Montague Rhodes James is best remembered for his ghost stories, which is a little ironic for he wrote them mainly for his own amusement or to entertain friends at Christmas. All are classics of the genre and 100 years on still have the power to chill the reader. But what else do we know about England’s greatest writer of supernatural fiction? EDDIE BRAZIL serves up 13 lesser known facts about the master of the English ghost story.

1. James could read ancient Ethiopic by the age of 12.

MR James could read ancient languages even from a young age.
James was of a precocious intellect. When aged six, the misery of recuperating from a bout of bronchitis was relieved when he was given a 17th century Dutch bible to read. By the time he was 12, he could read ancient Ethiopic. Even in his senior years his razor sharp mind had not deserted him for he could complete the Times crossword in the time it took to boil his morning egg.

2. The corpses in the crypt of St Michans in Dublin inspired ‘Lost Hearts’.

St Michans Crypt in Dublin - the inspiration for'Lost Hearts'.
The idea for his story ‘Lost Hearts’ came to him when on a trip to Dublin he visited the Church of St Michans. The atmospheric conditions of the crypt have the curious and disturbing property of preserving the corpses in a dry and dusty state for centuries. James admitted they were a nightmare. Strangely, even though “Lost Hearts” is considered one of James best stories, he initially did not think much of it.

3. US President Teddy Roosevelt admired James’ stories.

US president Theodore Roosevelt was a fan of M.R. James' writing.
James had many readers and admirers of his ghosts stories. Perhaps the most surprising was American President, Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt.

4. James’ grandfather ran a plantation in Jamaica and owned 3,000 slaves.

James' grandfather ran a plantation in Jamaica with 3,000 slaves
But for a 19th century act of Parliament, M.R. James may never had attended Eton or Cambridge or left us his legacy of superb ghostly fiction. For James, grandfather, William, ran a plantation in Jamaica and owned 3,000 slaves. Had William Wilberforce’s 1833 slave emancipation act not succeeded, Monty may well have inherited the family business and found himself strutting about the Caribbean in a white fedora brandishing a bull whip.

5. James knew two Jack the Ripper suspects, including Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Victor.

M.R. James knew Prince Albert Victor from his days as a student at Cambridge.
For a brief period from 1883, James was drawn in to the Cambridge circle of Queen Victoria’s son, Prince Albert Victoria aka Edward, The Duke of Clarence and his tutor, J.K. Stephen, a cousin of Virginia Wolfe. Both of these men would in time be suspected of being Jack The Ripper. The Prince died of influenza in January 1892. On hearing the news, Stephen went insane and starved himself to death.

6. James loved Sheridan Le Fanu but he hated H.P. Lovecraft and Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

M.R. James consdiered Sheridan LeFanu as the master ghost story writer
James is considered the greatest writer of ghostly fiction, yet he thought that honour should really go to the Irish author, Sheridan LeFanu. Monty admired Charles Dickens but he viewed “ A Christmas Carol” more a morality tale than a ghost story. Supernatural writer H.P. Lovecraft was a great James fan, yet the Cambridge Don did not reciprocate the admiration. He disliked the American authors work intensely. James also didn’t care much for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, feeling it contained to much sex.

7. James was locked overnight in Corpus Christi Library.

M.R. James was once locked in Corpus Christi Library overnight
Many of James’s stories were no doubt suggested by his knowledge of ancient manuscripts and early history of the Bible. However, ‘A Night in Kings College Chapel’ may well have had its roots in an incident in 1903 when Monty was accidentally locked in the library of Corpus Christi college overnight.

8. MR James’ American publisher mistook him as the brother of “The Turn of the Screw” writer Henry James.

Henry James
James’ publisher, Edward Arnold, thought that American-British writer Henry James, author of the classic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw”, was Monty’s brother. The two writers did in fact meet when MRJ visited Rye in Sussex in August 1903.

9. James story ‘A Vignette’ was probably based on his own paranormal experience.

A Vignette was based on a paranormal experience of M.R. James
James’ last story to be published was  ‘A Vignette’, which appeared posthumously in 1936. Monty did not care for it. Yet it is the one story which all Jamesian scholars agree was based on a real paranormal incident James experienced at his family home at Great Livermere in Suffolk. Even today the area where Monty saw the apparition peeping at him through a hole in a door is believed by villagers to be haunted.

10. James visited every cathedral in France.

MR James visited every cathedral in France, including Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris
James travelled widely in Europe and visited every Cathedral in France. He was also fond of Scandinavia. During a cycling tour of Denmark he announced his arrival in the town of Odense by crashing in to a lady cyclist and knocking her to the floor.

11. ‘The Haunted Dolls House’ was written especially for Queen Mary’s Dolls House Library.

The Haunted Dolls House was written especially for Queen Mary's Doll House Library
The Haunted Dolls House was written by James in 1923 specifically for Queen Mary’s doll house, the largest in the world. A miniaturised version of the story was placed on a book shelf in the dolls house library. The library also contains works by W. Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley, Rudyard Kipling, Thomas Hardy, and J. M. Barrie . Arthur Conan Doyle’s shortest Sherlock Holmes story is also to be found there.

12. The first television adaptation of M.R. James starred Leslie Neilsen, who later went on to star in comedies ‘Airplane’, ‘Naked Gun’ and ‘Dracula: Dead and Loving It’.

Up to the present day James stories have been adapted for almost 80 films, TV productions and radio. The first radio broadcast of an adaptation of ‘Martins Close’ was first aired in the US in 1938. Curiously the first-ever TV adaptation,  ‘The Tractate Middoth’ renamed ‘The Lost Will of Dr Rant’  was also broadcast in the States in 1951 and starred Leslie Neilsen.

13. James possibly visited Borley Rectory, the most haunted house in England.

While working on the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, it is likely M.R. James visited the haunted Borley Rectory
In 1922, James was commissioned by the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments to catalogue the medieval stained glass in the churches of Essex. It is entirely possible that he visited Borley and saw the infamous haunted house still then lived in by the Bull family. Another pointer is that just three miles from Borley is the village of Belchamp St Paul – the location for the climax of James story,” Count Magnus”.

Eddie Brazil
Leave a replyComments (2)
  1. Jill 30 November 2017 at 6:37 am

    What a fascinating life he must have had!

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  2. Robert Holm 14 July 2018 at 5:59 pm

    James didn’t “hate” Lovecraft, his one derogatory comment was in reference to Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” It is virtually certain that James, who died in 1936, never read Lovecraft’s fiction. And learn to spell Leslie Nielsen, good grief…

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