Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Wednesday, 28 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 as a quaint Victorian figure who wrote an old fashioned form of Victorian ghost story. On the contrary, I’d argue that the man and his fictional output are even more relevant to this age than his own. His age was one where the social order was disintegrating quickly and old ideas could not be depended on any more. The individual, as well as the social milieu he might belong to, was hurled into a tremendous flux of an evolution that was cultural and private, which extended not just into the home but beyond it into the wider society. This links in with the current age where technology is appearing at an ever increasing rate and society seems, to use the old adage, to know the price of everything but the value of nothing.

As Marshall Berman reflected, the modern age that the Fin De Siècle ushered in gave the idea that what people had held as true, that their society of the Victorian age as one that was viewed as bringing progress such as sewage systems and technological wonders of the telephone, also brought the uneasy feeling that progress brought with it too much change at too fast a rate. The society was also becoming culturally unrecognisable hence the feeling of, as Marx declared,

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face...the real conditions of their lives and their relations with fellow men.[1]

This was Marx quoted from the Communist Manifesto in the translation by Moore in 1888. That year the debates around Darwin were increasing in force from the publication of The Descent of Man a decade and a half earlier. As asserted by Mestrovic the, debates surrounding the Victorian fin de siècle may have been current then but they had started with scholars like Schopenhauer publishing works like The World as Will and Representation in 1818 that were not read widely until years after their deaths. [2]  Schopenhauer is still widely recognised as contributing to the debates over the fin de siècle and the encroaching modernity nevertheless.

James’s fictional oeuvre reflected these anxieties that he had carefully sequestered away into his psyche but not just that; the debates surrounding these influences are still current and causing anxiety to millions today. No one is safe from these influences it would seem and no one can go untouched by external influences, good or bad. Whilst James defended himself from these influences by clinging to what B.W Young termed an older form of early eighteenth century propriety, the evidence that he was in fact affected by these changes in society can be found in the ghost stories which provided the cathartic outpouring that his overwhelmed mind needed. [3]

 In fact the writing, for James, often fulfilled a psychoanalytic mechanism for unburdening his troubled psyche of the day to day worries surfacing in his own life acting, if you will, as a catharsis. Aristotle first defined catharsis as surfacing within and in relation to the function of tragedy in his Poetics around 330 BC and all subsequent discussions of tragic form have been influenced by his concepts. According to Aristotle,

Tragedy, then, is an imitation of a noble and complete action, having the proper magnitude; it employs language that has been artistically enhanced . . . ; it is presented in dramatic, not narrative form, and achieves, through the representation of pitiable and fearful incidents, the catharsis of such incidents[4]

James needed this outlet as he was troubled by many of the fin de siècle and later developments intruding on his cosy cloistered world.

Firstly, the influence of Darwin’s theories is writ large in the stories with the figure of the antiquarian representing the preservation of the Victorian present by the neglect of the past where delving too deep into the past can bring a re-visitation of the hellish figures of anthropomorphic horror to frighten the protagonist to the point of psychosis. This psychosis could then bring the protagonist face to face with an abject horror of his own making. This debate surrounding the theories of Darwin found a representation of degeneration and abjection in the mind of M R James and ergo further represents today a discourse that many find reprehensible.

There are two distinct camps that cannot agree where to lay the ghost of Darwin to rest. At the time of writing this argument continues to be debated with scientists, like David Attenborough, holding fast to the idea that the young today should have Darwin’s theories taught to them in school. The creationists however who, even with all of the past and present theories of evolution proving beyond debate that evolution is a scientific fact prefer, like M R James, to cling to the past and have the version of the bible’s Genesis taught as the version of how the earth and all of its creatures came to be.

Darwin’s theories also had the unfortunate effect of making many question religion and its place in society. Just as the industrial revolution increased the flow of migrants to the cities and alienated many from their original homes, the churches subsequently saw their congregations dwindle and science seemed to be the cause that further split man from the godhead. James’s father, Herbert, admonished his son to keep to his faith and aim for ordination like his brother Ber. James, however, could not reconcile the idea of devoting his life to the church. It has been debated by many critics as to the reasons behind James’s reasons for not pursuing ordination and there can never be a definitive answer. However, what is definite is that even though he would continue to try to keep to the Christian faith it would not have a place in his life to the extent it had with his father and his older brother’s generation.

