Montague Rhodes James

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary with More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. Two Volumes in One.

Montague Rhodes James by Sir Gerald Kelly oil on canvas, circa 1936

M.R. James (b. 1862) is perhaps one of the most understated writers of odd ghost stories of all time. Many of his stories take place at Oxbridge and other places with a very English feel, reflecting the life of the author himself. James also catalogued medieval manuscripts (see below), for which he was well-respected during his lifetime.

I’ve collected some excellent articles and put them together here – I hope you enjoy them!

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 in Goodnestone Parsonage, Kent, where his father was the curate, and died in 1936. He developed a taste for old books from a precocious age and was fonder of reading dusty volumes in the library than playing with the other children. He studied at Eton and then at King’s College, Cambridge, where he became assistant in Classical archaeology at the Fitzwilliam museumHe was elected a Fellow of King’s after writing his dissertation The Apocalypse of St. Peter, and after that, he lectured in divinity, eventually becoming dean of the college in 1889. He was a distinguished medievalist and wrote a large amount of reviews, translations, monographs, articles and works on bibliography, palaeography, antiquarian issues, and often edited volumes for specialized bibliographical and historical societies. He was a brilliant linguist and biblical scholar, and he was exceptionally gifted, which, along with his unusually keen memory and hard work, enabled him to write many pioneering studies. – Walk Awhile 

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James’s incredible detail finds a balance in those ambiguous ghouls to which the reader is invited to apply their own dreadful colour. Many of M.R. James’s ghost stories were written to be read aloud as Christmas Eve entertainment to select gatherings of friends at Cambridge. They were subsequently published as: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, A Thin Ghost and Others, and A Warning to the CuriousA Thin Ghost

Sacha Dhawan plays Garrett in Gatiss's adaptation of The Tractate Middoth
Sacha Dhawan plays Garrett in Gatiss’s adaptation of The Tractate Middoth

Earlier this year, I published a post about one of my favourite James stories, The Mezzotint; a classic story of a picture of a house which has within it the souls of the once living! It reminds me of the story of the girl who gets trapped in a painting, grows old and dies in Roald Dahl’s The Witches. That’s always been my favourite part of the book (and wonderful film).

Spooky: an illustration for MR James's 'O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' by Jonathan Barry Photo: Bridgeman Art
Spooky: an illustration for MR James’s ‘O Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ by Jonathan Barry Photo: Bridgeman Art

It is no coincidence that Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol features more ghosts than carols, or that the 1963 Andy Williams song It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year promises “scary ghost stories”. Christmas was once the time for sharing tales of the spooks we now usually associate with Halloween. Our traditional festive celebrations owe much to the Victorians’ plundering of pagan symbolism – whether the still-fertile appearance of evergreens and holly, the bearded god Odin’s habit of climbing down chimneys, or spectres at the fireside. As the Winter Solstice approached and daylight died away, the ancients thought that the barrier between the living and the dead became slender, so supernatural tales abounded. (James) became a noted medieval scholar before returning to Eton to serve as Provost. He was a devout Anglican, and a profoundly conservative individual, much as one might expect of a man who went from parsonage to school, university then back to school. BBC Arts

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Something feels right about pushing things off kilter, beside a warm fire, for the safe thrill of having your flesh creep. James wanted his creatures to be ghastly. I think he’d have had no truck with sad, longing ghosts yet to be released to heaven. There is something implacably horrible about his monsters, with their black matted hair, teeth and nails. The recent trend for more human vampires is an interesting one, but for me it’s exciting enough that they just want to drink your blood and watch you die for the fun of it. – Mark Gatiss

Montague Rhodes James. 1862-1936
Montague Rhodes James. 1862-1936

Every year I’m drawn back to Montague Rhodes James – his quietly creepy prose hints so effectively at what lurks just beyond the light of the hearth. A fellow whom I have never met but whose work continues to exert a heavy influence upon me. The Guardian

