Ghosts & Scholars
M.R. James

Issue 3 (January 2003): Part Two.

Copyright © 2002 Rosemary Pardoe (e-mail). All rights retained by the contributors. All unassigned material by Rosemary Pardoe. Not to be reproduced without the permission of the authors/artists.


For full list of contents and to read the "Editorial" by Rosemary Pardoe, "M.R. James, Antiquarian Sleuth: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth and the Blood Libel" by Steve Duffy, and "'The Experiment': Story Notes", go to Part One.

In Part Two: "Reviews":

M.R. James' A Warning to the Curious (BFI)

Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James (OUP, USA)

Great Lives: M.R. James (BBC Radio 4)

Schalken the Painter and Others: Ghost Stories 1838-61 by J.S. Le Fanu (Ash-Tree Press)

Artwork: (web site edition only) F.E. Mackie (picture caption)


M.R. James' A Warning to the Curious, directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. British Film Institute, 2002, £9.99 (UK video, 50 minutes, BFIV 140), £15.99 (Region 2 DVD, BFIVD 554), Cert. PG; extras on DVD, film only on video.

Reviewed by Steve Duffy.

For several years the BBC has been bewailing the lack of a home-grown competitor to its imported supernatural hit series, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The X Files. Now, with the BFI's release of A Warning to the Curious, perhaps they'll realise that the jewels were in their crown all along - ever since the 1970s, an era viewers in the UK may yet come to look back on as the Golden Age of TV Spooks.

Any such judgement would rest heavily on the efforts of two people: Lawrence Gordon Clark and Rosemary Hill, under whose aegis eight ghost stories were brought to the screen, one each Christmas over the period 1971-78, under the banner A Ghost Story For Christmas.[1] Five of these fifty-minute dramas were adapted from M.R. James's tales: The Stalls of Barchester (Cathedral); A Warning to the Curious; Lost Hearts; The Ash-Tree; and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas.[2] These are listed, not chronologically, but in roughly descending order of fidelity to the original text: the adaptations range from almost verbatim (The Stalls of Barchester) to inspired-by at best (The Treasure of Abbot Thomas), but all are worthy of your attention, and stand practically unrivalled to this day as examples of how to portray Jamesian terror in a visual medium.

A Warning to the Curious was first screened on BBC2, on Christmas Eve 1972.[3] From the start, a wonderful sense of place is established, with panoramic shots of the north Norfolk coast in bright cold winter sunshine, and a voice-over telling the legend of the three royal crowns of Anglia. Eerie, subtly disturbing woodwind-and-string accompaniment helps set the mood. An archaeologist is at work on a mound close by the coast, in amongst the trees: his encounter with William Ager, the guardian of the crowns, will come back to haunt us in the final scenes. Mark well Ager's hacking, asthmatic cough; you'll be hearing it again.

Years later, Mr Paxton (Peter Vaughan) arrives at Seaburg (no H, for reasons that are not entirely clear), on the trail of Anglo-Saxon treasure. Paxton is a diffident, rather awkward man, precariously perched among what used to be called the lower middle classes. Recently made redundant from his clerking job in the City, he views the hunt for the crowns as both an opportunity to stave off penury in the midst of the Great Depression, and - quite poignantly - a chance to prove himself; the possibility that one day he might be ranked alongside those 'experts' from whose books he's taught himself the rudiments of history and archaeology. This is an interesting, and to my mind, successful spin on James's original conception of the Paxton character: some, though, will see no need for the alteration, and will deduct points accordingly. It does allow for one telling little scene with Arnold, the 'boots' at Paxton's hotel: watch the expression on Paxton's face as he hands over his cracked and shabby shoes to be cleaned; and mark too Arnold's immediate revision of his guest's social standing. All the self-abasing baggage of the ridiculous British class system is there, captured in microcosm. Not necessarily a thing Monty might have thought worth capturing, but...

