Story Notes:
"Stories I Have Tried
to Write"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 22.)

In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. I completed the series with the following notes on MRJ's essay, "Stories I Have Tried to Write", compiled with the help of David Rowlands, John Alfred Taylor and Tina Rath.

"Stories I Have Tried to Write" was written some time in the latter half of the week following Monday, November 11, 1929 (see the note on p.362, l.13 below). It was first published in The Touchstone 2 (November 30, 1929), an Eton ephemeral; then reprinted in The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (Arnold 1931). The whereabouts of the manuscript are not known.

p.360, l.7: "Look on (them) again I dare not": Although this may have been "Sir Walter Scott's most frequent quotation", it is actually from Macbeth, Act II, Scene II, where Macbeth refuses to go back into the room of the murdered Duncan and tells his wife: "I am afraid to think what I have done / Look on't again I dare not."

p.360, l.8-10: "ideas... perhaps came up in other forms in stories that did get as far as print": Thus possibly the 'Mask' plot (see below, p.361, l.22-28) is connected with "The Rose Garden" with its face like a "Fifth of November mask peeping out among the branches."

p.360, l.12 - p.361, l.2: "There was the story... thought he had read": The 'Marcilly-le-Hayer' plot. M.R. James's brief but complete draft manuscript of this tale is in King's College Library, Cambridge (ref. A/10). The plot inspired Sheila Hodgson's play Whisper in the Ear (BBC Radio 4, October 1976), which was adapted into story form as "The Villa Martine" in Blackwood's Magazine, July 1978.

p.360, l.15: "Madame de Lichtenstein": MRJ has misremembered the title of the book. In his draft it is called Caroline de Lichtenfeld.

p.360, l.19: "Marcilly-le-Hayer": A small town thirty miles west of Troyes.

p.361, l.3-12: "Then there was quite a long one... turns": The 'Evil Catholic Priest' plot. There is no known MRJ manuscript of this tale in existence. The plot inspired "The Uncommon Salt" by David G. Rowlands in Ghosts & Scholars 3 (1981), and "Come, Follow!" by Sheila Hodgson in Ghosts & Scholars 4 (1982); the latter reprinted in Ghosts & Scholars (ed. Richard Dalby & Rosemary Pardoe, Crucible 1987).

p.361, l.13-19: "Also the story... newly-dug grave": The 'Two students of King's' plot. MRJ's long and complete draft manuscript of this is in Cambridge University Library (ref. Add.7484.l.27 & 28b). It was published as "The Fenstanton Witch" in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990), and reprinted in Tales of Witchcraft (ed. Richard Dalby, O'Mara 1991). The plot inspired Sheila Hodgson's play Turn, Turn, Turn (BBC Radio 4, March 1977), which was adapted into story form as "The Turning Point" in Blackwood's Magazine, March 1978.

p.361, l.13-14: "two students... the sixteenth century": Again MRJ has misremembered. In his draft, the story is set in the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14), and the two central characters are Fellows not students.

p.361, l.15: "Fenstanton": A village ten miles north-west of Cambridge.

p.361, l.15-16: "the turning to Lolworth, on the Huntingdon road": Lolworth is a tiny village about six miles north-west of Cambridge. The Lolworth turn is some half a mile from the village, on the straight Roman road (now the A604) leading from Cambridge to Fenstanton (and then on to Huntingdon).

p.361, l.22-28: "The man, for instance... eye-holes": The 'Mask' plot. It inspired Sheila Hodgson's play The Backward Glance (BBC Radio 4, September 22, 1977), which has never been adapted into story form. Other stories based on it are: "Old Hobby Horse" by A.F. Kidd in Ghosts & Scholars 3 (1981), and "Gunpowder Plot" by C.E. Ward in Ghosts & Scholars 18 (1994).

p.361, l.29-32: "There is the touch... what face or no-face do you see?": Perhaps rather too vague an idea to have been the inspiration for any specific stories, although it is used by Fritz Leiber in Our Lady of Darkness (1978): "[He scanned] each rock clump before circling by it, for if he thrust his head too trustingly around one, what face or no-face might he not see?" (Millington/Fontana editions, p.32).

p.361, l.33-40: "when Mr Badman... beyond me": The 'Mr Badman' plot. It inspired "Branks's Folly" by C.E. Ward in Ghosts & Scholars 20 (1995).

p.362, l.1-5: "There may be possibilities... more truthful excuse": The 'Cracker' plot. It inspired Sir Andrew Caldecott's "Christmas Re-union" in Not Exactly Ghosts (Arnold 1947); reprinted in Ghosts & Scholars (ed. Richard Dalby & Rosemary Pardoe, Crucible 1987). A scene in Sheila Hodgson's play Echoes from the Abbey (BBC Radio 4, November 21, 1984), adapted into story form in Ghosts & Scholars 9 (1987), was also suggested by it.

p.362, l.6-10: "many common objects... It may not be alone": Although MRJ does not say that he ever actually wrote this idea into a story, it seems to form part of the long but incomplete draft manuscript ref. A/11 in King's College Library, which was published as "John Humphreys" in Ghosts & Scholars 16 (1993). In this, Humphreys picks up an envelope lying on his "carriage-drive" (note the use of exactly the same term), which turns out to contain "Two or three pins, somewhat bent, a small ball of thread tightly rolled, a few withered leaves and some brown dust". We never learn the significance of the envelope, but Humphreys is certainly a troubled man from the time he brings it into the house and opens it.

p.362, l.13: "Late on Monday night a toad came into my study": In a letter of November 11, 1929 (Letters to a Friend, ed. Gwendolen McBryde, Arnold 1956, p.159), MRJ says: "Now here is a thing. This morning they sent me a new edition of In a Glass Darkly... and I read Green Tea and other things - I write at night - and just now as I re-entered my room what should I see but a toad hopping across the floor. Fortunately a smallish toad. It has retired behind the curtains near the door. Will it clasp my leg as I go out? and what does it portend?" Later in the letter MRJ adds: "A noise in the fireplace. Perhaps the toad is sitting warming its hands but I can't descry it." And at the end: "The toad has made no further sign, and I must go to bed - closing the door behind me." The final paragraph of "Stories I Have Tried to Write" inspired "The Abysmal" by Stephen Gresham in Ghosts & Scholars 3 (1981) and "A College Story" by Rhys H. Hughes in G&S 21 (1996).

Note: The stories by Sheila Hodgson, David Rowlands and C.E. Ward mentioned here have since been reprinted in volumes from Ash-Tree Press (Hodgson and Rowlands) and Sarob Press (Ward).

Copyright (c) 1996 Rosemary Pardoe.

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