Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Biography | Halloween
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Writing in progress

Publication date: TBC

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An accompanying curated reading list designed to give you a deeper appreciation of MR James’s ghost stories, plus everything at the Collectable level.
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Eat like the Everlasting Club

When James read his ghost stories aloud to his friends at their club suppers, this food was served in “a break from the proceedings". Pledge for this to receive recipe sheets and details on how to serve your own “A King’s College Supper”, plus everything at the Collectable level.
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A telephone call with Jane in which you get to ask any 10 questions about James’s ghost stories, plus everything at the Collectable level.
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Jungian theory

An explanation (by phone or video call) of how to read James’s ghost stories using Jungian theory. This way of reading the stories throws open whole new worlds of reading and thinking.
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Ghostly lunch in Cambridge

Take part in ghostly conversation with Jane, where you get to ask any questions about Jungian theory, writing a PhD, or Jamesian gossip. Includes lunch and everything at the Collectable level.
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Sneak peak of a PhD

A read of one of Jane's PhD chapters (the PhD is embargoed for 6 years) and a chance to grill her on the contents, plus your name in a special section at the back of the book thanking you for your support, and everything at the Collectable level.
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The much loved author M.R. James is best known today for his hugely popular ghost stories, which have never been out of print since the first collection was issued in 1931. However, it might surprise even the most devoted fan to learn that (unlike such poets as John Keats and authors such as Oscar Wilde), they cannot buy a book of James’s letters.

Unless they have the means to travel to the dreaming spires of the Cambridge University libraries, and negotiate a library system which can be intimidating to the average person (with its hushed interiors and the wearing of white archival gloves), the public can’t access James’s letters. If anyone is inclined to search the shelves of independent or chain book shops or online book purveyors, they will find that everyone else seems to have had their letters published, but alas not poor old James.

This is what you can help to to rectify by supporting this new collection of the author’s letters. In them, we can learn of his fear of spiders (and their hairy legs), his love of cats and his thoughts on other authors such as Henry James and James Joyce. As well as a whole life’s thoughts on a host of subjects.

  • High quality royal hardback format with head and tail bands.
  • Approximately 100 letters, transcribed and annotated by Jane Mainley-Piddock, PhD, from the originals that are kept in libraries at the University of Cambridge.
  • For academics, fans and the general reader.
  • Approximately 420 pages and 100,000 words.
  • Foreword by Mark Gatiss.

*Book designs, cover and other images are for illustrative purposes and may differ from final design.

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  • Jane Mainley-Piddock avatar

    Jane Mainley-Piddock

    Jane Mainley-Piddock is a British writer, blogger and book reviewer. She specialises in the ghost stories of M R James and the literature of the late Victorian period. She blogs on her website, where you will also find her poetry and short stories.
    A lover of cats, books and writing, Mainley-Piddock was born in the village of Johnstown near Wrexham. She was educated at Grango School in the village of Rhosllanerchugog, and being a self confessed nerd attended Wolverhampton University, Akron University (Ohio), Glyndwr University (Wrexham) and Abersytwyth University.
    Her favourite authors include Irvine Welsh, Anais Nin, and M R James.
    Favourite Colour: Black
    Favourite food: cheese and chocolate (often eaten together)
    Favourite words: Boudain Noir, Chiaroscuro

  • 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


  • Jane Mainley-Piddock has written 6 private updates. You can pledge to get access to them all.

    3rd February 2021 Update – 3rd February 2021

    Update – 3rd February 2021

    Okay here I am sitting at my desk in the time of good Queen Elizabeth the 2nd, (bless you marm) in the time of a pandemic. Okay so I haven’t buried cheese in my garden and the only plague doctor’s are ironic, but it is a pretty bleak and sad time for many of us out there in the great sea of humanity.

    I am presently in the world of M R James in his undergraduate days…

    4th January 2021 M R James and The Haunted Dolls House


    In the career of every writer there will inevitably come a time when they will be asked to write something, be it an article or book, to commission. That time for M R James came in 1922 (as he detailed in a letter to his friend Gwendolyn McBryde) for the addition of a story to the library of Queen Mary’s dolls house.

    The doll house was a gift to the queen, the wife of George V, to thank her for…

    20th December 2020 The Mystery before Christmas - M. R. James and The Edwin Drood Syndicate (part two)

    The Mystery before Christmas -  M. R. James and The Edwin Drood Syndicate (part two)


    M R James had a special affection for the novels of Charles Dickens, to which he was first introduced at Eton. In his self-penned memoirs “Eton and Kings”, James wrote;

    The collection of books in Tea-room, called College Library”, contained the whole works of Dickens, which were not on our shelves at home…

    18th November 2020 The split in the way that James approached his academic and fictional work

    The split in the way that James approached his academic and fictional work

    It might have surprised James’s contemporaries that we remember him today primarily as a writer of hugely original, terrifying ghost stories. M R James was a figure of donnish respectability, provost of Eton, museum curator, fellow of Kings College. It is difficult to reconcile these professional personae with his identity…

    28th October 2020 Back to the future – M R James’s ghost stories and their relevance to today

    Back to the future – M R James’s ghost stories and their relevance to today


    This Halloween with the press and television screens full of bad news about the pandemic, it can feel as if we are in a very perilous age, and sometimes it is reassuring to take refuge in comforting rituals such as ghost stories.

    As the master of the classic ghost story, there is a tendency to view M R James…

    19th October 2020 A Visit to examine M R James's letters

    A Visit to the Archives

    Many of you who have supported my book, and are eagerly awaiting its publication might not know how one conducts a visit to examine M R James’s letters. For those of you who do, please forgive this update and perhaps go and read something else, perhaps my website where there are lots of interesting articles on James.

