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Creator / Montague Rhodes James

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Montague Rhodes James (1 August 1862 – 12 June 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. His works were frequently adapted as one of the Ghost Stories For Christmas.

A number of Cosmic Horror authors, notably H. P. Lovecraft, have acknowledged James' influence.

Works by this author give examples of:

  • Aristocrats Are Evil: Stories that are set in the middle ages or early modern times tend to portray the aristocracy as petty and wantonly cruel.
    • Played with in the case of Sir Matthew Fell from "The Ash-Tree". While his testimony was apparently not willingly given and he claimed to derive no satisfaction from what he did, he still had a woman condemned to death for witchcraft purely because she was trespassing onto his land.
    • Count Magnus de la Gardie is described as an extremely cruel men who had his tenants flogged for minor transgressions, burned down houses built too close to his land with entire families still inside them, and practised black magic.
    • Squire Martin from "Martin's Close" murdered a mentally challenged girl that fell in love with him because he considered her affection an inconvenience.
    • Lady Ivy from "A Neighbour's Landmark" altered a boundary and forged documents in order to steal land from a poor neighbouring family.
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  • Artifact of Doom: Many of James' stories feature cursed historical artifacts, such as religious writings in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book", "The Tractate Middoth" and "The Uncommon Prayer-book", an old bronze whistle found in the ruins of a Knights Templar preceptory in "Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad", wood carvings coming to life in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", and an Anglo-Saxon crown in "A Warning to the Curious".
  • 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.
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  • Author Appeal: James had a particular interest in old churches and monasteries, which serve as the main settings for "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book", "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" and "An Episode of Cathedral History".
  • 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.
  • Can't Take Criticism: Mr. Karswell from "Casting the Runes" reacts to a bad review of a book he has written by summoning a demon to kill the critic.
  • Creepy Catholicism: Anti-Catholic sentiments crop up in some of James' stories.
    • In the backstory of "Number 13", Catholic bishop Jorgen Friis is accused of sheltering a man who practised witchcraft and sold his soul to the Devil.
    • In "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad", the haunting is caused by a cursed bronze whistle previously owned by the Knights Templar.
    • In-universe, the death of one victim in "The Ash-Tree" is blamed on a "Popish Plot" by many of the neighbors.
    • One of James' unfinished stories described in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" revolves around a "learned Roman priest" who is involved in occult rituals and is eventually killed by a demon he summoned.
  • Creepy Changing Painting: "The Mezzotint" is about a mezzotint engraving, which gradually changes to depict a supernatural creature creeping into an English manor and making off with the family's only heir.
  • 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...)
  • 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 Petty: Mr. Karswell in "Casting The Runes," not content with cursing John Harrington and then Edward Dunning to die within three months, also harasses them by sending them ominous objects hinting at their fate, such as the calendar with all the pages after a certain month torn out, or causing Dunning to see Harrington's name in the window of an omnibus. This turns out to be his undoing, since thanks to this Dunning is put in touch with Harrington's brother, and they plot to thwart Karswell.
  • 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: Whenever the story has a human antagonist, it is likely to be someone dabbling in the occult arts and demonology. Prominent examples include Mr. Abney from "Lost Hearts", Nicolas Francken, whose ghost haunts the titular hotel room in "Number 13", Count Magnus from the story of the same name, and Mr. Karswell from "Casting the Runes".
  • Facial Horror:
    • Count Magnus' demonic familiar has tentacles which it uses to suck the flesh from its victims' skulls, leaving them faceless. The story's protagonist, Mr. Wraxall, suffers this fate at the end of the story.
    • In "A Warning to the Curious", Mr. Paxton is found dead with his teeth and jaws broken and full of sand and stones.
  • The Fair Folk: Malicious fairies appear 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.
  • Fictional Painting: The eponymous engraving in "The Mezzotint".
