Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936) was a British academic from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Known for his Ghost Stories
, almost all of which involve, or are narrated by, a reclusive academic with antiquarian interests who works at one of the colleges of Cambridge
. Notable stories include "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad," "Casting the Runes
," and "A Warning to the Curious". Known mostly in Britain, where his stories are frequently adapted for television or radio by The BBC
A number of Cosmic Horror
authors, notably H.P. Lovecraft
, have acknowledged James' influence.
Works by this author give examples of:
- Artifact of Doom: A plenty.
- Attack of the Killer Whatever: "The Malice of Inanimate Objects" suggests that small accidents with everyday items (mentioning: the collar stud, the inkstand, the fire, the razor, the extra step on the staircase, the needle, the egg, the duck, the cat, the millstone...) are the result of the angry dead trying to exact revenge on the living. The particular example most of the story is dedicated to is a killer razor blade.
- Bed Sheet Ghost: In "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad," the main character is nearly murdered by some sort of incorporeal force that possesses his bed sheets, in one of the few convincingly creepy examples of this trope.
- Bilingual Bonus: Much of the Latin in the stories (particularly on the globe in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance") is left untranslated.
- Cats Are Mean: In "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" Said cat is a supernatural force for revenge, though.
- Creepy Catholicism: Crops up now and then. James is however quite a bit gentler towards Roman Catholicism than other Gothic writers. "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" actually wryly mocks strident anti-Catholics in the person of Colonel Wilson.
- In-universe, the death of one victim in "The Ash-Tree" is blamed on a "Popish Plot" by many of the neighbors.
- Creepy Changing Painting: "The Mezzotint" is about a mezzotint engraving which depicts a supernatural creature gradually making off with the family residing at an English manor.
- Creepy Child: The first half of "The Residence at Whitminster".
- Creepy Doll: When the clock strikes one AM, those pretty dolls in "The Haunted Dolls' House" turn out to have a very different side...
- Curiosity Killed the Cast: Partially subverted. The scholar protagonists are too curious for their own good, but it's rarely fatal. Played tragically and horrifyingly straight with Mr. Wraxall in "Count Magnus", and Paxton in the quite literal "A Warning to the Curious".
- Dramatic Ellipsis: James has an amusing parenthetical comment about them in his essay "Stories I Have Tried to Write":
(Dots are believed by many writers of our day to be a good substitute for effective writing. They are certainly an easy one. Let us have a few more...)
- Eldritch Abomination: Count Magnus'... companion... seems to be channeling this trope.
- Whatever is guarding "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" borders on this as well. It seems to be less powerful, but it's still not to be trifled with, and it's by far one of the more alien beings in James' work.
- Everything Trying to Kill You: "The Malice of Inanimate Objects", although it starts off more like Everything Trying To Fuck Up Your Otherwise Nice Day.
- Evil Is Visceral: James was a master at using this trope in small amounts, hinting at far more horror than he explicitly put on the page.
- In "Casting the Runes," the mouth under Dunning's pillow.
- In "The Ash-Tree," the symptoms of the spider bites.
- The apparition in "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance"—the phrase "the odious writhings of a wasp creeping out of a rotten apple" is probably the highlight.
- Evil Sorcerer: Several, but Mr. Karswell in "Casting the Runes" is a stand-out.
- The Fair Folk: In "After Dark in the Playing-Fields."
- Failed a Spot Check: Professor Parkins in "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" chooses a very unfortunate moment to blank out on his Latin.
- Ghost Fiction: The genre he's most known for writing in.
- Gothic Horror: One of the last authors of this genre.
- Greedy Jew: Heavily implied in "The Uncommon Prayer-Book," in the character of Mr. Homberger.
- Hanging Judge:
- Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys in "Martin's Close" and in the background of "A Neighbour's Landmark."
- The ghost in "The Rose Garden" is eventually identified as a hanging judge who (like Jeffreys) served as Lord Chief Justice under Charles II.
- Historical-Domain Character: Lord Jeffreys, as above; Lady Ivy (or Ivie) posthumously in the latter story.
- James is also quite fond of name-dropping real, albeit very obscure historical figures in his stories to lend additional credibility; some examples include Jean de Mauleon and Jorgen Friis, mentioned in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" and "Number 13" respectively.
- "Martin's Close" is chock-full of these; aside from Judge Jeffreys, both the prosecutors (Sir Robert Sawyer and John Dolben) and Reverend Glanvil are historical figures.
- There was also a real, historical Swedish noble named Count Magnus de la Gardie, although nowhere near as villainous as his Jamesian counterpart (not that he was particularly pleasant either).
- "Wailing Well" features several real-life members of staff at Eton, including M.R. James himself.