Where his father, Herbert, and his brother Ber found solace in religion and the church James knew that, for his generation, religion was not a question of unthinking faith and observance but that, due to the very real concerns in his age of materialism, religion was in its worst form a system of hypocrisy.

This anxiety found expression in his stories with his focus on the guardians of the faith. His country clergy and highbrow bishops were shown to be murderers, as in the case of Dr Haynes in ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’, or guilty of being foster carers to troubled children just for the handsome allowance made available to them, as in ‘The residence at Whitminster’. In short, they were not the self-sacrificing Christians that they should have been but the worst kind of hypocrites.

Even today the debate over religion still rages; this morning the Christians and the atheists of one Sunday morning television studio were locked in the debate over the existence of God and whether science has replaced the need for belief. As in James’s day, religion has become a matter of faith. The currents of these two debates, which found expression in James’s ghost stories, are continuing to resonate with the ongoing currents of our time and are similar to the need for wars that many of the population do not believe in. War, in James’s day, shattered the world that had seemed set in stone; it swept aside so many preconceptions of the Edwardian world that it would take a separate book to detail all of them. What was sure however is that James’s world changed forever as:

Nationalism, the real cause of the First World War a war of machines which consequently produced the first air forces, the first chemical warfare, the introduction of vast tank batteries, and the devastating realities of trench war strategy. City sized trenches of men, force-fed their governments jingoistic spin, were lashed into fronts that produced casualties the like of which the world had never seen...Out of this destruction and moral ambiguity, many artists found themselves unable to define a strategy or find solace in their work.[5]

James found that his pen was “stilled”[6] by the First World War and his writing reflected the harrowing casualties of the war. His books published in this era; A Thin Ghost and Others, 1919; and A Warning to the curious, 1925, reflected protagonists unable to escape the forces of evil that hunt them down and kill them. The wars of this century, the Falklands, the first and subsequent Iraq wars, the Balkans, Afghanistan and Syria are reflections of this continuing jingoistic spin brought forth by subsequent Labour and Coalition governments and continue to incite debate on the future of war or indeed the necessity of war itself.

As in James’s day there is a curious harkening back to times gone by, to the idealised time of when James was born, the early Victorian period. At the time when the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’s birth is being celebrated, there is also a celebration of the renaissance of the Ghost story, par excellence the Victorian Ghost story. A brief look at the offerings at the cinema this week would seem to confirm this as one of the “James Gang” authoresses, Susan Hill’s, Victorian based Ghost story The Woman in Black has been adapted (again) for the cinema. The recent Christmas also saw another of James’s ghost stories, “No.13”, adapted for the television.

It is ironic that, in this year that has seen a return to many of the debates of the Victorian fin de siècle reflected in the present, the choice of “No.13” was included in this broadcast. It is “No.13” that represents the return to the familiar. Indeed it seems that Christmas’s would not be complete now without an adaption of one of James’s ghost stories. He has taken his place alongside Charles Dickens as the face of reassurance at the darkest time of the year. As a nation, indeed, people seem to be finding solace in the past which is where James found much of the inspiration for his ghost stories.

The past now however seems to be reflected more in the society of today as a fact. Current reports suggest that Great Britain, as a nation, is almost back to the point of an increasingly marginalised and divided society. This is very much like the one of the Victorian/Edwardian era, where one half of society is impoverished and another part is becoming very rich. In fact right now the face of kindness is a young footballer who is trying to convince our government to feed those children eligible for free school meals in their school holidays. In fact the only reason that the desperate face of poverty and destitution is not being seen on the streets is because of the (very meagre) benefits system avoiding marginalising many people in our society today.

The figure of the ghost has often been seen as a representation of the marginalised figure; the poor and destitute, the homosexual or the ignored servant class.[7]James’s ghosts usually, however, were representations of another marginalised figure, the antiquarian who as a figure stands for the inability to move away from an idealised past or, according to the theories of Nordau, a degenerate figure.[8] Freud however saw the antiquarian as another type of representation, a figure who diverted his sex drive into the search for the orgasmic high of locating buried manuscripts or the book that had lain undiscovered for centuries, all forbidden treasure.