  • Ghost Fiction: The genre he's most known for writing in.
  • Giant Spider: The mysterious deaths in "The Ash Tree" are caused by giant, venomous spiders living in the titular tree.
    • The demon in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" is described as "one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form", complete with dark hair covering its body. The protagonist initially confuses its hand upon his worktable for a large spider before realizing what it belongs to.
  • Gothic Horror: James is widely considered one of the last prominent authors of traditional gothic horror.
  • Greedy Jew: Heavily implied in "The Uncommon Prayer-Book," in the character of Mr. Homberger.
  • Hand in the Hole: In "Treasure of Abbot Thomas", Mr. Somerton sticks his hand in a dark hole and retrieves what he believes to be a damp leather bag containing the titular treasure (since it is night, he cannot see clearly enough to make out details). He only realizes his mistake when the "bag" suddenly wraps its arms around his body.
  • Hanging Judge:
    • Lord Chief Justice Jeffreys, a historical judge given this exact moniker for his draconic verdicts, appears 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: James is quite fond of name-dropping real, albeit very obscure historical figures in his stories to lend additional credibility:
    • The historical bishops Jean de Mauleon and Jorgen Friis are mentioned in "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" and "Number 13" respectively.
    • There was a real, historical Swedish noble named Count Magnus de la Gardie, although nowhere near as villainous as his Jamesian counterpart.
    • "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.
    • Lady Ivy (or Ivie) makes a posthumous appearance in "A Neighbour's Landmark".
    • "Wailing Well" features several real-life members of staff at Eton, including M.R. James himself.
  • Hoist by His Own Petard: In addition to cursing them with dark magic, Mr. Karswell in "Casting the Runes" seems to take satisfaction in tormenting first John Harrington and then Edward Dunning in the lead up to their deaths, sending them threatening objects and messages. By the time it's Dunning's turn, though, Karswell's plot backfires; Dunning seeing Harrington's name and hints of his fate everywhere terrifies him but it also winds up leading him to Henry Harrington, and they work together to transfer the curse back to Karswell by tricking him into accepting the runes, in much the same way that he did to his victims.
  • Human Sacrifice: Mr. Abney from "Lost Hearts" sacrifices children in order to become immortal.
  • Karmic Death: Several stories end with murderers falling victim to poetic justice:
    • Mr. Abney from "Lost Hearts" kills two children in a ritual sacrifice by removing their hearts. Their vengeful ghosts eventually inflict the same fate upon him.
    • In "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral", Deacon Haynes dies on the same day of the month, in the same spot and in the same manner as his predecessor, whose death he deliberately caused.
    • Mr. Karswell from "Casting the Runes" has the same deadly curse he inflicted on others turned against him.
  • 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," the title character of "Martin's Close", and Mr. Karswell from "Casting the Runes" get exactly what was coming to them. In the latter case, the antagonist's death is deliberately caused by the protagonists.
    • Lady Ivie of "A Neighbour's Landmark" dies in her bed of natural causes after avoiding punishment for her crimes of forgery, but because of the theft of her neighbour's land, her ghost is cursed to haunt Betton Wood until the stolen land is restored to its rightful owners — and since no one can discover who the rightful owner is she's stuck there for eternity, with her screams essentially becoming a new landmark to replace the one she moved.
    • Sir Matthew Fell in "The Ash-Tree" is killed in his bed mere weeks after his testimony condemned Mrs. Mothersole to death for witchcraft. His death is caused by the bites of giant, venomous spiders lurking inside the titular tree, implied to be the product of a curse laid on it by Mothersole, who might have actually been a witch.
    • "The Uncommon Prayer Book" has con-man and thief Homberger/Henderson/Poschwitz steal unique editions of The Common Prayer-Book from a local chapel in a bid to sell them, only to be killed in his office by some apparition hiding in the safe he was keeping the books in.
  • 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 ...
    • "Rats" begins with a quote from a Charles Dickens ghost story that mentions rats scurrying about under the sheets of a bed.
  • Malaproper: Some of James's lower-class characters talk like this. Mr. Cooper in "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance" and the innkeeper Mr. Bowman in "The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance" are the most obvious examples, given their Delusions of Eloquence.