On a loaned bicycle, Paxton sets out on his search along the coast, past Perpendicular churches and gaily-painted windmills, through churchyards and farmhouses. The low sun glitters in rimy ponds, pokes through the bare tree-branches, glows redly through the evening haze... if this production does nothing else for you, it may at least serve as an introduction to the hidden beauties of seaside Norfolk. Staying with the treasure-hunt, though - Paxton strikes lucky in a graveyard close by the sea, and learns of the Ager family's role as guardians of the last of the three crowns. Here is the grave of William, last of the Agers, dead of consumption; and here is a figure, all solitary on the strand, looking on. Watching... Another chance discovery in an antique shop brings to light the Ager family bible: from this, Paxton learns that they were a Seaburg family. Arnold the boots, however, denies all knowledge of them. Undaunted, Paxton sets out again: once more, the solitary figure all in black is seen, vanishing into the yard of a farm which Paxton discovers used to be the Ager family property. Away off down the coast is a mound - the mound - where William Ager spent the greater part of his time, where he caught the consumption that led to his death. Paxton departs, only to return, under cover of darkness, with his spade and trowel.

What follows - Paxton's night-time excavation of the mound - is a terrifically creepy sequence, marred only slightly by some rather ropey day-for-night filter shots. The relentless building-up of tension is accomplished with great skill and restraint: it's almost a relief, at one point, to finally catch a glimpse of something concrete to be scared of! Eventually, Paxton claims his prize - but, as we all know, from that moment on he will never be alone. The hallucinatory sequence which follows, the pursuit of Paxton through the trees and out along the strand, can only underline how thoroughly Jonathan Miller blew the chance to make something of the beach-chase in his woeful Whistle and I'll Come To You adaptation: this is as excellent as the Miller is wretched.[4] Watch especially for the sequence with Paxton in the undergrowth, and later, on the path: the word 'classic' is not out of place.

Back at the hotel, Paxton finds the Ager bible ripped into shreds with his own straight-razor; a lungless cough fills the room, and finally Paxton realises the true implications of his act. Half out of his mind with remorse and dread, he approaches the hotel's only other guest, Dr Black (familiar to viewers of the previous year's Christmas-eve offering, The Stalls of Barchester), for advice and moral support. Dr Black (Clive Swift), intrigued by Paxton's tale and impressed by his anxious demeanour, acquiesces in his plan to return the crown under cover of night. In his room that evening, waiting for the off, Paxton tries to relax: he reads from his book on the Anglian crowns, sets it aside again. A sudden breeze puffs out the curtains; the candle gutters, goes out entirely. Blackness on the screen. Paxton switches his torch on, and the beam wavers around the room, which is suddenly alive with that horrible wheezing we've come to recognise with mounting apprehension and dread. The light falls on a dark shape, crouched over the suitcase containing the crown. The figure begins to turn - we get just a glimpse of its bone-white face - and then the torch is dropped, as Paxton screams out in the Stygian dark... Without wanting to indulge in hyperbole, this is just one of the scariest things you will ever see on television. Ever. Take it from me... the ensuing scene out on the mound in which Paxton buries his accursed treasure, while creepy enough in its own right, actually provides much-needed respite, in the context of the foregoing!

But, of course, Ager is not done with Paxton yet. "He has some power over your eyes..." and judging from the concluding sequence, so too does Mr Gordon Clark. In maybe the best supernatural chase ever committed to film, Paxton, Ager and Dr Black pursue each other out along the beach, through the trees, heading inexorably towards their Nemesis on the mound. At the very end, we feel genuine sympathy both for poor old Paxton and the grieving, helpless Dr Black... and as for the implacable Ager? Dread, pure and reflexive.

It's always hard, when reviewing something for which you feel great personal fondness, to maintain the desired level of objectivity. One shouldn't let nostalgic associations get in the way of detachment and impartiality... but I suspect there will be many other readers of the G&S Newsletter who, like me, once spent the night before Christmas absolutely enthralled by this fine production; who remember it, whether in detail or more impressionistically, with nothing but affection. For them, nostalgia will be a major part of the package: a chance to buy back a little piece of the past, as it were. I can see this programme being shown in many a darkened living-room next Christmas Eve, and the one after, and the one after that - until, in fact, the BBC decides to offer us that most congenial of Christmas crackers, and revive A Ghost Story For Christmas. Well, we can but hope...

So, having declared my interest, it's time to close this piece of special pleading with my rating. I was toying with the idea of docking half-a-mark for the amendments to MRJ's plot, but in the end the Christmas spirit proved all but irresistible. I urge you all to buy this, and having bought it, to contact the BFI and plead for the speedy release of those MRJ adaptations which remain in the vault. Now that would be a Christmas present worth having!