The current era is distinctly different from James’s era and yet is so similar so that it seems to have come full circle at times and then returns to the same debates. The press is full of nothing but facile references to famous figures and a divided society polarised by its earnings. There has even been, an attempt to resurrect the dead form of the Music Hall with the actor, Phil Jupitus, putting on a show of comic satire, lampooning the social classes blamed for the polarised society of today.

In James’s age there were ongoing debates around the function of religion in a society which had distanced itself from belief in god and an adherence to materialism and science. Darwin had proved that man was related to a monkey and Freud and Jung were taking psychoanalytic thought to new heights. Sexuality was problematic for many with male to male relations being declared illegal in the courts with the Wildean trial and the Labouchere amendment. Women were beginning to challenge their subservient role by agitating for recognition and writing for many authors was being turned into a profession.

James however took solace, in his own time in the familiar. He, like many of his contemporaries such as Lewis Carroll and T E Lewis, preferred to cling to the figure of boyishness; sexuality was problematic for them, they were happiest in the company of younger people, sometimes children, Carroll with his childhood muse Alice and James with the youngest Cropper sister Billie[9]. The debate around sexuality hardly figured in his life, although there are undercurrents of it in his fiction, with vampiric monster women and zombie males. Sexuality in a James story finds its end in unwanted pursuit and death, as in the story of ‘Martin’s Close’ with its unfortunate figure of the tormented idiot Ann Clarke, ‘the hoppit toad faced girl’.

James’s stories, although a small body of work for a lifetime, are unique in that they reflect all of these concerns. James himself has often been viewed as a quaint Victorian relic to be brought out and dusted off at Christmas time for an annual reading of his stories by the fire with a glass of something seasonal and a mince pie.

In contrast to this patronising view his stories, if properly read and understood, are much more than this annual outing. James was by many standards an unusual personality, at times proving to be something of a savant in his professional life where he turned his hand to so many areas of manuscript cataloguing, apocryphal readings and antiquarian pursuits that this academic diversity found its way into his fiction. It functions on many different levels to act as a focus for the times and his many varied interests and concerns. Indeed his writing also moved with the times, with his first stories reflecting Victorian plot devices and moving through Edwardian ‘condition of England’ stories like his story book written with children in mind, The Five Jars, which was such a classic that Lewis Carroll kept it by his bedside[10].

Then, later James’s stories reflected early strains of modernism with their wasteland-type nihilism. Today there has been a renaissance of interest in ghost stories. It as if society is fulfilling the remark made by T S Eliot that literature has become a substitute for religion[11]. What is certain however is that this modern interest in the figure of the ghost is a multifaceted reaction to the unsolved, unexplained last problem of man’s mortal existence.

The ghost also symbolises the figure of the repressed returning and is topical as society today has many under-represented figures and many maligned apparitions; the terrorist, the immigrant who takes all the mythical jobs, the pram-faced mother, and the young crack addled hoodie. This terror, whipped up by the populist press, has found its representation in shows which take cameras into so called haunted houses to search for these etheric figures, hoping to be able to pin down and get to grips with fears but, like bad dreams, these figures slip out of grasp.

This reaction to fears that haunt the psyche of twenty first century man after the millennium fin de siècle mirror exactly the fears of man in James’s own fin de siècle, the costumes may have changed but the actors have not. A cursory reading of Robert Browning’s poems, for example, would show the anxiety over the imagined malignancy at the heart of Victorian society which had been left over from the romantic era and which progressed forth into the fin de siècle.

They do, however, taken together, represent a sustained attempt to embody and contemplate the problems which centrally occupied the nineteenth century mind: the problems of the relation of time to history, of science to religion, of fact in science or history to fiction, or lies, in both, and of art to all these.[12]

Browning, like James, focused on these authorial anxieties singling out those that troubled his authorial psyche, one of which was false mediums like the lampooned “Mr Sludge”. Sludge represents, for Browning, the inability of man to provide answers to that which lay beyond the mortal coil. Similarly, the interest in the figure of the returning dead which would not stay dead fascinated James as many of his characters represent more closely the animated figure of the corpse or zombie. The corpse and the focus on the dead body proved that, for him, the anxiety over death was more akin to psychosis than hysteria; in short it was a personal abjection that found expression in his fiction.

