Casting the Runes: The Letters of MR James

By Jane Mainley-Piddock

Foreword by Mark Gatiss

Tuesday, 29 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 as,

...a striking form of the English ghost-story which in a series of supposed adventures of an antiquary gave him public fame through the English- speaking world. Far from being the issue of a side hobby they were his relief from a secret madness in his inner soul-the obsession that in spite of all the art and beauty of the world and the unfailing friendships which met him at every corner of the world, the malevolent and diabolical survived around him in the invisible.[1]


Indeed the idea of the diabolical making a sudden appearance into the everyday world is a feature of the Jamesian ghost story, and James had been writing his stories from an early age. According to his biographer at Eton James reported being, “engaged for a “dark séance” i.e. a telling of ghost stories, “In which capacity I am rather popular just now.” [2]

This was in 1880, but his interest in the supernatural began much earlier even than that date. James had found his interest in the figure of the ghost when as a child, piqued by a Punch and Judy show where the figure of the ghost appeared to have “an unusually long visage”; this led to an interest in the grotesque and diabolical with his tutor at Eton, Luxmoore, remarking that he would dredge the depths of the apocrypha for rubbish.[3]

His stories reflect antiquarian references, obscure quotations of Latin Vulgate, and especially the peculiarly English idea of the genius loci, the landscape of Albion as something of a never-never land held fast in amber. Indeed in order to formulate his own writing style for the stories, James admitted that he read prodigiously all of the short ghost stories he could, in order to be able to undertake the writing of the consummate ghost story. In his essay “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories”, which was really a literary review of all of the stories he had read in order to complete this task, he noted,

But the real happy hunting ground, the proper habitat of our game is the magazine, the annual, the periodical publication destined to amuse the family circle. They came up thick and fast, the magazines, in the thirties and forties, and many died young. I do not, having myself sampled the task, envy the devoted one who sets out to examine the files...[4]


Typically of James the scholar and academic, the task of writing his own stories required this survey of the literature already in the field. What he found was in his view pretty poor and established the need for him to formulate his own unique ghost story. He justifies his thoughts on the ghost story later on in “Some Remarks” with a thinly veiled sarcasm directed at other writers of ghost stories, which do not meet his approval.[5] In amongst these writers is surprisingly Charles Dickens who in James’s estimation has in the modern sense “sold out” to including his stories in the manner of “Pot Boilers” just there to pay his bills and fill space in the magazines.

that great man takes occasion to run through the plots of the typical ghost stories of his time. As he remarks, they are “reducible to a very few general types and classes: for, ghosts have little originality, and “walk” in a beaten track.[6]


James’s essay works as a survey of the ghost story, and a vehicle to criticise other authors of the genre for their unoriginality, banality, and in the case of Mrs Radcliffe “Timidity”. He declares at one point that there is not much middle ground between ineffective stories or stories which made him “Physically sick”. [7] Even his friend E F Benson’s work did not escape James’s sarcasm, with the remark that he found his stories crossed over the boundary into “legitimate horridness”[8].There was however one author who could be said to have inspired him and that was the editor of the Dublin University Magazine, the Irish Sheridan Le Fanu. [9]

At that time Le Fanu was already an obscure author, indeed for James to have even read his work it illustrated that his search for the perfect ghost story had been quite exhaustive as Le Fanu’s work was only published anonymously in various magazines including his own. James had trawled extensively unearthing Le Fanu’s stories from obscurity and eventually saw that they were published in their own right. One of these volumes was Madam Crowl’s Ghost for which James wrote the introduction and epilogue.[10] It was James’s talents in palaeography and cataloguing manuscripts that ensured this happy end.

We now come to the single stories...They are only discoverable by research, and research of this particular kind into the files of more or less forgotten periodicals of the sixties and early seventies is not very easily carried out. I am convinced that I have missed some stories; Yet I have done a great deal of ransacking, as occasion offered...[11]


James declared that the stories began as “stories read to patient friends usually at Christmastime”.[12] Because the intended audience were his own social circle, the influences of this easy familiarity can be found in the structure and the writing of the stories. They are peppered with in-jokes and inclusions that only dons of that era would have readily appreciated. As the biographer Richard Holmes notes:

Dons of course, had strange quirks of humour in those days. They liked weird jokes lurking in footnotes; conundrums in Latin Vulgate; etymological anecdotes about diseases; imaginary friendships.[13]


            Other stories include references to the seventeenth century witch trials, that he had exhaustively researched, like in “A Neighbour’s Landmark”, and quasi-occult references to runic curses, in “Casting the Runes”, inclusions which when read aloud in the light of one candle were sure to raise that jocular recognition of the intelligent men that made up James’s inner circle.[14]

It is because they were written to include his friends and to encourage audience participation in the experience that they are excessively inclusive to a generation today which thrives on the interactive experience. Because of this there is a strange dichotomy in the Jamesian ghost story. On the one hand they are set in an era so very far removed from our own with their Victorian and Edwardian settings and their donnish in-jokes. At the same time, however, their unique narrative structure makes the ever present narrator a presence who is never far away from the action, almost as if he is the friendly ghost that James was always careful to never include in the narrative.