    For those of you who are new…

    29th September 2020 What do we mean when we talk about the “Jamesian” ghost story?

    What do we mean when we talk about the “Jamesian” ghost story?

    There have been many attempts to explain the M R James ghost story. Different authors have sought to explain why an academic of James’s standing, an expert on palaeography, manuscript research and apocrypha, would have a sideline in writing ghost stories. Shane Leslie, a friend of over thirty years to James, saw James’s ghost stories…

    2nd September 2020 M R James and his Joie De Vivre


    M R James is often portrayed as a serious academic, and an austere man, a palaeographer, cataloguer, academic and a writer of ghost stories, as the writer S T Joshi noted:

    At times it seems as if Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) led not one life, but a multitude. That the same man could have described all the mediaeval manuscripts at the various colleges of Cambridge University, prepared…

    25th August 2020 M R James and The Mechanics of writing as Jungian Catharsis

    M R James and The Mechanics of writing as Jungian Catharsis

    One of the most striking things about James’s ghost stories is the dramatic manner in which he wrote them, dashing them off in a state of “fever heat”, at the very last minute before he was due to deliver them to a large and eager audience. [1] Indeed, the circumstances of the composition of the stories resemble something from those stories…

    19th August 2020 Asexual, Homosexual, Bisexual or Straight – The confusing world of M.R.James

    Asexual, Homosexual, Bisexual or Straight – The confusing world of M.R.James

    James’s ghost stories contain deeper layers of violence which can certainly be viewed as containing a sexual element, an element which in some stories contains acts which contain sexual perversion. For instance, the moment when William Ager is on the back of Paxton in the burrow, where he was in the act of retrieving the…

    6th July 2020 Some notes towards a Mythic Jungian analysis of James's ghost stories

    James’s stories all feature the appearance of the revenant in response to some feature of “change” in the actions of the characters, the place in which they live, or in the structure of the story.

    Whether it is an anima (a female) that has produced this change or another facet of the Jungian persona (self, ego, shadow, and anima/animus) or the phylogenetic inherited archetypal part of the persona…

    1st July 2020 M. R. James and Hans Christian Andersen

    M R James and Hans Christian Andersen

    Besides writing ghost stories, cataloguing manuscript collections, palaeography and biblical apocrypha, M R James possessed another interest in Folklore and Fairytales, particularly the fairytales

    of the Danish storyteller Hans Christian Anderson. Stephen Gaslee wrote in his memoirs, that James had learned Danish and Swedish on many of their long European…

    18th June 2020 An M R James Story for Mid-Summer - My analysis of "After Dark in the playing fields"

    An M R James Story for Mid-Summer - "After Dark in the playing fields"

    One tale that has many folkloric references is “After Dark in the playing fields”. Written in 1924 and published on the 28th of June for Issue 10 of College Days, an Eton ephemeral it is seen as a companion piece to James’s book “The Five Jars”.[1]

    Rosemary Pardoe has termed this story a “seriously underrated piece”, and a…

    9th June 2020 Could M. R. James have been a modern day media “Personality”?

    Could MRJ have been a modern day media “Personality”?

    Watching Qi the other night I was struck at how the very witty Stephen Fry and indeed many of his contempories had one thing in common; they had all been members of a club that had honed their acting and presentation talents, the Cambridge Footlights. Monty had also been a member of the precursor of this club, the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club…

    28th May 2020 The Fate of the Humble Spook in this age of Surveillance

    The Fate of the Humble Spook in this age of Surveillance


    In Oscar Wildes short story ‘The Canterville Ghost’, the ghost Sir Simon De Canterville, has been successfully haunting Canterville Chase for over four centuries, since 1584. His latest success had been to ensure no one from the family had lived in the house since he had put his skeletal hands on the shoulders of the dowager aunt, the…

    16th May 2020 M R James and the time he stalked Queen Victoria

    M R James and his Queen Victoria Fixation

    In today’s world we are very accustomed to what is termed “celebrity culture”, with all of the plethora of reality television shows and the ‘red top’ tabloid papers keeping a breathless public up to date with every facet of their favourite stars life, no matter how trivial. From so called C list celebrity stars up to our own royal family, no one it seems…

    12th May 2020 M R James and The Marriage Problem

    M. R. James and The Marriage Problem

    I am often asked by many people with an interest in M. R. James whether he was homosexual and why (even if he was) he never had a wife somewhere in the background, a la Oscar Wilde. Despite all of this application of various theories on James, no evidence of supposed homosexuality has ever been found. Both his biographers Cox and Pfaff never found anything to…

    6th May 2020 M. R. James the Notorious Arachnaphobe

    James the Notorious Arachnaphobe

    M R James long held a hatred of spiders, noting in one of his letters to his friend Gwendolen McBryde that they terrified him, “Especially the one that turns up unaccountably in the Bath”[1]. That they were a personal motif of horror for him can be located in his stories, of which, three have the terrifying presence of these arachnoid forms, which for a small body…

    30th April 2020 M R James Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens

    M R James and the Edwin Drood Syndicate

    M R James loved to read detective novels in the rare time he had away from his academic work or writing ghostly fiction. His enthusiasm for Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes has been noted by his biographer Richard Pfaff (although he did out Doyle’s “Cribbing of the plot for The Firm of Girdle Stone” which Doyle had taken from Sheridan Le Fanu’s “Uncle Silas…

    20th April 2020 James and The Buffalo Bill Wild West show



    James regulary exchanged letters with the daughter of one of his friends, Walter Fletcher, her name was Sibyl Cropper, but her friends always called her Billy. These letters often belied his occupation as an academic and cataloguer of Mss, provost and curator it would not be automatically compare with the lighter side of life, but the one outstanding characteristic that all of James…

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