With focus being brought back to these debates it is almost as if society finds refuge in the mechanism of the return to the known; even if it is a situation that is not beneficial it is something that is recognisable. The zeitgeist of Derrida’s Hauntology represents the mechanism of the return:

Hauntology isn’t about the return of the past, but about the fact that the origin was already spectral. We live in a time when the past is present, and the present is saturated by the past. Hauntology emerges as a crucial-cultural and political-alternative to linear history and to post moderns permanent revival[13]

Mark Fisher illuminates here the fact that linear history does not correspond to the figure of the ghost; it also raises questions about the nature of boundaries, of past and present and where they meet. James’s story “No.13” also focuses on physical and spatial boundaries as to where the actual physical room that Mr Anderson occupies meets the ghostly boundary of the disappearing and reappearing ghostly room and the time that it occupies. It was written in 1899, on a bicycling trip to Denmark. The story was inspired by an idea of James’s friend Will Stone and, according to James’s statement in the Collected Ghost stories, he wrote the story later that year. The story is, in typical James style, narrated in the second person with the protagonist, Mr Anderson’s cousin, providing the necessary authorial distance necessary for the relating of a ghost story. Mr Anderson is an academic hoping to spend time in the Danish town of Viborg to study church history,

It was not business in the ordinary sense of the word that had brought Mr Anderson to Viborg. He was engaged upon some researches into the Church history of Denmark, and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigserkiv of Viborg there were papers, saved from the fire, relating to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend a considerable time-perhaps as much as a fortnight or three weeks-in examining and copying these, and he hoped that the Golden Lion would be able to give him a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study[14]...

James’s antiquarian obtains rooms in, what he thinks, a very cosy inn and gets down to his business of studying. His choice of room is long deliberated over and at last he chooses number 12. The absence of any number 13 was explained by the Danish superstition of leaving this number out of the run of guest rooms in hotels and guest houses. However, room number 13 soon makes its unwelcome appearance. This is only at night when this seemingly extra dimensional room attracts the attention of Mr Anderson with a figure doing a vigorous exhibition of dancing which is projected in shadow onto the blank street wall opposite Mr Anderson’s hotel room window. This dancing, although very vigorous, is done entirely in silence but not the accompanying singing which is loud enough, and of such a strange emission, to bring a crowd of serving men to the room door with weapons.

And to sing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high thin voice that they heard, and it seemed dry, as if from long disuse. Of words or tune there was no question. It went sailing up to a surprising height, and was carried down with a despairing moan as of a winter wind in a hollow chimney, or an organ whose wind fails suddenly. It was a really horrible sound[15]...

The strange nocturnal visitation has apparently been brought forth by Mr Anderson’s archival studies into a certain Magister Nicolas Francken who held that position in the last Church of Rome or Catholic Church in Denmark.

Exactly what the magister was supposed to have done to be banished into time and space to disappear and reappear across the dimensions like this is not exactly explained at any length by James. His omissions on these crimes make the whole encounter all the more horrific by the exciting of the reader’s own all too human imaginations. However, the hint behind the story is that the magister, having made some sort of supernatural pact summed up by the phrase “Secret and wicked arts”, seems to have been changed into an immortal demon. The magister has a near encounter with poor Mr Anderson by trying to apprehend another guest Herr Jensen through the door of number 13,

In that moment the door opened and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long grey hair upon it. Anderson was just in time to pull Jensen out of its reach with a cry of disgust and fright, when the door shut again, and a low laugh was heard...[16]

Anderson has come face to face with an apparition which has struck abject fear into him. As said earlier, in paraphrasing Kristeva[17], the strongest representation of the abject is the corpse or cadaver and this demon-like apparition is more of a zombie or walking corpse than the representation of an ethereal ghost. James’s zombie has the physicality to inflict damage on his protagonists and their fear is a physical reaction to this reality.