  • Nothing Is Scarier: The ending of "Casting the Runes." The danger is over, but that doesn't mean Dunning wants to hear any more about the dreams suffered by Harrington's brother.
  • 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.
    • Also in "The Diary of Mr. Poynter", when the protagonist touches something hairy that doesn't move, and immediately realizes that's not his dog he's petting.
  • 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 Demons Are Different: Demons of various and often bizarre appearances feature prominently in several of James' stories.
    • "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book" has a demon that is described as "one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America translated into human form, and endowed with intelligence just less than human".
    • Count Magnus from the story of the same name has a demonic familiar that looks like a short, stocky human in dark robes at first glance — until you notice the tentacles sticking out from under its garments.
    • In "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", the titular treasure is guarded by a toad-like demon that also seems to have tentacles.
  • 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  and ends with the Bible quote "Ibi cubavit lamia", which can be translated as "Here lay a vampire". However, while the monster in the story does conform to some aspects of vampire folklore, such as sleeping in a tomb and spreading disease, it has little in common with the modern understanding of the term, being described as a humanoid creature covered in dark hair and with red, glowing eyes.
  • 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.
  • Revenge by Proxy: The grandfather's ghost in "The Haunted Dolls' House" opts for this route.
  • Schmuck Bait: In "Wailing Well", the Scouts are warned at all costs to keep away from the area on the map marked in red. Given what's been told to us about Stanley Judkins, this works about 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.
    • Subverted in "The Residence at Whitminster", in that the people who learn that a mysterious threat may be sealed up in the disused room's press decide they absolutely will not open that particular Sealed Can. The fact that this leaves the Can intact for someone to open in future is Lampshaded.
  • 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.
  • Signature Style: Many of James' stories conform to a narrative pattern that includes the following key elements:
    • A setting in a rural, quiet community (typically in the English countryside, but occasionally also in remote parts of France, Germany or Scandinavia), on a university campus, or in a cathedral or monastery.
    • A protagonist with an academic background and an interest in local history who is often too curious for his own good.
    • The discovery or displacement of an antiquarian object by the protagonist invokes a supernatural menace, such as a vengeful ghost or demon.
  • 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.
  • Sins of Our Fathers:
    • Mrs. Mothersole in "The Ash-Tree" gets revenge on the local squire whose testimony sent her to the gallows... but she isn't satisfied.
    • Happens again with Gawdy's ghost in "The Mezzotint."
  • 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: The ghost of Ann Clark in "Martin's Close."
  • Supernatural Fiction: Evidenced by all the ghosts running about.
  • 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.
  • Unexpected Inheritance: In "Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance". Mr. Humphreys has never met, in fact barely heard of, the uncle who left him a property in the country.
  • 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: Zigzagged with Mrs. Mothersole in "The Ash-Tree", who was a respected member of the village community and apparently never used witchcraft for evil while she was still alive, but inflicts a horrible posthumous revenge on the nobleman who brought her to the gallows and his entire lineage.
  • 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.
  • Would Hurt a Child:
    • Mr. Abney from "Lost Hearts" kills two children in a ritual sacrifice to achieve immortality and intends to do the same to his young cousin Stephen.
    • The titular picture in "The Mezzotint" gradually changes to show a man returning from the grave to kill the infant son of the nobleman who had him executed.
    • The ghosts in "Wailing Well" kill anyone who trespasses onto their land, including boy scout Stanley Judkins.
    • The murdered grandfather in "The Haunted Dolls' House" is implied to have killed his grandchildren in revenge.
  • Write What You Know: James was a medievalist scholar, and his antiquarian interests are reflected throughout his work. He also based the setting and characters of several stories on personal experiences during his time at Eton College and Cambridge University.

Alternative Title(s): MR James