (two years ago) link

one reason i like the copy i've downloaded is it collects everything and has James's introductions to the original published volumes.

you shoulda killfiled me last year (Noodle Vague), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 10:23 (two years ago) link

There is or was a cheapo wordsworth classics edition of the complete ghost stories, which has all but three.

that's collected not complete, which sounds less oxymoronish. it has this cover, which is a perfect evocation of the jamesian atmosphere, if not quite enough to inspire the terror of the sacristan:

http://www.fineartprintsondemand.com/artists/grimshaw/moonlight_walk-400.jpg

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 13:35 (two years ago) link

i have a *theory* abt it which i am waiting to deploy on freaky trigger

only five others to go first eh

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 13:36 (two years ago) link

ghost story anthologists love a john atkinson grimshaw - quite a few examples iirc.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 13:45 (two years ago) link

oxymoronish oxymoranic obv, xp to self.

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 13:48 (two years ago) link

haha i have a social history of the london context of jack the ripper with a john atkinson grimshaw, called -- with a degree of bathos -- after the shower

only five others: actually it's the next one to go up (but the writer -- not me -- hasn't finished it)

mark s, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 14:06 (two years ago) link

good to hear the series is being exhumed yet again.

All the others have one perfectly formed memorably nasty element

i am willing to forgive a lot in james if there is one perfectly formed memorably nasty element but to me that is just where these are lacking. two doctors is also exceedingly obscure, googling 'bedstaff' does not help much.

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 14:18 (two years ago) link

This reminds me that I started jumping around in my various Penguin collections of a similar vintage (Machen, Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith) and never returned to James. I shall have to do that.

Bobby Buttrock (Old Lunch), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 14:33 (two years ago) link

the chrysalis! the chrysalis!

i have no idea what a bedstaff is, tbh i picture a big stick with a bedsheet nailed to it and move on

i could list the moments i mean (w/o looking them up) but it's a bit spoilery and unfair to djh

mark s, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 14:34 (two years ago) link

I have a collection of his stuff but never really got far into it. What's a really great one to start?

FREEZE! FYI! (dog latin), Wednesday, 3 January 2018 14:39 (two years ago) link

despite the various opinions here, including that he gets deeper and richer as he goes on, which is right i think, i'm not sure it really matters? If I remember rightly I picked up his stories (the first copy i had was Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories, and I just picked stuff I liked the look of. then re-read every winter. Have read all of them now I think (inc those not collected in the collected).

i'd be hesitant to tell you start with my favourites, partly because getting into him and his tone i think means you savour the best even more. would for this reason say 'just start with Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book and go from there where your nose takes you' but as you've presumably already done that, then pluck one you like the title of.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 15:30 (two years ago) link

christ my use or rather abuse of brackets is a constant source of shame.

Fizzles, Wednesday, 3 January 2018 15:31 (two years ago) link

The titular(*) whistle is basically a supernatural equivalent of "Do not throw stones at this notice".

(*) noun/verb confusion notwithstanding

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Sunday, 7 January 2018 20:17 (two years ago) link

i've always imagined that the Templars or whoever originally made it had some way of managing whatever it summoned

not raving but droning (Noodle Vague), Sunday, 7 January 2018 21:46 (two years ago) link

I picked up a cheapo best-of reprint this weekend and am looking forward to reading it. Some Gerhard-style crosshatch illustrations throughout.

This seems like an interesting writeup by P Fitzgerald but am avoiding until I've read some of the stories.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2000/dec/23/fiction.books

Chuck_Tatum, Sunday, 7 January 2018 23:22 (two years ago) link

There's a good and complimentary biography review in the lrb, and a bad and dismissive review of the collected stories which overplays the fear of sex angle. Both paywalled but here's a bit of the latter:

We don’t need to have read any of the Freud which James would have run several miles from to interpret what Mr Dunning in ‘Casting the Runes’ finds when he puts his hand into the well-known nook under his pillow: ‘What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.’

Jones [sic]detects a vagina dentata

I'm gonna go with 'nope' there.

i've always imagined that the Templars or whoever originally made it had some way of managing whatever it summoned

The fur/fla/fle/bis inscription, likely translation "oh thief, you will blow it, you will weep" suggests otherwise, that it was made simply to punish and not even to protect any other treasure.

Here comes the phantom menace (ledge), Monday, 8 January 2018 19:36 (two years ago) link

one year passes...

