Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Monday, 4 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 her war efforts in the First World War, and it had been fitted with beautiful furnishings, down to the smallest detail in minutiae. It also had a small but functional library, which according to James’s friend Sir Stephen Gaslee, was “a miniature picture of English Literature in the 1920’s”. Many notable authors of that age had been asked to contribute stories; the only ones who refused the commission were George Bernard Shaw, and Virginia Woolf.  
Each author received their request, along with a tiny dollhouse sized blank book, and were asked to provide a story, a poem or sketches, James it had to be admitted seemed more than a little reticent in this task, as in his letter to Gwendolyn McBryde he said that he got on with writing the doll house story “when I can”, which meant he had relegated it to the back of his everyday academic and pedagogic functions.
The “Doll House story”, became what we now know as “The Haunted Doll’s House”, and it can be found as a small postage sized bound book, in the library of Queen Mary’s dolls house, which is exhibited at Windsor Castle. James noted in “The Collected Ghost Stories” (Edward Arnold 1931), that he had in fact based the story on a version of his earlier catalogue, “The Mezzotint”. However, any cursory reading of both would soon show that in fact there are enough differences between them to commend both; the only similarity is that they both have cursed treasure motifs. The Dolls House has the house, and the Mezzotint, the same.
The cursed object allegory is of course a very popular subject in both the Ghost story oeuvre, and similarly in the horror story, it was certainly a favourite of Victorian and Edwardian author’s like Robert Louis Stevenson, who featured it in his story “The Bottle imp”, (Waking Lion press, 2008). James’s story is no less a fascinating cursed treasure exploration of patricidal envy and murder, written to commission, but none the less enough to keep any ghost story fan awake at night.

“The Haunted Dolls’ House”, has a villain who is more of a frog-man, who avenges a death, except in a Medea type revenge kills only the children of the household. This story reads very much as a narrative of ego-displacement. The doll’s house is acquired by a collector, Mr Dillet, a man of a certain age, but who would be the age to suffer such a midlife crisis, in a dishonest transaction with a dealer, Mr Chittenden. However, the dealer knows that there is something very wrong with the dolls’ house and is very glad to let it go.

The dolls’ house is haunted, and each night it plays out the events which led up to a decaying family’s demise. The events happened in real life, we find, but they are enacted each night to an audience of whoever happens to own the house at the time. The first night Mr Dillet watches in horror as the events are shown to him. Firstly the grandfather of the family is poisoned by his daughter-in-law in collusion with his son:

            Suddenly the old man started up in his bed, and he must have uttered

some cry he was a sad and terrible sight flushed in the face, almost to blackness, the eyes glaring whitely both hands clutching at his heart, foam

at his lips the old man collapsed the features, contorted with agony

age, relaxed slowly into calm...[1]


Next, the house continues its play; the revenge is taken when a frog like shape comes back and murders the children in their beds:

The seer does not like to dwell upon what he saw entering the room

– it might be described as a frog the size of a man, but it had scanty white

hair about its head it was busy about the truckle beds, but not for long. The sound of cries appalling reached the ear..[2]


The only clue to the frog like apparition being the grandfather is that it has white hair about its head. The grandfather has degenerated after death into another reptilian creature. It is as if James could not bring himself to have the grandfather actually murder the children in his human form, but rather maintained a distance from the act by changing the grandfather into a beast, who was then allowed to carry out the act of infanticide. This authorial distancing is characteristically typical of James, in that, as he noted himself, in his own research into the type of ghost story he originally wanted to create, he deliberately avoided the over use of gore and the style of the “Grand Guignol”:

And it is very easy to be nauseating. I, moi qui vous parle, could undertake to make a reader physically sick, if I chose to think and write in terms of the Grand Guignol. The authors of the stories I have in mind tread, as they believe, in the steps of Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce (himself sometimes unpardonable), but they do not possess the force of either.[3]

This authorial distancing and careful observance to avoid overstepping into the Grand-Guignol, is perhaps what made James use the revenant instead of a human specimen. As Mary Butts observed, James’s characters usually come up against these creatures, which are “tangible as men, but of a different order”, and which are “originally minted” from the mind of James himself. The creation of the grandfather, who degenerates after death into a frog which murders his own grand-children, is as Butts stresses part of James’s utterly original array of degenerate characters.[4]

The grandfather’s body has many features of the bodily amorphous; it has changed or collapsed after death into a frog-man, with the accompanying features we would expect of a reptile. In the language of the abject, this means (as with the tentacle fish man - beast from “Count Magnus”, and the tentacled mouldy guardian in “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”) slime, a reptilian smell, and the bent legs of a frog.

As Butts says, the grandfather has not stayed dead but rather has transformed to go about his hellish business, as with the other array of James’s creatures, who dispatch James’s characters.[5]

[James’s protagonists] are going about their business. Then, as a man might turn a corner or the page of a book, they meet the Unspeakable. Are brought up sharp against the dead who are not dead; who are out and about on hellish business; who, if they have long remained quiescent, are stirred by some trivial accident into hideous activity.[6]

The decayed form of the grandfather has wiped out his own bloodline, in revenge against his own murder, committed by his daughter.[7] James’s avenging genetic throwbacks are there to destroy; they are all regressions to an earlier time, where the savage was part of everyday life, except in this case he almost seems to be making the point, that man may be eminently respectable in every way, but that the savage beast is always a part of society, and can be expected to appear at any time.

One might wonder if the Queen had ever read this story in minutae, which resides on it’s shelf in the Dolls house to this very day. It (like many other of James’s stories) has not aged, and still has the ability to keep anyone up at night, listening out for the creak of a door, and the sound of hopping...


[1] Ibid, p.263

[2] Ibid, p.270

[3] M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.479

[4] Mary Butts,’ The Art of Montagu James’, in Warnings to the Curious A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R.James, (ed)  S. T. Joshi &  Rosemary Pardoe, (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007), p.55

[5] Ibid, p55

[6] Ibid, p.55

[7] M. R. James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.263

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