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The influence of MR James on the horror genre

MR JamesOn the 1 August this year Montague Rhodes James would have celebrated his 150th birthday. It would be very difficult to overestimate the enormous influence the quiet academic has had on the horror genre, inspiring authors like Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell. That influence continues to inspire newer writers such as Gary McMahon and Adam Nevill, the latter being touted as a direct heir to the Provost of King’s College, Oxford. Certainly, Nevill’s economy of language and his manner of instilling (and sustaining) fear and dread with the sparsest of prose is reminiscent of the master storyteller at his finest.

It isn’t only writers he’s influenced. Without doubt, Spectral Press owes its existence to James and the stories he’s left to us. As a would-be publisher in the autumn of 2010, at a time when the idea for Spectral Press was still coalescing, I was looking for a specific direction and ethos in which to take it. Around the same time I’d bought the Wordsworth edition of his Collected Ghost Stories to reacquaint myself with his work – I’d read an anthologised story or two of James’ in my youth, but decades had passed since then. His name was cited in almost every writer’s interview I read, and there was no doubting the major influence he had had on many of the writers who I wanted to get involved in the imprint. As if to emphasise that James connection, I found out that the BBC were going to be screening an adaptation of his most famous story, ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’, during the Christmas festive season that year, starring John Hurt. Whilst, in the end, I found it a slightly disappointing effort, mostly because of the divergent ending, it nevertheless captured a specific atmosphere, one of dread and chilling events occurring amidst isolation and emotional uncertainty. Use of location was superb and, of course, Hurt’s portrayal of the main protagonist was top-notch.

Additionally, at that time I started buying other books in the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural range, which focuses on authors who flourished around the late 19th/early 20th century and whose main fortes were the traditional ghost story. Here were writers whose works relied very heavily on inference and atmosphere for their chilling effects, as well as a refreshing absence of gore. This latter fact alone made me realise something: writing good, effective horror without a mention of blood or dismemberment is far harder than writing a gore-soaked bloodbath. Simply put, the traditional ghost story appealed more to my sense of aesthetics than the typical horror fare did.

Several disparate streams were now converging to a very decisive point. Without being aware of it until I really thought about it, the ‘flavour’ and ethos of Spectral Press had been created. And the spark had been ignited by James. His quiet and unassuming stories had seeped into my consciousness and had lodged there and, because he didn’t leave a great deal in terms of numbers of published stories, I was eager to seek similar fare whenever I could.

There was also another reason why I chose to send Spectral in the direction I did. For a long time I’d grown tired of the usual tropes of horror fiction, the zombies and the vampires. I wanted to bring something else to the table, to show people that horror was a broad church of styles which went far beyond mainstream perceptions. Essentially, I wanted to reintroduce the traditional ghost story to modern audiences and to bring out something refreshingly different. I have no problem with gory or bloody horror, I just happen to think that there’s a lot more to the genre than that and Spectral Press was my opportunity to do so. I happen to also think that I have succeeded in my mission.

MR-JamesLet’s explore a little further what I like in particular about James’ work. I’ve outlined a few reasons above: the reliance on atmosphere, implication and subtle inference, for instance. There is, however, something over and above that which appeals to me – these stories are firmly grounded in the everyday. Even given their setting in a world and social milieu which sadly no longer exists, nevertheless I engage fully with the scenarios and characters. Despite these tales being part of the phantastique, they are invested with realism as well as a very human dimension. This makes the terror, when it’s finally made manifest, all the more horrible and emphatic.

How does James do this? Simply by introducing the supernatural elements very gradually and incredibly subtly and letting the reader work by having to read between the lines. In this way, there’s a gradual realisation that all is not as it seems, and so we are forever on the edge of our seats with expectation and anticipation. Furthermore, he does this with a confidence and surety that’s quite breathtaking.

Anticipating a question from the audience, now you all want to know which story is my favourite one of James’. Hands down it has to be ‘Casting the Runes’ – here we have the perfect exemplar of the elements I’ve outlined above. It’s the age-old battle between light and dark, fought on the microcosmic human scale between Dunning and Karswell but with huge macrocosmic implications. Karswell is by all accounts a thoroughly unpleasant chap, who brooks no opposition to his perceived self-worth (in this case, a paper on alchemy submitted to some learned society which is rejected, and which is also the motivation for his revenge). It’s a simply told tale yet, for all that it’s played out in the everyday, there are storms raging in some supernatural dimension to which we are not privy. It’s that element that makes it so special me – it’s a tightly drawn portrait of hubris and overconfidence, and a magnificent depiction of the battle for moral and spiritual supremacy played out on a grand (yet ultimately unseen) scale.

Night of the Demon (1957)Directed by Jacques TourneurBritish film director Jacques Tourneur turned it into one of the best British horror films of all time, 1957’s Night of the Demon (US title The Curse of the Demon), starring Dana Andrews, Peggy Cummins and Niall MacGinnis. Being shot in black & white serves to emphasise the dread atmosphere of occult terror, and the suggestion that something more is going on behind what is shown on-screen. In that respect, Tourneur has captured the essence of James’ story perfectly and I thoroughly recommend it for a great evening’s entertainment.

So there you have it – my little tribute to the master storyteller called MR James, a writer who has had a direct influence on my chosen career. A career, I might add, I would never have imagined myself getting into. If you haven’t read him, then I seriously suggest you rectify that immediately – the Wordsworth Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural edition is priced at a very reasonable £2.99. However, whatever edition you end up buying, it’ll be worth every penny.


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  1. Great article which highlights the strengths of M.R. James’ wonderful and often overlooked work. Discovering a decade or so ago rekindled my interest and inspiration for the horror genre.

    • Mira on May 2, 2024 at 2:02 pm
    • Reply

    Great article, however he was provost of kings college cambridge not oxford.

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