Every reader of M R James’s peerlessly unpleasant ghost stories will have his or her favourite moment of that paradoxical, delighted, wriggling horror that their author sought to instil. For some, it is the scene in “O Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904), in which a sceptical don on a golfing holiday is stalked through his dreams by a blind, shuffling figure in white that eventually rises from the spare bed in his room and thrusts into his face “a horrible, an intensely horrible face of crumpled linen”. For others, it is the episode in “The Diary of Mr Poynter” (1919), where the protagonist rests his hand absently on what he takes to be the head of his pet spaniel and finds that “what he had been touching” — not the dog, but a man-shaped figure on all fours covered with hair — “rose to meet him”. And perhaps the most intimate of these shivers comes in “Casting the Runes” (1911), in which the unlucky protagonist, woken in the night, reaches under his pillow for his watch, only for his questing hand to encounter “a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being”. That readers in the iPad age should still be so horrified by these tales of haunted Edwardian bibliophiles, antebellum Oxbridge dons and ghoulish local revenants would doubtless have come as a surprise to their author… His ghost stories were designed as pleasant trifles, and mostly composed at lightning speed on Christmas evenings between 1892 and 1935 for a coterie of colleagues, friends and choirboys at King’s. Their author quoted with approval the comment of the fat boy in The Pickwick Papers, who ghoulishly advertised that “I wants to make your flesh creep.” Although they share densely imagined roots in local and national history and geography, the stories did not, as James wrote in the introduction to his first collection, “make any very exalted claim. If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable while walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.” The Telegraph

I hope you have a supernatural festive period, full of shrieks of laughter and terror!

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Those Curious Coen Brothers

Known for their unique characters and gripping dialogue, Joel Coen, 61, and Ethan Coen, 58, are the directors, writers and producers of numerous critically adored films including “Fargo”, “The Big Lebowski” and the Oscar-winning “No Country for Old Men”. The Economist

Joel Coen is often listed as the sole director on early projects, but this is only because guild rules stopped two individuals taking credit for one film. They have pretty much shared most roles throughout their careers.

I’ve seen people walk out of the cinema before a Coen film has ended, and I’ve heard the confused and annoyed chatter during the end credits, but the brothers have still managed to break really quite unusual, niche films into the mainstream. Perhaps this is partly due to the large list of popular actors who are keen to work with them.

Anyway, I thought I’d offer my thoughts on my top Coen films…

Burn After Reading (2008) is one of my favourites, with Brad Pitt and John Malkovitch giving hilarious performances, particular when in the same scene. Pitt’s character has grand plans but it’s a Coen film, so you know it’s not going to work out for him!

True Grit is another of my favourites, and it’s thanks to this film, Quentin Tarantino and the Weird West fiction genre, that I’ve finally realised westerns are great. The characters in True Grit seem very honest portrayals of human beings, doing what they want or need to do. I think it’s one of their more normal films too, which probably explains why it’s their most financially successful so far. I’d love some more recommendations for modern traditional westerns. It’s one of the Coen brothers’ few films that doesn’t mash up genres.Business Insider

I saw Barton Fink very late (last year I think) and it’s probably in my top three Coen films, being complicated and super exciting all the way through. It’s a bit of a secret film, meaning different things to different viewers.

Fargo the film is one of the best films of all time, Fargo series 1 was an extremely fun viewing experience… and I’m not sure I can even talk about Fargo series 2. “We have no problem with it. It just feels divorced from our film somehow.” – Joel Coen talking about the TV series. However, all three pieces of work make me wish we had more snowy settings on the big and small screens. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) is possibly one of the best Coen creations.

