M.R. James: The Medievalist that Turned Ghost Storyteller

By Minjie Su

A researcher travelled to Sweden to conduct some manuscript treasure hunt in a De la Gardie family mansion, but died a horrible death after having waked up the wicked spirit of a notorious Swedish Count. An American collector bought an exquisitely made doll-house, only to discover a terrifying secret of an accursed family. An ambitious youth uncovered an ancient Saxon crown – the only one surviving out of three, in fact – but was hunted down and killed by the treasure’s long-dead guardian…

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, illustration by James McBryde

All those stories are the works of Montague Rhodes James, a lifelong scholar and medievalist closely associated with King’s College, Cambridge, and Eton. M. R. James was born in 1862 in Kent, and entered the University of Cambridge in 1882 as a student. During his long life, he has served as the director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, and was appointed Provost of Eton in 1918, a post he held for the rest of his days. As a scholar in Medieval Studies M. R. James published countless works on medieval manuscripts and church history, but, perhaps most of all to his surprise, he is better known today for his ghost stories.


Those stories were never really intended to be published by M. R. James himself, if not because of a tragedy. Being a super productive scholar and prolific writer, M. R. James mainly writes ghost stories for his own pleasure and would read them out at Christmas – exactly around this time of the year – to amuse his friends. One friend, James McBryde by name, used to be M. R. James’s student and illustrated some of the stories after one of those small storytelling gatherings. Unfortunately, McBryde died early, and M. R. James decided to publish his tales to honour his beloved friend. The result is a compilation under the title Ghost-Stories of an Antiquary (1904), soon to be followed by a few other volumes.

M R James around the years 1900.

The protagonists of these stories are very much M. R. James’s own reflection. They are always scholars, or at least someone with a sharp eye for antiques and historic sites. These characters seldom die (unless, as it seems, they have the misfortune of studying at Oxford), for M. R. James does not aim at the scary, certainly not any blood and gore. For him and his protagonists, what matters more is the puzzle and the process of solution finding. Nor is the ‘villain’ always destroyed. There is hardly any good and evil in those tales, simple a clash between this world and the other.

It must come, therefore, as no surprise that the issue of curiosity is preeminent in M. R. James’s ghostly world. Many tales warn against it, not least in the one titled ‘A Warning to the Curious’, where the aforementioned Saxon crown comes onto stage. But it is precisely curiosity that gets things going: without the impulse to inquire, there will be no action; without action, there will be no story. The same goes for scholarship. Perhaps, M. R. James is merely asking the questions that every historian faces: to what extent can we find an answer? How far should we go? When should we stop, and be content with what we have found?

More Ghost Stories, by M.R. James

M. R. James’s role as a medievalist can also be sensed elsewhere in his fictional writing. In many of his tales, he assumes the role of a scribe, faithfully ‘recording’ what has been orally transmitted to him. As a result, he always acknowledges the limit of his knowledge.

Moreover, he understands very well the art of omission. Textual lacunae are not lacking in many of his stories; and M. R. James does not always care to explain – perhaps, as a manuscript scholar, he knows better than anyone else that there is always a limit, there is always a point where any kind of narrative must hit the dead end. But this is also where the charm of his writing lies. He never reveals the puzzle; he never digs to the very bottom of the mystery, but allows the mysterious to remain mysterious. What he gives are clues, little hints here and there to encourage the readers to form their own theory. His ghosts, as a result, not only haunt the fictional landscape but also the readers’ minds; thousands of new tales begin exactly where M. R. James’s pen comes to an end.

You can read the books by M.R. James through Project Gutenberg

Listen to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary audiobook:

You can follow Minjue Su on Twitter @minjie_su 

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