M.R. James, Ghost Stories, and a Short History Lesson

Have you ever sat next to a roaring fire with your arms wrapped tightly around your knees as you listen to a friend or relative recount the story of the ghost who haunts the very woods where you are now about to spend what may be your last night on earth?

Why do we subject ourselves to these frightful stories?  Where did all start?  And what makes a good ghost story so interesting?  While today we won’t answer all of those questions, we will introduce you to a gentleman that may hav held all of the answers.

M.R. James

MRJames1900Although ghost stories and stories of paranormal activity can be traced back much, much further, for the purposes of our discussion we will start by rolling time back to the early 1900s and introduce you to someone that you may or may not be familiar with.  Mr. M.R. James.

Montague Rhodes James was born on August 1st, 1862, was an English author, and a student of all things midevil in nature.  However, what he is best remembered for are his ghost stories, which are regarded by some as the best ever told. He didn’t just rehash stories from midevil times or previous centuries.  Rather, he began to bring stories to the time of the listener.  Sending chills up and down the spines of those that listened to or read his work.

In 1929, in a piece called “Some Remarks on Ghost Stories”, James defined what was needed for an english ghost story and most of those features are still relevant today as the teller of stories around a campfire on a cool fall night attempts to subject the listener to a terror which, while exciting, will cause many to lose sleep as they listen to the owls and crickets.  Those features are – The pretense of truth, “A pleasing terror”, No gratuitous bloodshed or sex, No “explanation of the machinery”, and Setting: “those of the writer’s (and reader’s) own day”

Obviously, we can’t forget such wonderous story tellers as Edgar Allen Poe but if you wish to expand your understanding of the methods used in modern campfire stories, you really should learn more about M.R. James.

So, now you have your history lesson for the day.  But to really enjoy M.R. James, you may also want to familiarize yourself with Project Gutenberg where many of his books as well as thousands of others can be read for free as they are in the public domain.

To subject yourself to the stories of James or to share them with that scout troop or your grand kids the next time you go camping, his works are available here.

Thank you Mr. James for contributing to all of those sleepless nights I had in my youth.


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