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No Country for Old Men (2007) is a film that I often forget is by the Coen brothers. Watching it for the first time seemed like such a big experience and I felt like films were changing, they were going in a new, higher direction. It’s also their longest film at two hours two minutes, short by today’s standards. “I mean, after two hours with a character we feel we’re pretty much done with them.” – Joel Coen. Many say “No Country for Old Men” is objectively the best film the Coen brothers ever made. They have a point. “No Country” earned them their first Oscars for best director and best picture. The awards were well-deserved. At first, this doesn’t feel like any Coen brothers film ever made.Business Insider

If I had to pick a favourite, it would be A Serious Man (2009). It’s hard to explain why, but since first seeing it I’ve discovered the short stories of Ethan Coen and this film seems to have a lot of his mind in it. It is hilarious, but it’s also so… well, serious. “A Serious Man” is the most confident and personal film the Coen brothers have ever made… At one point, it diverges into a story about Hebrew letters found on a man’s teeth. That’s because the Coens can. Business Insider

And then there’s The Big Lebowski (1998). 

“The Big Lebowski” is bigger than just one movie.

The story of a laid-back stoner named The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who gets sucked into a seedy LA underworld after asking for a replacement for his soiled rug (“that was a valued rug”), was a box-office flop when it came out. But it slowly gained cult status. Now it plays to sold-out crowds at midnight showings. It has launched clothing lines and even a religion called Dudeism.

And even with the overexposure, “The Big Lebowski” never gets old. After countless viewings, I can’t quite put my finger on it, because my perception of this movie changes every time I watch it. That’s what happens when you have a story so intricate and well mapped out. The mystery gets more intriguing and makes more sense the more you watch it. And yes, this is a film you will want to watch many times.

The Dude deserves to be in the pantheon of great cinematic characters as does Walter Sobchak (John Goodman). For creating a timeless comedy and a character whose face decorates both a shirt I wear and a mug I drink coffee out of every morning, I say, “the Dude abides.” Business Insider

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Moving on: The Coens are often praised for the music in their films, and composer Carter Burwell is responsible for the score in sixteen of them. He is not responsible for the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack, one of my least favourite of their films (it’s not a bad film but I expect amazing from these guys now, so I was disappointed). Not planning to be a film composer, Burwell received numerous requests after scoring the music for Blood Simple, the Coens’ first feature-length film. “It is, in fact, just an accident of the way that Blood Simple was received, frankly. Other people started calling me and asking me to do film scores. So, yes, it’s entirely their fault” – Carter Burwell.

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Despite Burwell’s lack of formal training, Joel Coen says the brothers have always felt like they were in good musical hands.

“Carter is so good at sort of moving into these different kinds of storytelling,” he says, “and understanding what the sort of imperatives of the movie are, and what it needs musically.”

That’s good, because the Coens don’t like to give Burwell too much instruction up front. Burwell says they discuss all the practicalities, but he can’t necessarily ask what a scene is really about…”I’m a bit more of a quieter person,” he says, “and often the music is more behind what’s going on.”…Burwell says he tries to work with people who understand the virtue of withholding information or leaving the audience uninformed and even confused. NPR

Their latest film, Hail, Caesar!, another period piece about Hollywood, isn’t released in the UK until next week, so I haven’t seen it yet! It looks silly and fun, so I’m looking forward to it. This twisted love letter to blacklist-era Hollywood finds the brothers at their most absurd, and it totally works. Business Insider

If you’re an aspiring film-maker, the brothers offer some tips here!

Artwork Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft

Having just stumbled across this 3D printed guitar inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, I thought I’d compile a little collection of other artworks inspired by the dark author.

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Lisel Ashlock. Call of Cthulhu. Acrylic on birch. Based on the novel of H.P. Lovecraft. Found here. This piece reminds me of Giger too.

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Dave Carson. Found here. So many lines!

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From The Call of Cthulhu (Graphic Novel), found here. You can view the whole book through that link.

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By Luciana Nedelea. I think this is my favourite. I love anything with a jellyfish!

I would love to hear any more suggestions of Lovecraft inspired artists, particularly the not so well known. Leave me a comment if you have any tips! If you’d like me to feature your own work, just drop me an email: jamiesnelling@gmail.com