Rating: *****

Notes: [1] Gordon Clark wrote, produced and directed the first two instalments of the series, after which Hill took over production duties for the remaining six. By the time of the eighth adaptation, Gordon Clark had left the BBC. [2] The others included The Signalman, an outstandingly creepy adaptation of Dickens' most fully realised short ghost story. The remaining two adaptations were of more recent tales: Clive Exton's Stigma, and John Bowen's The Ice House. Neither garnered particularly warm reviews, nor did they stick in the mind of this reviewer; The Signalman, though, is remembered to this day by people who wouldn't normally be caught dead watching spooky stuff! It was also released on video/DVD by the BFI in 2002. [3] It was repeated, twenty years almost to the day later, in 1992. [4] Don't just take my word for it: buy the Miller from the BFI. Compare. Contrast. Agree.

DVD Extras reviewed by Laurence Staig.

I've always liked Lawrence Gordon Clark's films and in particular his adaptations of M.R. James. He manages to convey something of the brooding atmosphere of James's work and especially the sense that there is something to be glimpsed from the corner of one's eye. Clark also captures a strong sense of place - and that, after all, is one of the things MRJ is all about.

Good as the film itself is, unfortunately there are few Extras on the DVD version, and with the advantages the format affords this is a pity. The BFI told me it was for reasons of time and that Extras would have had to have been made. Well, fair enough - but, for example, on their Whistle DVD we had a reading of the story plus input from one of our best known James aficionados, Ramsey Campbell.

Extras aren't that difficult to compile and I could suggest a short list: screen shots of the original books; there are biographical images a-plenty from James's life; an introduction to the story on camera could have been provided by someone such as Christopher Frayling or Michael Cox. There's also Clive Dunn's film of James, A Pleasant Terror (controversial as it might be) - even edited extracts from the talking heads might have been a nice bonus. But I guess on a budget... However, we do get a terrific reading of the story lifted from the old Argo recording, by the late Michael Hordern. He has, along with Christopher Lee, to be my favourite reader of James; maybe a legacy from his performance in Miller's Whistle adaptation. The sleeve notes by Dick Fiddy are succinct and informative - as are the especially brief biogs provided as extras on the DVD itself. Finally, good to see the Ash-Tree MRJ getting a special mention. On Extras that's about it - but hey! - we have the film and let's see others. The BFI are friendly and up for suggestions so drop them a line.

Rating (Extras): **½ (Film): ****

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Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories by M.R. James, introduced by Michael Chabon. Oxford World's Classics (Oxford University Press, USA), 2002, ix + 298pp, ISBN: 0-19-515117-8, US $19.00.

Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

This new edition of Casting the Runes from OUP (USA), in their World's Classics hardback series, contains the same twenty-one tales as the OUP (UK) World's Classics Michael Cox paperback volume of 1987 (reissued 1999) - i.e. eighteen selected from the Collected Ghost Stories plus "A Vignette", "The Experiment" and "The Malice of Inanimate Objects". However, all of Michael Cox's important prefatory/annotatory apparatus has been omitted. The loss is a disastrous one: his Introduction, Select Bibliography and Chronology are invaluable, as are the annotations (the latter are reprinted in Ash-Tree's A Pleasing Terror, but not everyone can afford that).

In their place is a new nine-page Introduction by Michael Chabon, which begins well: "I'll just come right out and say it. I think that M.R. James's 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' is one of the finest short stories ever written". Chabon continues by insisting that the ghost story genre has been forgotten (yes, that old chestnut again!), especially in the USA, and "consigned to the ghetto of subgenre". After a short summary of MRJ's life (little detail, but fair enough as far as it goes), he then compares MRJ with H.P. Lovecraft to quite good effect ("Evil is strangely rationalized in Lovecraft, irresistible but systematic; it can be sought and found. In James, it irrupts, is chanced upon, and brushes against our lives, irrevocably, often when we are looking in the other direction"). Finally Chabon arrives back at "Oh, Whistle" for the last four pages of the Introduction: in fact, this is the only MRJ tale he mentions by name! He makes some good points about the position of the narrator in the story and so forth, remarking with insight that: "The secret power of James's work lies in his steadfast refusal fully to explain, in the end, the mechanisms that have brought about the local irruption of Evil he describes, and yet to leave us, time and again, utterly convinced that such an explanation is possible, if only we were in possession of all the facts". But it's often hard to concentrate on what Chabon is saying here, because Professor Parkins is referred to throughout as "Parkes" (several times)! Way to go with the proof-reading!

