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Places of Cycling: curb your curiosity; the ghost stories of M.R. James

Words by Paul Maunder

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It’s Christmas Eve. The weather is foul. Daylight was extinguished hours ago. The narrow streets of Cambridge ring with the sweet sounds of carol-singers, and the discordant song of drunks. Beyond the city, the fens are silent and eerie. But here in the hallowed rooms of Kings College, where for 600 years great men have studied, there is a warm welcome.

Cambridge, England. Image: mikeuk/Getty Images.

Come in, hang up your coat and hat, take a glass of something warming. A fire blazes in the grate. Candles light the rest of the room. Your undergraduate friends are here, in high spirits. And in a stiff armchair, facing his audience is the reason you have braved the bitter evening. M.R. James. Medievalist scholar, Provost of Kings, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Tonight, however, is not about formal education. James is here simply as a storyteller. He wants to entertain, mostly he wants to terrify.

The connection between Christmas and ghost stories is a peculiarly English tradition. Charles Dickens started it all with A Christmas Carol. Dickens understood that Christmas can be a sad occasion. Families remember lost loved ones. A cozy gathering in bleak midwinter is a good place for a dark tale. While Dickens’ famous novella is – eventually – an uplifting tale, the stories of M.R. James are anything but.

M.R. James. Image: Hulton Archive/Stringer/Getty Images.

Montagu Rhodes James was born in 1862 and grew up in the rectory at Great Livermere, a Suffolk village. He studied at Eton then as an undergraduate at Kings College, Cambridge, where he stayed to become a professor of medieval literature. He penned many scholarly works about ancient manuscripts and was acclaimed for his library cataloging work. During the long summer holidays, James liked to go on cycling holidays in France. So far, so arcane.

What set James apart was his ghost stories. Published in five collections between 1904 and 1928, many of James’s stories were written specifically for his traditional Christmas Eve reading. He would gather a group of students (at that time, all men) in his rooms in Kings, pour them a glass of Madeira, and read aloud. In the 1970s the BBC revived this tradition with a series of television adaptations of M.R. James stories featuring prominent actors of the time. Broadcast late at night, the dramas were a deliciously dark contrast to the sugary programming that dominated the Christmas schedules.

Weybourne station, Norfolk, England. Image: Gill Copeland/Getty Images.

James developed a style of ghost story that was unique and new yet felt deeply embedded in history. His heroes were not so dissimilar from himself – well-mannered, middle-aged scholars who appeared to have no family or love interest. Quiet, intellectual men. And his landscapes were familiar to British readers — the pastoral countryside of East Anglia, populated only by remote houses and tiny villages. Here lay his genius; the unassuming nature of his people and places made the supernatural elements of the story all the scarier. Perhaps unsettling would be a better word. Compared to today’s visceral horror films, James’s stories may at first seem rather tame, but their power lies in the accrual of psychological dread. Everything is imagined and all the more powerful for it. Sometimes, right at the end, there is a flash of violence, leaving the reader gasping — and unwilling to go to bed.

As a scholar of history, James understood that the English landscape is densely packed with history, much of it very bloody. And that this connection with the past is lodged deep in the collective consciousness of English readers. Pick any field in Suffolk and if you dig patiently enough, you’ll find remnants of ancient battles. In A Warning to the Curious, an antiquarian called Paxton is walking in the Suffolk wilderness when he discovers one of the three mythical crowns of East Anglia, which are supposed to guard the land against invasion. Unwisely, he digs the crown up and thereafter is stalked by a sinister, ethereal figure. Paxton enlists two friends to help him return the crown to the land, but the haunting does not stop. In the end… well, I won’t tell you the ending here. Suffice to say, if you are out on a bracing walk between Christmas and New Year and you see something interesting in the landscape, it may be best to curb your curiosity. Keep walking and don’t look behind you.