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Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

Jane Mainley-Piddock
Status: published
Publication Date: 16.02.2023
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The much-loved author Montague Rhodes James is best known today for his ghost stories. Their popularity has kept them in print since the first collection was issued in 1931, and they've earned a cult following. But for all this literary success, his lifetime's correspondence has remained inaccessible in a Cambridge University archive – until now.

This first ever collection of his personal letters has been meticulously curated, transcribed and annotated by Jamesian scholar Jane Mainley-Piddock to offer an unprecedented and overdue insight into a great and singular mind. Through notoriously illegible handwriting, we learn of James's fear of spiders and his love of cats; his musings on the work of other contemporary authors; and a whole life's thoughts on a host of subjects – which shed light on the man himself: his family, his work, his relationships and preoccupations.

Essential reading for any fan, Casting the Runes brings at last to the fore a writer adored for his fiction who himself has long remained in the shadows.

Letter No.iii. 22 Jan ‘03

King’s College


My dear Apple pie,

It was indeed a gratification to ‘recieve’, as you so thoughtfully put it, your communication. I feel that I have at least one colleague in the field of ornithological study who does not – as too many so called scientists do – sniff at and deride the records of my observations.

I am unfortunately confined to my room by the lumbago (a sign of approaching old age), and this has become known to the sparrows who infest the college. They are well aware that I cannot move quickly or indeed move at all without grave personal inconvenience, and the consequence is that they take it in turns to come and sit on my window-sill and laugh. I sent a note to the Provost’s cat – a large animal named Cato, of whom I am a good deal afraid- and he was good enough to what he called “Step round and look in” this afternoon. But I derived but slight benefit from this manoeuvre, for he insisted first on having a copious lunch, and then went to sleep. A particularly insolent sparrow was goading me to madness soon afterwards and being unable to move easily, as I said, I threw a small object, it might have been a book or a chair – at Cato to attract his attention. I am sorry to say he completely lost control of his temper, bit my hand, and left the room. One of the kitchen cats whom I have since asked up, will do nothing but ask in a high irritating voice: “What are you doing now?” “Writing” I say – “and what are you doing now?” “Still writing”, “and what are you going to do next?” “Oh” I say “won’t you have a little milk?” “Yes” says the cat (no “please” or “thank you” or anything of that sort) “and what shall I do after that?” “If you can’t manage to hold your tongue you’ll leave the room after that”. This rather silences the cat for a short time. Then it says “What day is it to-day?” “Thursday – King’s Accession “Why isn’t it King’s College?” “It is called King’s College” “Why did you call it something different?” “Now look here” I said the last time it asked this stupid question “out you go.” It was just beginning to ask “Why do I go out?” when I showed it why with the poker. And now I can hear it still asking questions on the back-stairs. Whether it is the spread of Education or living in what they call an intellectual atmosphere, I don’t know but these University cats are getting beyond me altogether.

27th Jan.

This communication has been waiting for some days now. The lumbago has been diminishing, thank you, but as I have had to go out to-night in the rain I dare say it will be better and I shall be worse to-morrow. In any case the inclemency of the weather and my inability to perambulate the rural environs of this town, have precluded me from initiating such a series of observations as might have resulted in bringing me into contact with the ornithological world or as I have seen them not inaptly designated “our Feathered Friends.” You will, I am confident, be quick to excuse the consequent dearth of specific information for which these pages might reasonably be censured. Nor will it, I venture to suggest, escape your notice that my enforced confinement has had the effect of throwing me upon the society of those voiceless yet eloquent companions (I allude to the books which line the walls of my little sanctum) and of purifying if adorning the style in which for the last few lines I have taken the liberty of addressing you.

Yrs as always


After my painful experience of last night I went out today and bought a box of new pens and for the present I must say they seem inclined to behave properly except that occasionally they take to growing little beards and moustaches which is embarrassing. I have also procured some nice ruled paper to write to you upon, this is a bit of it. Also I am still very rheumatic when it is as damp as it is today. Also I found a dreadful warning to the young in a bookseller’s catalogue and I enclose it in the despairing hope that it may do some good to someone. This much I wrote last week for it takes time to write a letter to you. Sometime when Applepie I have been good for a week I shall ask you to come to lunch, or at any rate I shall think about it. Perhaps you would like to come tomorrow? Monday Feb 9th at 1.30 o’clock. Very well then do. Monday is the only possible day for me next week, on all of the other days I am either busy or else not. However when you do come I shall show you the tom-tits nest in the pump in our garden. It has built there for nearly 20 years. It is old now and apt to be rude to strangers generally wanting to know where they got their hats, and whether their mothers know they are out and such like very old witticisms. But once it gets to know a person it is really very sociable and amusing. I haven’t really time to tell you about it now but it has told me a number of very interesting things about the other inhabitants of the garden.

This is hardly a letter but must go as it is.

Yrs as always, M.R.J.

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