The ultimate question, of course, is Why? I suppose OUP hope the book will sell on Michael Chabon's name, and it may well do so, picking up new MRJ fans along the way. That can't be a bad thing, but there's no excuse for removing the Michael Cox material (the textual asterisks which led to his annotations are still present - no doubt to the confusion of many a reader). This edition of Casting the Runes is just another MRJ collection, admittedly with a good choice of tales (thanks to Michael Cox who took some care in picking them) and nicely packaged as a pocket-sized hardback, but otherwise indistinguishable from all the other MRJ selections. Assuming the original Cox paperback remains in print, best to stick with that one.

Rating: **

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Great Lives: M.R. James, BBC Radio 4, November 15, 2002, 11.00-11.30pm. Produced by Mary Ward Lowery.

Reviewed by Rosemary Pardoe.

Great Lives is a biographical series in which "a living celebrity is invited to nominate one of their heroes, the only condition being that the hero must be dead. With the help of an expert on that person... presenter Humphrey Carpenter discusses the Great Life and assesses their importance." Muriel Gray, whose novel Furnace was inspired by "Casting the Runes", selected M.R. James as her hero, and talked about him with Carpenter and Christopher Frayling (whose enthusiasm for MRJ is well known).

The discussion was, I think, stronger on MRJ's fiction than on his personality, although I'm not sure even I would want to argue that he is the "best writer of ghost stories in the language", and it's possible to make too much of his lack of explicitness. A number of the tales were mentioned ("Casting the Runes", "Lost Hearts", "Count Magnus", "Number Thirteen", "Canon Alberic"), and there were quotations from "Oh, Whistle" and "A Vignette" (with an always-welcome emphasis on the importance of the latter for an understanding of Monty). In relation to "Oh, Whistle", the G&S Poll (of which it came top) was referred to, and other featured quotes were from MRJ's 'rules' for a good ghost story. But why no remarks whatever about his humour?

Muriel Gray rightly suggested that his tales were not divorced from his academic life, instead growing out of and intertwining his scholarly work; but the phrases "double life" and "split personality" also came up. MRJ's evangelical upbringing may have produced in him a strong sense of the reality of evil, but if this was going to be mentioned, something ought to have been added about the fact that Christian and Biblical symbols rarely work against evil in his stories. Christopher Frayling evidently has the hang of what the highly convivial and jolly King's College readings must have been like, in a way which the solemn Christopher Lee Christmas series of 2000 never got (not Lee's fault). And I was happy to hear my favourite MRJ quote concerning his sole ambitions in life (to find out about various matters and to make friends) given in full. So how does this man with many friends, male and female, equate with the person who was, according to the discussion, like his protagonists in being "disengaged from emotions and from relationships", and having "no affinity" with women? It doesn't, and I wish someone had come out and said this more strongly. As it stood, the whole thing was mostly an agree-fest, which didn't get anywhere, but got there in an entertaining enough way! Contradictory views were given equal weight even when provably wrong, and the unfortunate final impression was of a man who was fundamentalist, misogynist and conservative: the three adjectives used the same day by reviewers on Radio 4's Feedback programme. The last is unquestionably true, but the others are arguable at best. Why, asked one of the reviewers, was someone like Muriel Gray interested in someone like this - wasn't she using the programme merely to plug her own novels? So in the end the discussion reflected unfairly on both MRJ and Gray.

Yet it probably did manage to make the stories sound interesting to listeners unfamiliar with them: one of the Feedback reviewers, who was in this position, went straight out and read "Oh, Whistle" for the first time. In that sense the MRJ Great Lives was a success. I can't find much to wholeheartedly hate about it - real errors of fact were present but few, and even the dreaded Freudian questions were passed over quite quickly (some might say not quickly enough!). It's hard, if I'm honest, not to feel kindly towards a programme which ends with these words from Christopher Frayling: "as a miniaturist, as a scholar who wrote about ghosts and scholars I think he's absolutely unbeatable" (my italics!).

Rating: ***

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Schalken the Painter and Others: Ghost Stories 1838-61 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, edited and introduced by Jim Rockhill. Ash-Tree Press (P.O. Box 1360, Ashcroft, British Columbia, Canada, V0K 1A0, e-mail: <>), 2002, xxv + 243pp, ISBN: 1-55310-042-5, £29.00/US$46.50/Can$60.00 plus p&p.