The Jamesian ghost  was intended to be malicious and murderous, but the narrative presence invites audience participation, and includes the modern day reader in the narrative. Indeed in each Jamesian ghost story there is a familiar narrative structure, albeit a structure that never quite illustrates the ideal position of the narrator. McCulloch noted that James made the stories believable to his readers by trying to instil in each of them a “plausible impression of authorial connection with the events he was relating” except that often there is more than one narrator for each story and even when the “I” of each tale is relating the events, we as readers are never quite sure which I it is.[15]  In “A Warning to the Curious” we have to read the story very carefully to even recognise which narrator is telling the story and from which viewpoint at any given time, we have the un-named narrator, who is at the hotel in “Seaburgh” with Henry Long, but in the beginning of the story we are also made aware that the un-named narrator is also narrating this story to another narrator, perhaps James himself?

One such tale is this: it came to me in a place very remote from Seaburgh, and quite accidentally, from a man whom I had been able to oblige – enough in his opinion to justify his making me his confidant to this extent.[16]


Here we have distance maintained not only by the use of two un-named

narrator’s but also geographically, in that the tale is being related by the first un-named narrator to (James?) in a location “remote” from Seaburgh.

Another story in which James utilised this technique of the unnamed narrator having events related to him by another narrator, (this time Dennistoun from “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook” who in turn is also narrating the tale from the viewpoint of another narrator, “Mr Williams”), is “The Mezzotint”. The distance again is being maintained by this technique:-

Some time ago I believe had the pleasure of telling you the story of an adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun, during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.[17]


This technique works in two ways; firstly James establishes that the story was related to him in some way by either the character in the story himself, or by someone in his close circle that knew the person well. This then works to establish a close bond to that person, but at the same time works to distance him enough so that the reader feels a privileged inclusion, as if James was relating this story to them as a confidante. This functions on another level however; the reader still believes that James as a storyteller is not undergoing some form of mental disturbance or episode as may well be thought if he was relating the tale as someone that had actually experienced a ghostly visitation. The effect works in fact to give the reader the impression that he is a privileged visitor included in the action on the page.

James was keen with his narration to avoid precisely the kind of mental disturbance that is associated with the tales of Poe’s “House of Usher”, he wanted his tales to be believable, with the reader just wary enough to hope that this kind of event would not happen to him. Cox noted this kind of narrative displacement,

The narrator/author – for there is little practical distinction between the two – is both distanced from the action and part of it: it is he who shows the drawing of the demon to the “lecturer in morphology” (in “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”), and the description of the drawing is the narrator’s own not Dennistoun’s...[18]


This narrative position harks back again to the fact that James wrote these stories originally for his own social circle. He would have wanted to amuse his friends but would not have wanted them to believe that he thought these events had happened to him, as that would not have been quite the ideal to confess in his social position in that day and era. The narrator of the story is usually a man, who is at ease in his world, relating the tale of unusual and often very frightening events that happened to a colleague (usually another academic).

It is as James remarked that he tried to make the settings of his stories as ordinary and prosaic as possible, as he wanted his readers to stop for a moment and think, “If I am not careful something of that kind may happen to me.”[19] The narration is also tightly controlled and has an urban erudite feel to it. As Joshi noted in his Weird Tale about the story “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”,

Only he would open a story with a stunning and flawless imitation of a late mediaeval Latin Treatise, a 150 word passage in Latin followed by the narrator’s tiredly casual remark “I suppose I shall have to translate this.[20]


You can at this point feel James’s audience of colleagues appreciating this academic in-joke about the inconvenient translation and laughing whole heartedly. Joshi also noted that in order to imbue his stories with reality, James would suddenly include himself as the first person narrator at odd moments in the stories, trying perhaps to break that elusive third wall, for instance in “Canon Alberic”, the story begins with a third person narrative, but all of a sudden James breaks into the tale with an exclamation of Dennistoun’s swearing to him that once he heard the demon laughing high up in the tower.[21] This aside reads almost like a man unburdening himself to a friend, and again adds to the believability of the story as it could be a colleague in James’s inner circle swearing him to secrecy in a late night chat after the business of University that day was finished, over a shared whisky and soda.