The room itself ceases to exist in the story after the dawn of each day on the precise note of the first cock crowing, although the room’s walls have been struck by the serving men of the hotel wielding crow bars. It is only when the floorboards have been pried up in the portion of the floor between number14 and what would have been the space afforded to number13 if the room had existed in their dimension.

James makes an interjection in the narration here to almost boast that the thematic device of the skeleton of Magister Franken had actually been thought of as a plot device but had been discounted. It was in fact another Jamesian device of the mythical jack in the box, or Pandora’s Box which waited to be opened to reveal its mysterious contents. The contents in a way are worse and much more binding than a mere skeleton; it is a contract with the devil that the young Nickolas Franken had signed with Satan. This contract permanently binds him into the permanent servitude of reappearing, ad infinitum, in the reappearing cycle of number13.

James had thought of this story device after visiting Denmark on one of his frequent bicycling trips into Europe and viewing

Two contracts with the Devil written and signed in blood by Daniel Salthenius who was condemned to death for writing them...[18]

This real life Daniel Salthenius however became a professor of Divinity at Konigsberg. James used his story as the inspiration for this story of permanent return. There is a continuous return back to the figure of the ghost and ghost stories – ‘No.13’ is a good representation of how the ghost can be a figure of ethereality and also permanence with the penance of the figure doomed to re-enact his real life crimes and to pay for them.

James’s ghosts in deviating from the standard type of ghosts dreamt up in the narratives of romantic type stories, represent the walking corpse or revenant or, as mentioned before, the “Nykamorphic” monster[19]. However, James’s monsters have dovetailed nicely to influence a very current area of scholarship, that of the animated monster to be found gracing the comic book or graphic novel, particularly Japanese Anime. These monsters resemble many of the zombie and hairy monstrosities with talons that grace many of James’s stories. It is another area in which the fiction of James has found a return in this now post-modern world and another way in which the master of the ghost story has found a new hauntological relevance to the very fast moving modernistic era. Mieville suggests that the influence of James is to be found precisely in this new area in,

An accelerating circuit of teratogenesis, new monsters endlessly produced and consumed and exemplified in commodity form by the innumerable RPG and video-game bestiaries[20]...

It is another way in which James and his monsters have undergone an evolution or metamorphosis of their own in contributing to this post-modern, post structuralist world. James again is proving to be an author who validates his own return. His stories, on each reading, can be interpreted in a dozen different ways and he is as relevant to this age as his own. He has very much been worth reappraisal, as have his ghost stories. As a previously unjustly neglected author he deserves this place in the canon of classical literature, in his own era and the present.








[1] Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts into Air, The Experience of Modernity, (Harmondsworth:Penguin, 1982).p.21

[2] Stjepan G Mestrovic, The Coming Fin De Siecle, (London: Routledge, 1991).

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2010)

[3] Young B W, The Victorian Eighteenth Century An Intellectual History, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).p.159.


[4] Aristotle, Poetic’s, Trans. James Hutton, (New York: Norton.1982).p.i


[5] Keith Flynn, The Rhythm Method, Razzmatazz, and Memory, (Ontario, Canada: Writers Digest Books, 2007).p.128

[6] Gwendolen McBryde, M.R.James Letters to a Friend, (London: Edward Arnold, 1956).


[7] Andrew Smith, The ghost story 1840 – 1920 A cultural history, (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2010).

[8] Max Nordau, Degeneration, (Connecticut:  Martino Fine Books, 2014).


[9] Fletcher, Maisie, The Bright Countenance (London:  Hodder & Stoughton,1957)


[10] Ibid.

[11] A S Byatt, Passions of The Mind, (London: Vintage, 1993) P. 2.


[12] Ibid, p.30.

[13] Mark Fischer, http:/

[14] Ibid,p.41

[15] Ibid,p.50

[16] Ibid,p.51

[17] Kristeva, Julia, Powers Of Horror An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia, 1982)


[18] Ibid,p.150

[19] Ibid,p.251

[20] China Mieville, M. R.James and the Quantum Vampire: Collapse I V, Ed, R Mckay, Falmouth, Urbanomic, May 2008.

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