Collected Ghost Stories

M. R. James
Collected Ghost Stories Cover

The Unassuming Master


For me, Montague Rhodes James is the master of the ghost story.

James (1863 - 1996) was a antiquarian and a Provost of King's College Cambridge. His major scholary work was the compilation and translation of apocryphal material relating to the New Testament. But come Christmas, which in England is the time for ghost stories, he began contributing his own to a Cambridge publication. Eventually they were collected into several volumes, and far out-distanced his scholarly work the source of his fame.

His heros, like hiimself, tend to be mild-mannered antiquarian, investigating some curious manuscript or out out-of-the-way church or country home. Often they are forced to stay an extra day due to inclement weather or their own mounting curiousity over what they are discovering. The spirits they meet are malevolent. They may be lodged in trees, summoned by the casual reading of some forbidden text, of inhabiting room number 13 in a country inn -- a room that did not exisit when the hero checked in for the night.

James wanted the reader to think, "If I am not careful this could happen to me." And he wanted the reader to dread that event.

The James; short story Casting the Runes was made into an excellent film by Jacques Tourneur, Curse of the Demon (1958) The studio insisted that Tourneur show the monster in the final moments of the film, which some reviews think of as a cheap shot. I think Prof. James would have loved seeing a firebreathing fiend from hell stomping his villain to death on the big screen.