Again the reader feels privy to a late night social chat and the story takes on a life of its own. The use of this conversational intimate tone is used again to draw the unwary reader into an intimate setting, entrap him so that the shock when it inevitably comes is all the more unexpected.

 The settings that James chose for his stories also add to this lifelike effect. He chose recent times and modern settings for his stories,

For the ghost story a slight haze of distance is desirable. ‘Thirty years ago,’ ‘Not long before the war’, are very proper openings. If a really remote date be chosen, there is more than one way of bringing the reader in contact with it. The finding of documents about it can be made plausible...On the whole...I think that a setting so modern that the ordinary reader can judge of its naturalness for himself is preferable to anything antique...[22]


The mis en scene of each story then was gauged originally to make his readers feel at home. But as soon as the reader makes the mistake of feeling comfortable James starts to include the horror slowly, until it is taking centre stage in the tale and the character is pursued mercilessly. James chose this gradual introduction of horror into his tales as he preferred the technique of making his audience feel at home, as this way he could make the shock of the supernatural all the more terrifying.

Because of the writing including the everyday lives of his friends with their donnish in-jokes and real life settings thinly disguised such as Aldeburgh in East Anglia, which became Seaburgh in “A Warning to the Curious” they have a freshness that has lasted, indeed James’s collected ghost stories has never been out of print since it was first published in 1911.[23]

James’s technique of approaching the reader with care and bringing them bit by bit to believe in the tale he was telling whilst leaving the smallest gap where a natural explanation could be possibly sought, fits the public’s appetite for these stories. The supernatural is introduced to the reader carefully in a series of carefully placed markers, where for instance in the first two pages of a story the characters are quickly sketched out and introduced to the reader and placed in their settings, then the hint is introduced to make the reader a little more aware that there is more going on here than he first thought. Usually then the horror is built around the third and fourth pages and the climax soon after in the fifth and the sixth. James was careful however that the reader would guess what was actually going on before his actors did. Peter Penzoldt identified James’s technique of letting his readers know long before his characters;

In all James’s stories the reader guesses the supernatural quality of the events long before any of the actors do. James probably tried to increase the horror of his tales by making the actors be taken unawares: he counted on the reader identifying himself with the principal actor...[24]


James wanted his reading audience to stop and think that this could happen to them, which introduces an inclusive kind of feeling, that you were privy to the telling of the tale, the feeling of being almost in the tale. The reader feels therefore that he is undergoing these events and  that the story is happening between the reader and James’s vast array of hellish monsters.

The reader is usually introduced slowly into the tale with a description that is built up gradually, James takes his time with this introduction then suddenly the pace changes, and the action builds more quickly. Usually James accomplishes this by introducing an exclamation by the first person narrator usually bemoaning the lack of time to go over more details. Then the horror is built up into snatches of action between characters until the reader is quite overcome and the horror reaches its climax.

These stories rely on the reader having the wit and the intelligence to make the connection in order to identify themselves with the actors and the story or the whole sensation of inclusiveness would be lost. In short again the tales are wholly reliant on the action of bringing the reader straight into the thick of the action.

 James also included the settings and minutiae of his own world experience in the stories. As Richard Holmes observed of James’s tales:

Against these has to be set the fact that we now know that virtually all of them have direct links with places that James visited, or with work he was engaged upon. The old Cambridge University Library, The Fitzwilliam and Ashmolean Museums...Felixstowe and Aldeburgh, country houses in Devon and Lincolnshire, his prep school at East Sheen...[25]


And the list goes on. His audience must have been very appreciative to identify suddenly a setting that they were all familiar with, and the realisation that they knew these settings makes for a sudden identification with the proceedings of the story. These settings held a special place for James, for it was precisely in this easy familiarity that the power to summon the supernatural was invested. The everyday places so familiar to his friends, were also familiar to the extended audience that first read and loved his stories, and then further into the audience of today for whom these settings evoke nostalgia for a world gone by.

But at the same time this is a world we are still familiar with, through the medium of the film and television settings that evoke this nostalgia. We are all used to seeing them in modern day adaptations in series such as Downton Abbey and Sherlock Holmes and even recent adaptations of James’s own stories.[26] We can visualise them very easily because of these influences on our own thought processes. James’s settings for his stories reflected his own everyday life and experience and the countryside that he loved, particularly Suffolk and the area in which he grew up in, which surrounded his home Livermere.