Martin's Close on bbc 4 at 10pm tonight. I might be asleep by then...

Paperbag raita (ledge), Tuesday, 24 December 2019 20:01 (one month ago) link

(can't place this one...)

koogs, Tuesday, 24 December 2019 20:26 (one month ago) link

it's the one that's a report of a trial, the ghost is a spurned and drowned woman with learning difficulties iirc. definitely not top tier.

Paperbag raita (ledge), Tuesday, 24 December 2019 20:31 (one month ago) link

It's from "More..." but still unfamiliar. Maybe that'll make for a better TV experience.

I had a bunch of the 15 minute radio versions from bbc4extra and they'd shuffle up whilst jogging around the park and really kill the mood.

koogs, Tuesday, 24 December 2019 20:37 (one month ago) link

Dunno if I'll see it tonight or catch up on iplayer over the holiday. 30 minutes seems a bit skimpy, we don't get them very often so a 45 minute film would've been nice. Most adaptations bar Jonathan Miller's aren't exactly formally daring tho

a very powerful woman in the dog world (Noodle Vague), Tuesday, 24 December 2019 20:51 (one month ago) link

it's one of my favourite stories in the books but as a version it wasn't great:they played judge jeffreys as a twerp, where i think he shd be irresponsible playful and funny but switching on the instant to scary and sinister -- p sure he commanded his courtrooms, which this guy really didn't :(

mark s, Wednesday, 25 December 2019 09:59 (four weeks ago) link

oh and the line-reading of "with a knife value a penny" was wrong -- this isn't meant dismissively, it's simply a record of the worth of the object by which the murder was done, as routinely entered in judicial records of crimes committed

viz per the medieval death bot tumblr FAQ, for the question (no.2) Why is the price of this thing mentioned?

"That thing – be it a pot or a knife – is called a deodand and it’s something that is believed to have caused the death of an individual. The price of each deodand is appraised and gathered for the crown’s treasury. The crown was then supposed to use this money for pious means, in the light that a deodand is, in purest form, something forfeited to god. The deodand was either paid by someone in the village or taken out of the deceased’s chattels."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deodand

mark s, Wednesday, 25 December 2019 19:29 (four weeks ago) link

They also skipped the bit about john martin's name being spelt wrong on the indictment which I think gives a good indication of his deceitful character and desperation, as well as hanging over the story like a chekhov's shotgun only to misfire at the end.

Paperbag raita (ledge), Wednesday, 25 December 2019 21:16 (four weeks ago) link

Yeah maybe the Beeb should let somebody less basic than Gattis have a go next time. This was mostly not quite adequate.

Bojo Rabid (Noodle Vague), Friday, 27 December 2019 10:48 (four weeks ago) link

i liked the dark pokeyness of the inn but not so much the windowed smallness of the court (which i guess i imagined wd be more rumpole-esque)

there's some nice annotative details here at rosemary pardoe's pleasingly nerdy james fansite: including a note on the misspelling legal claim which ledge mentions, pointing out that this is almost certainly a reference to a similar occurrence and claim in the 1660 trial of the regicide henry marten/martin (which claim failed, tho marten was not in fact executed, partly thanks to his courageous and able self-defence)

MRJ's curious little legal history in-joke here is one of several things that make me think something is going on in his mind during this story which is not set out clearly: viz the date of the martin's close trial and martin's execution (via clues in the text) = late 1684, towards the very end of charles ii's reign (viz its 36th year, as measured from the death of charles i -- i.e. excluding the cromwellian interregnum). charles ii's successor, his brother james ii, acceded to the thone in feb 1685. the monmouth rebellion against james took place in the west country (= very much round where this story is set) this same summer, followed by the bloody assizes that made judge jeffrey's reputation, the grim consequence of this rebellion's defeat.

(the titus oates trial mentioned above -- actually a retrial -- also took place in earlyish 1685…)

all this (IMO) is mood music is MRJ's head during this story -- as jeffreys' backstory -- but very little of it is mentioned clearly and so i don't really know what to make of it all lol

mark s, Friday, 27 December 2019 14:39 (four weeks ago) link

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000cn0h

Ghost Stories From Ambridge: Lost Hearts

On a biting December night, Jim Lloyd enthrals Ambridge residents with the story of a young boy who arrives at the house of his generous benefactor to find all is not as it seems.

koogs, Tuesday, 31 December 2019 17:24 (three weeks ago) link


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