The Christmas Ghost Story: M. R. James

When Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol, he subtitled it “A Christmas Ghost Story”. So, in 1843, there was a Christmas Ghost Story genre in England. Victoria had married in 1840. Albert brought his Christmas traditions from Germany and Victoria was young enough to welcome a celebration and a party and anything that made Albert smile. Christmas was slowly coming back after being suppressed by Cromwell and the Puritans. So how did the Christmas Ghost Story become an established custom?

One answer is that the stories reflect England’s pagan past, when the Yule season was one of religious ritual and death — death of the year, but also perhaps, of some sacrificed person. So: fear, death, and the supernatural are the components of the model ghost story, all part of our cultural heritage. Or at least, that’s a theory. And I think it is one that would appeal to master ghost story writer, Montague Rhodes James.

M.R. James, 1900. [Wikipedia]

M.R. James, like many of the characters in his stories, was a scholar and antiquarian, based in King’s College, Cambridge, where he became a don in the 1880s. He was very familiar with scholarship on England’s pagan past and it features in many of his stories. James published his first book of stories in 1904, the year before becoming provost of King’s College. James had been an actor and sometime dramatist and told (or performed) stories for friends and students, particularly on Christmas Eve. These performances were dramatized early this century by the late great Christopher Lee reciting ghost stories to a group of young men, filmed at King’s College. These are very lean productions, radio with a few illustrations, but they are effective:

The Stalls At Barchester Cathedral

The Ash Tree

A Warning To The Curious

But the BBC has also created full dramas from James’ stories. “Whistle And I’ll Come To You” has been done several times:

1968 version (B/W)

 

And in 1971, a series of five:

The Stalls of Barchester

A Warning To The Curious

Lost Hearts  (being repeated by the BBC this year on Christmas Eve.)

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The Ash Tree

Illustration for “Whistle And I’ll Come To You” by James’ friend James McBryde. McBryde was supposed to illustrate James’ 1904 collection of stories, but died after completing only four illustrations. [Wikipedia}

And in 2004 began a new series:

A View From A Hill

Number 13

Whistle and I’ll Come To You

The Tractate Middoth

 

Merry Christmas!