Christmas, we were always told, is a time for giving. But what exactly do you want to find under your tree? For me, and countless others, there’s nothing better than a rattling good ghost story. For reasons not quite clear it is at this time of the year, as the short days close and festive lights appear through frost-foxed church windows, that we demand to have our blood chilled. It was with this tradition in mind that for many years, inside his cosy Cambridge rooms, Dr Montague Rhodes James was wont to entertain his friends with his own very particular tales of the supernatural…
Born in 1862, “Monty” James spent his formative years in the bleakly beautiful Suffolk landscape that was to shape so many of his stories. A deeply religious household (his father was an Anglican clergyman) imbued in him a sense of awe at the majesty of God’s creation, but also a morbid boy’s obsession with the gore and visceral nastiness of the Old Testament. Both these “leanings” were to inform his writing.
Precociously talented, Monty moved with ease from prep school to Eton then King’s College, Cambridge, where he became a world-renowned medieval historian. Popular with both students and fellow dons, there was something endearingly Mr Chips-like about this diffident and charming man who is nevertheless regarded as the greatest exponent of the ghost story this country, and probably the world, has ever produced.
It was to entertain friends in the Cambridge club known as the Chitchat Society that Monty first unveiled two tales of the supernatural: Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book and Lost Hearts. His distinctive style is immediately evident: a wonderful evocation of place, a certain amount of dry humour, a slow accumulation of atmospheric detail and then a truly horrid climax. “In another infinitesimal flash he had taken it in. Pale, dusky skin, covering nothing but bones and tendons of appalling strength; coarse black hairs, longer than ever grew on a human hand…”
Monty’s ghosts are often vengeful creatures, conjured up to protect a lost crown (as in A Warning to the Curious) or to punish a guilty conscience (The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral), but all have one thing in common: they are genuinely hair-raising. After serving up stories on a more or less annual basis he was eventually persuaded to collect them together in book form and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary immediately established itself as a classic of the genre. James suddenly found fame far beyond the cloisters he knew so well and was quietly amused by it all.
After his death in 1936, Monty’s reputation grew apace and was cemented by Jonathan Miller’s legendary 1968 adaptation of Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, starring Michael Hordern as a sceptical professor who finds something terrible haunting his dreams. In the 1970s, Lawrence Gordon Clark, a respected documentary-maker keen to break into drama, began a BBC Ghost Story for Christmas series that would delight, charm and, fundamentally, terrify a whole generation. These films conjure up James’s reticence, his “haze of distance”, his wonderful sense of place and sometimes pawky humour. But there’s a stillness, a weird beauty and a rather brilliant management of the ghostly shocks that are Lawrence’s own.
These films had a profound influence on me, packed with images and performances that linger long in the memory. Robert Hardy’s desperate exhortation in The Stalls of Barchester – “I must be firm!” Michael Bryant in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas with his chillingly logical response to the monstrous, oozing darkness that has engulfed him – “It’s a thing of slime, I think.” Barbara Ewing’s astonishing turn as the vengeful Mrs Mothersole and her ghastly brood of mewling spiders in The Ash Tree. And, perhaps most memorable of all, Peter Vaughan in A Warning to the Curious. When asked what he’s going to do with the recently rediscovered ancient crown of East Anglia, he simply says, “I’m going to put it back.”
Now, I’ve been lucky enough to have a go myself and I could think of nothing more delightful for my directorial debut than to adapt The Tractate Middoth, one of my favourite MR James stories: the tale of a missing will, an evil uncle and a dreadful apparition that leaves a young librarian’s life for ever altered. I hope it provides exactly the kind of pleasant shudder that I look forward to at this time of the year and I hope there will be many, many more to come. Christmas is a time for giving, after all.
The Tractate Middoth is on Christmas Day at 9:30pm on BBC2