Pleasing Terror: M.R. James and the Comforting Gothic

There are, arguably, few greater pairings than brisk cold and the chill of a ghost story. In an imagined CCT Venn diagram of 1) winter 2) ghost stories, and 3) the Churches Conservation Trust, slap bang in the middle would be M. R. James. Montague Rhodes James (1862 - 1934), or “Monty” to his friends, was provost of King’s College, Cambridge and, later, of Eton. In the former role, he was a medievalist scholar who specialised in biblical apocrypha, which relates to the oddities that lie outside of the canon of accepted scripture. In certain academic circles, he is remembered for his methodical categorisation of Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. Some readers may have come across his encyclopaedic account of church buildings, Suffolk and Norfolk: A Perambulation of the Two Counties with Notices of Their History and Their Ancient Buildings, even if just as a handy cure for insomnia. The book contains many references to CCT sites, with a personal favourite of mine being his thoughts on All Saint’s, Icklingham, Suffolk, which he notes for ‘containing a good many points of interest – piscinæ, a very beautiful chest (14th cent.), remains of fourteenth-century glass [… and] good bench ends’. Who cannot fail to appreciate a good bench end? East Anglian churches were a constant in his life, having spent his childhood in the rectory at Great Livermere, Suffolk. This is situated in-between the CCT sites of All Saints' Church, Wordwell and St Andrew's Church, Sapiston, in case you want to do a literary pilgrimage with some CCT sprinkled in. 

For many, if they have heard of James, it is for his fiction. His first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, remains at the pinnacle of the English ghost story. It brims with fussy academics, the allure of talismanic objects, and the ghastly dead. It is often argued that the fearsome phantoms in his stories stem from his expert knowledge of Medieval illuminated manuscripts. Whether revenant or wraith, demon or spectre, they all added to what James thought of as the ‘true aim of the ghost story’, namely, ‘a pleasing terror’. As a lover of James’ writings, his stories are one of the first things I think of when there is the bite of a cold wind and the leaves start to brown, crisp and drop. The crunch underfoot of frosted grass immediately puts in me in mind of one of his perambulating protagonists, who, more often than not, spies something terrible. This is fitting as he started writing these stories to perform them for Cambridge colleagues at Christmastime, all sat by the fire, a drink in hand and hooked on his words. To follow in this tradition, in 2020 CCT enlisted the renowned historian and folklorist, Dr Francis Young, to read a minute story of James’, “There Was A Man Dwelt by a Churchyard”, for Christmas Eve. 

© Joseph Casey St Andrew's Church, Covehithe, Suffolk

It is easy to surmise that his tales would excel when performed, for James’ stories have a startling lightness of touch. They are filled with dry wit and colourful characters that James relished in voicing, according to diary entries from those who heard him. The protagonist is typically a winking parody of James himself or his beloved colleagues, as his stories almost invariably focus on a stuffy, rationalist academic of an esoteric field, who takes himself a tad too seriously. They also occur in cosy settings such as country villages, churches or libraries, and the supernatural occurrence is often due to the removal of an antiquarian object. 

His most famous story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904), follows Parkins, a Cambridge academic in the made-up field of “oncography”, who is referred to as “something of an old woman—rather hen-like, perhaps, in his little ways; totally destitute, alas! of the sense of humour”. He trudges across the Suffolk coastline to investigate a Templar preceptory, when he stumbles across an ancient whistle, which, once blown, beckons a billowing wind. After a couple of restless nights and the feeling of being followed by a distant figure, Parkins suffers a frightful night of terror as the sheets of the neighbouring twin bed in his seaside inn twist to make “a face of crumpled linen”, which reaches out to grasp him. An ideal setting to read this story would be at St Andrew’s, Covehithe, with a flask of tea, a good coat and the swell of lapping waves and wind in your ears. Fortunately, the season is upon us for these crisp walks, chilling tales, and trips to ancient and historic sites.


William Lamb (Communications Officer)