- Laser-Guided Karma: Frequently invoked from beyond the grave. Many of James's characters fall victim to Disproportionate Retribution or Curiosity Killed the Cast, but Mr. Abney of "Lost Hearts," Mr. Sampson of "A School Story," and the title character of "Martin's Close" get exactly what was coming to them. In "Casting the Runes," this is deliberately invoked by otherwise ordinary human characters.
- Literary Allusion Title:
- "'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad'" — A quotation from Scottish poet Robert Burns note
- "A Neighbour's Landmark" — Refers to Deuteronomy 27:17 — "Cursed be he that removeth his neighbor's landmark."
- "There Was A Man Dwelt By A Churchyard—" — Refers to William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, Act ii, Scene 1:
Mamillius: There was a man.
Hermione: Nay, come sit downe: then on.
Mamillius: Dwelt by a Church-yard ...
- Oh, Crap!: Sums up the protagonist's belated realization that that's not a spider on the table in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book." Some readers may have a similar reaction.
- Ominous Owl: In "After Dark in the Playing-Fields." Played with a bit, though: the owl is chatty enough but very, very grouchy (you'd be grouchy too if the Fair Folk kept harassing you for fun).
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Many of James' ghosts take bizarre corporeal forms. Quite a few are felt before they are seen.
- Our Vampires Are Different: "An Episode of Cathedral History" is included in at least one anthology of vampire fiction note . It isn't a very good fit; probably the only reason it's included is because the story ends with a religious quote: Here Lay A Vampire.
- Our Wights Are Different: In "A Warning to the Curious", the last custodian of an Anglo-Saxon mound becomes a shadowy, implacable guardian spirit who "has some power over your eyes."
- Passed-Over Inheritance: "The Tractate Middoth" has an eccentric man who made two wills, once which favors his nephew, the other his niece (who he actually prefers) — and the latter will is encoded and hidden. The nephew gets to the niece's will first with intent to destroy it, but is killed by the old man's ghost and the niece ends up inheriting.
- Patricide: In "The Haunted Dolls' House," the mother and father arrange for the grandfather's murder before he can write them out of the will. As this is a ghost story, things go downhill from there.
- Powered by a Forsaken Child: "Lost Hearts". The forsaken children's ghosts take exception to it.
- Schmuck Bait: In "Wailing Well", the Scouts are warned at all costs to keep away from the area on the map marked in red. This works as well as you'd expect.
- Sealed Evil in a Can: Multiple stories with an unpleasant being imprisoned in a tomb, grave, or ruin, inevitably later disturbed. Includes "Count Magnus" (the count's sarcophagus has three padlocks on it), "An Episode of Cathedral History", and "The Rose Garden", for three.
- In one case ("The Treasure of Abbot Thomas"), the evil was deliberately sealed in as a boobytrap, to be sprung on the first person to open the metaphorical can.
- Shout-Out: The title of "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" (which focuses on an ambitious clergyman) can only be a deliberate nod to the works of Anthony Trollope.
- A Punch and Judy show features at the center of "A Disappearance and an Appearance."
- More generally, readers who aren't using an annotated version of the stories, or don't have a Bible handy, may miss out on a lot.
- Sinister Minister: The two "protagonists" of "The Fenstanton Witch". "Stories I Have Tried To Write" also contains a brief outline of an unfinished story featuring a villainous Roman Catholic priest dabbling in the occult.
- Spell My Name with a Blank:
- Lord D___ in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas".
- Sir ______ ______ in "The Rose Garden".
- Spiritual Successor: The works of John Bellairs.
- Stephen King's novel Bag of Bones shares several stylistic elements with James' work: for example, the hauntee suffers from surreal, highly significant dreams. The supernatural aspects of the book are also grounded in clear physical sensations or experiences, such as sunflowers, water, and a ringing bell. The book's narrator points out the similarities himself.
- Stringy-Haired Ghost Girl: In "Martin's Close."
- Supernatural Fiction: Evidenced by all the ghosts running about.
- Unexpected Inheritance: In "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance".
- Weirdness Censor: Professor Parkins is a Black Comedy example in "Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad." It takes the ghost attacking him before he registers that something is not quite right.
- When the Clock Strikes Twelve: He once discovered a manuscript in the British Museum with a set of pre-1300's ghost stories. In one of them, a man met a ghost while he was traveling on a road at midnight. In "The Haunted Dolls' House," the ghostly goings-on begin when the bell tolls one.
- Wicked Witch: Mrs. Mothersole in "The Ash-Tree."
- The Worm That Walks: The ghost in "The Tractate Middoth" is implied to be possessing a horde of spiders and shaping itself a human form out of them and their webs.
- 13 Is Unlucky: The story "Number 13" relates the tale of a mysterious hotel room that's sometimes there and sometimes isn't, and seems to be haunted by a malevolent ghost or demon.