Reviewed by David Rowlands.

It is said that an angel surveying Paradise observed a disconsolate figure glooming on a cloud. "What's up with Le Fanu?" the Recording Angel was asked. "Well," replied that worthy immortal, "he's the most influential writer of ghost stories and tales of mystery ever, but his work has not featured in the Ash-Tree Press series". So saying, they did something about it, and this book - the first of three volumes intended to present all Le Fanu's ghost stories in chronological order - is the result. The omission is rectified at last.

Le Fanu is to the ghost story what Shakespeare is to 'Literature'. So much so that Jack Sullivan, one of the more intelligent commentators on the genre, chose "Green Tea" as "The Archetypal Ghost Story" in his Elegant Nightmares (1978). Or, to put it another way, just as Poe shaped the modern detective/crime story, so Le Fanu shaped the modern ghost tale. We all know about his influence on M.R. James, but many other authors owe a tremendous debt to Le Fanu; some of them - like Charlotte Brontë, Bram Stoker and Conan Doyle - even pinched his plots without much reworking! His exalted position has been recognised by virtually everyone who has written about supernatural fiction; even by that prize numskull, Colin Wilson, typical of those outside the genre who are forever telling us, as though it's a great discovery, what we already know!

What Le Fanu actually did was to move the ghost story on from the neurotic phantoms and spectres of the 'Gothic' tradition, producing animated corpses and other horrors that could not be gainsaid nor explained away; nor, indeed, could their victims necessarily be saved - either by themselves or the best efforts of organised religion - from a (usually) unmerited fate of appalling nature (the narrator of "Carmilla" is a rare exception). "He stands absolutely in the first rank as a writer of ghost stories..." said M.R. James, and if you are new to the work of Le Fanu, you should need no further bidding to buy this book and the succeeding volumes.

It is true that MRJ suggested those new to Le Fanu might best approach him via the later tales; those, for example, collected into In a Glass Darkly (1872). However, Jim Rockhill and Ash-Tree Press have opted for a chronological approach. Personally, I agree with them as it allows the reader to follow the development of Le Fanu's skills. While this means, perhaps, an uncertain start, it is not long before you are smack up against one of Le Fanu's best stories, and one of the most horrible ever written: the title tale, "Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter". However good the later stories, there is nothing quite approaching this one for throwing a bucket of ice over you. What is more, editor and publishers have most sensibly included both the original from the Dublin University Magazine of 1839 (collected into The Purcell Papers, 1880), and the later version (but the first to see book publication), "Schalken the Painter", from the anonymous Ghost Stories and Tales of Mystery (1851).

After a group of lesser tales (I have to admit to finding "The Watcher"/"The Familiar" much less satisfying than other commentators, including MRJ, do!), you come to what I personally regard as Le Fanu's best story, "An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in an Old House in Aungier Street" (Dublin). It's a cracking good tale, and by taking the stories in date order you avoid it being pre-empted by the later (and inferior!) version, "Mr Justice Harbottle".

Jim Rockhill's Introduction, "As on a Darkling Plain: The Life & Supernatural Fiction of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu from 1814-1861", is a model of what such things should be. He steers us through the murky and often unreliable essays on, and biographies of, Le Fanu, and presents a balanced picture that largely discards the inventions and unsupported speculations of lesser writers. Here you have a definitive view of Le Fanu's life between those dates, which will stand for some time. Possibly the one aspect of his work that will not be fully acknowledged within this targeted series of books is the sheer versatility of Le Fanu's total writing oeuvre: not just ghost and horror stories, but historical romances, comic tales (the stage Irishman!), patriotic and nationalistic ballads, tender lyrics, poetic drama, and novels of crime and mystery with plots of amazing ingenuity (Wylder's Hand, Checkmate) or intolerable suspense (Uncle Silas).

Schalken the Painter is produced to the usual Ash-Tree high standards, and complements the previous volumes by M.R. James and Vernon Lee nicely. You will be proud to have the series on your shelf! The dust-jacket has a striking colour painting by Douglas Walters, which, though not to my personal taste, will doubtless appeal to many (I would have preferred one of the 'girl with candle' paintings by Schalken himself). Strongly recommended!

Rating: ****½

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