According to Cox the country here rises to meet the sky in a large flat vista, and here there is a tension between beauty and an almost undomesticated wild air which lends itself to darker resonances of undercurrents of menace.[27]Certainly in his last tale “A Vignette” James wrote about an encounter that took place at Livermere when he was a boy; it is the only tale that was autobiographical and where he identified himself with the action on the page.

He was very gifted at introducing the evocation of landscape as his settings are almost lyrical in their quality, so much so that the reader is taken by the reproduction of the beauty in their mind in the start of the story. The evocation is all the more better for the introduction of the horror into the story. Steve Duffy sums this up well:-

...his gift for establishing atmosphere, as evinced most memorably in his descriptions of landscape. James is, I think, one of the great unsung poets of the English countryside. Read the pocket memoir of Aldeburgh/ ‘Seaburgh’ at the beginning of “A Warning to the Curious”, or the evocation of a railway journey through the south-west of England that opens “A View from a Hill”, any of these, and no subsequent illustration...will ever take the place of the image already in your mind’s eye...[28]


The countryside was not the only recipient of this poetic viewpoint as James was also gifted in the evocation of the smaller country mansions that peppered this land, for instance the description of the house in “The Ash-Tree” or the one surrounded by parkland in “Lost Hearts”:-

...a tall, square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne; a stone-pillared porch had been added in the purer classical style of 1790; the windows of the house were many, tall and narrow, with small panes and thick white woodwork. A pediment, pierced with a round window, crowned the front. There were wings to right and left, connected by curious glazed galleries, supported by colonnades, with the central block. These wings plainly contained the stables and offices of the house. Each was surmounted by an ornamental cupola with a gilded vane.[29]


It is Castringham Hall in Suffolk. I think a good deal has been done to the building since the period of my story, but the essential features I have sketched are still there – Italian portico, square block of white house, older inside than out, park with fringe of woods, and mere.[30]


 These settings are all very “English” and two authors who singled James out as being the quintessential English ghost story writer are Clive Bloom and Peter Ackroyd. Both placed James’s stories in the milieu of an essentially old fashioned form, but Ackroyd identifies the stories as cerebrally functioning on a higher level of aesthetic configuration, celebrating the unique character of (in his terms) the “Genius Loci” or the English Holy Ghost, the feeling of being haunted by the archetypal spirit of Britannia herself.[31]It is the feeling one experiences in quiet out of the way places, the old wood, the country churchyard, the idea that through James’s stories can be located the past of the land itself.

Like Sherlock Holmes, “In the Valley of Fear” James was “A believer in the genius loci”. It is the sudden silence in a wood, or the sound of footsteps in an empty street; it is the English sense of being haunted by place and by a specific history associated with it. A country so preoccupied with its past, and with the traditions of that past, cannot help but be haunted by time itself...[32]


It is as if for Ackroyd James’s stories are haunted not just by an array of creatures but by a larger presence, a form just visible beneath the story lurking beneath the text, the spirit of the place. It is the spirit looming over James’s body of work, the timeless spirit of Britannia made flesh.

James was also renowned for his gift of observation especially the complexities of human characterisation, this found expression in his limitless talents for mimicry of accents and mannerisms,  which was established in childhood when together with his brother he kept up a lifelong parody of two tradesmen, Barker and Johnson, as Gurney Lubbock observed :

Herbert was Johnson a butcher, and Monty was a grocer called Barker; and it must be understood that they were Barker and Johnson to each other and to no one else. A jealous and intense rivalry was understood to exist between these two characters; they crabbed each other and made the darkest insinuations; Barker would suggest to Johnson that he tampered with his weights, to be accused in turn of putting sand in his sugar. All this began in schooldays and was renewed whenever they met.[33]


When it came to the characterisation in his stories however, James kept the people in them rather faceless. They are never fully fleshed out, rather just flatly sketched, all the better for the reader to identify with. The plot and its development were more important to James than the delineation of character. Cox noted this technique of James’s

In “Canon Alberic”, for instance, the cardinal points of Dennistoun’s character are quickly established with a few deft strokes-such as the passing indication of his well-bred pretence of not noticing the sacristan’s fervent supplications to the painting of St Bernard (Which Dennistoun-no familiarizing Christian name is given-loftily dismisses as a ‘daub’): for him it is clearly bad form both to give way to emotion and to notice such failure in other’s.[34]


The “colourful” rustic minor characters are usually placed in the stories as devices to illustrate the setting and to authenticate the villain of the piece, as they are usually the holders of local information that the academic amateur the main character is never privy to.

