Guest writer ROBERT LLOYD PARRY spends much of time his time performing the works of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936), known as England’s great author of the supernatural. Here he tells us why M.R. James’ ghost stories are the spookiest.
There’s a word that covers pretty much all that I admire about the supernatural tales of Montague Rhodes James.
It’s a word he used himself to great effect in those stories, and it’s also a rather good description of the kind man he was.
The word is ‘curious.’
Curious in the old fashioned sense, in that he was odd, an object of curiosity in his own right.
Outwardly he was pretty conventional.
He spent much of his adulthood at Cambridge University and photographs suggest a stereotypical don.
But behind those round glasses, beneath the oily hair, there lurked an extraordinary – sometimes dark, more often, I think, playful – imagination.
And this found its expression in the greatest ghost stories to have been written in the English language.
The stories themselves tell of curious events, of course: pictures come to life, curses are fulfilled, sceptics are baffled, inanimate objects wreak vengeance.
They defy straightforward summary – perhaps because James’s delightful prose style and his brilliant sense of timing are so much part of their power – and I can do no better than implore you to pick up a copy of his ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ at the earliest opportunity.
Almost any one will do for starters. Why not try ‘Rats’?
In its few pages it contains all the humour, nostalgia, horror and sense of place that make James such a joy to read today.
But James was curious in the other sense of the word: he was always seeking knowledge, he was fascinated by the less well travelled byways of history, folklore, art and literature.
In short, he paid attention, where others did not.
This aspect of his personality emerged in infancy and remained a constant.
He was not a man particularly prone to self-analysis and his memoirs don’t give much away, but at one point in them he reflects upon his schoolboy reading: “At this time… all antique knowledge seemed immensely desirable… nothing could be more inspiriting than to discover that St Livinus had his tongue cut out and was beheaded, or that David’s mother was called Nitzeneth.”
As the quotation suggests, what he paid closest attention was church history and the Apocryphal books of the Bible, and if there was an added frisson of violence and horror, then, well, so much the better.
This recondite lore, accumulated during a lifetime, made its way into his stories and James’s vast arcane knowledge, filtered through that extraordinary imagination, is perhaps what sets him apart from his fellow writers of ghost stories.
When James writes about a picture of a demon in a book, say, or describes the hanging of a witch, its clear that he knows what he’s talking about.
You trust him, and that makes the stories that bit more terrifying.
ROBERT LLOYD PARRY is an actor and writer. He regularly performs the ghost stories of M R James at venues around the UK and Irleand and has released DVDs and CDs of some of the best of James’s tales. For more details see his website at www.nunkie.co.uk.