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M.R. James, Ghosts and Landscapes

December 26, 2013

The first of an occasional blog on writers, walking and landscape.

It was pleasing to see the BBC revive the tradition from the 1970s of an M.R.James ghost story on Christmas Night (The Tractate Middoth) plus a documentary about James himself. Both are presumably available on BBC I-Player if you missed them.

M.R. James (1862-1936) is the finest writer of traditional ghost stories in English. Of particular interest to those who walk and like to explore the English countryside is his use of atmosphere. Most of James’ ghosts are demonic, held down – until they appear – by the power of old manuscripts, ruins and antiquarian sites.

James was an antiquarian of the old school, an academic and cataloguer of obscure medieval manuscripts – much like many of his characters. But, usually for Christmas Eve, he would write a ghost story to read – by candlelight – to his academic fellows. It was, in essence, a hobby from his more learned work. These stories were eventually collected in two iconic volumes, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

He was a hugely modest and exceptionally talented writer. He can summon up the atmosphere of places in just a few lines, whether it be a dusty university library or the wide sweeps of his adored East Anglian landscapes. Many of his heroes like to walk and it is often in some lonely spot that they encounter some thing demonic in the landscape.

If you have ever walked alone and seen something out of the corner of your eye or heard voices you cannot explain, then M.R.James will cater for that feeling in you.

He died in his rooms at Eton in 1936, appropriately just as the choir was singing the nunc dimittis.

His ghost stories are well worth reading even if you don’t usually like ghost stories. They give a wonderful account of the English landscape at one of the most fascinating times in its history – summoning up images of lonely beaches, deep and mysterious woods, old tumps and burrows from early archaeology, and the quiet corners of abbeys, cathedrals and English cities.

A summoning up of the English landscape you can easily lose yourself in.

But beware of what lurks in those hidden recesses of town and countryside.

 

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 26, 2013 12:29 pm

    A great connection for good reads, many thanks!

  2. December 27, 2013 1:25 am

    I saw that was going to be on and was interested in it but somehow missed it 😦 He sounds worth a read though…
    Carol.

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