James’s stories also have an hierarchy of characterisation, the higher orders, those most likely the target of the supernatural agent are the main characters the well-educated men of the universities, scholars and dons, socially well placed, and the people with whom they associated, the local gentry.

Next down the hierarchy are the carefully distinguished lower stratum, butlers, managers, inn-keepers, clerks and vergers. Lastly the lower colourful “Rustic” characters, those who add authentic flavours to the tale, the old boys, like the ones who frequent the tavern in “Count Magnus” or The New Inn in “Martin’s Close” who remember the folkloric background to the local tales told of the supernatural agent about to be introduced onto the stage by James.[35] These lower folk are never the target of James’s creatures, it is ironic in that to be the recipient of the supernatural in a James story you have to be well educated but be devoid of the common sense that the rustic possess, who know well enough to not seek out the supernatural.

As a writer of ghost stories James was, in his own time by critics like Mary Butts and H.P.Lovecraft, recognised as an utterly original master of the most unusual and striking form.[36] It is only in a close reading that you begin to understand the carefully crafted devices that he utilised in each of his stories. It is a testament to this genius that his stories have remained in print and read long after many of his contemporaries have been left to linger in obscurity. It is as James commented himself, this appreciation will only continue as long as “the public is pleased”; if the public is pleased then these stories will never languish in obscurity. [37] Judging by the fact that James’s stories continue to be released in new forms each year, the public is and continues to be pleased.



[1]Shane Leslie, Montague Rhodes James, in S. T. Joshi and Rosemary Pardoe, (Eds), Warnings to the Curious (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007), p.35.

[2] Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p.38.


[3] M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.481.

Michael Cox, M.R. James An Informal Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p.40.

[4] M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.476.

[5] Ibid,p.476.

[6] Ibid, p. 476.

[7] Ibid, p.479.

[8] Ibid, p. 478.

[9] Ibid, p. 491.

[10] Ibid, p. 491.

[11] Ibid, p.501.

[12] Ibid, p.2.

[13] Richard Holmes, Sidetracks Explorations Of A Romantic Biographer  (Hammersmith: Flamingo, 2001), p.162.

[14] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.281.

     Ibid, p.128.

[15]Simon MacCulloch, “The Toad in the Study: M. R. James, H. P. Lovecraft, and Forbidden Knowledge”, 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.103.

[16] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.307.

[17] Ibid, p.20.

[18] M. R. James, Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1989), p.xxi.

[19] Ibid, p.479.

[20] S. T. Joshi, The Weird Tale (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), p.134.

[21] Ibid, p.138.

[22] M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.487.

[23]Julia Briggs, Night Visitors: The Rise and Fall of the English Ghost Story (London :  Faber and Faber, 1977), p.125.

[23] Peter Penzoldt, The Supernatural in Fiction (London: Peter Nevill,1952), p.191.



[25] Richard Holmes, Sidetracks Explorations Of A Romantic Biographer (Hammersmith : Flamingo, 2001), p.163.

[26] M R James, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Graphic Collection of Short Stories by M.R.James Adapted by Leah Moore and John Reppion, (Self Made Hero, London, 2016).

[27]M. R. James, Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1989), p.xxv.

[28] Steve Duffy, Introduction to M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.xxi.

[29] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.11.

[30] Ibid, p.30.

[31] Peter Ackroyd, Albion The Origins of the English Imagination (London: Chatto & Windus, 2002), p.378.

[32] Ibid, p376.

[33] S.G. Lubbock, A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1939), p.28.

[34] M. R. James, Casting the Runes and other Ghost Stories (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1989), p.xxi.

[35] M R James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p.54.

Ibid, p.160.

[36]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.

H.P.Lovecraft, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, in Warnings to the Curious A Sheaf of Criticism on M.R.James, (ed). By S.      T. Joshi  & Rosemary Pardoe, (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2007), p.50.

[37]Christopher and Barbara Roden, Preface to M. R. James, A Pleasing Terror (Ashcroft, British Colombia: Ash-Tree Press, 2000), p.x.


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Trevor Hill
 Trevor Hill says:

Hello, I'd like to cite this page in an article. Can I ask who the author is or how I should cite it in a bibliography?

posted 5th November 2021

Jane Mainley-Piddock
 Jane Mainley-Piddock says:

Hi Trevor,

You can site this as

Dr Jane Mainley Piddock followed by the title of this update essay and then this website page address and the date time you accessed the page.

posted 8th November 2021

Trevor Hill
 Trevor Hill says:

Thank you.

posted 8th November 2021

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