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 for the BBC's 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:
- A Fool for a Client: Squire Martin is forced to represent himself at his murder trial in "Martin's Close" after sacking his previous lawyer and can produce nothing in his favour aside from suggesting that all the witnesses against him are uneducated yokels who obviously aren't smart enough to be considered reliable witnesses. When this fails he's reduced to claiming his name was misspelled on the indictment in the vain hope that this will overturn the verdict.
- 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.
- Lord Saul in "The Residence at Whitminster" is a dark sorcerer who roamed the night with demons looking for people to drag to their doom and causes the death of another child through dark magic.
- Lady Ivy from "A Neighbour's Landmark" altered a boundary and forged documents in order to steal land from a poor neighbouring family.
- Elizabeth and James Mereweather contrived from "The Haunted Dolls' House" to poison the elder, Roger Milford, to ensure that he did not cut them out of his will.
- Squire Bowles in "The Experiment" was poisoned by his wife and son, who then used black magic to summon his ghost to find out where his money was hidden.
- 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.
- 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.
- Big Creepy-Crawlies: One appears fleetingly in "The Residence at Whitminster," after the Time Skip. What little is seen of it suggests a "daddy-longlegs" (in this context, a crane fly) the size of a human.
- 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 Cathedral: "Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book," "An Episode of Cathedral History," and "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" all make use of this setting, although the creepiness is understated compared to many Gothic works. ("The Treasure of Abbot Thomas," "The Uncommon Prayer-Book," and "Count Magnus" all feature small, private chapels instead, whose isolation contributes to their creepiness.)
- 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", Paxton in the quite literal "A Warning to the Curious", and Stanley Judkins in "Wailing Well".
- Death by Materialism: Narrowly averted in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas", in which the titular cursed treasure is returned before the curse can kill the thieves.
- Played straight in "There Was A Man Dwelt By A Churchyard", in which John Poole brings the ghost's wrath upon him by robbing her grave after finding out her money was buried with her.
- Homberger/Henderson/Poschwitz in "The Uncommon Prayer-book" steals unique editions of The Book of Common Prayer in order to sell them, but unfortunately for him he does so on April 25, the day on which the haunting involving the books is due to manifest, and is killed by an apparition hiding in the safe he'd put them in.
- The Calverts in "The Experiment" summon the ghost of Squire Bowles to find out where his money is hidden. Unfortunately they had forgotten to cover his face when he was buried and his rotting form is so horrifying that they give themselves up for execution rather than be tormented by him any longer.
- 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 Not a Toy: This lesson crops up a few times in James's stories. Lord Saul, in particular (from "The Residence at Whitminster"), learns it the hard way.
- 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 compared to "one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America" in terms of appearance, 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.
- Lady Ivy in "A Neighbours Landmark" moved the titular landmark to cheat a neighbouring family out of their land, then used forgery to obscure the identity of the rightful owners. When her spirit is cursed to haunt Betton Wood until the land is restored to its rightful owners, her forgery makes identifying them impossible, effectively dooming her to haunt the woods forever.
- Human Sacrifice: Mr. Abney from "Lost Hearts" sacrifices children in order to become immortal.
- I'm a Humanitarian: Abney's ritual in "Lost Hearts" require him to consume the heart of the victim.
- I Need a Freaking Drink: In "The Mezzotint", Mr. Green is disturbed enough by the idea of Gawdy's vengeance from beyond the grave that he offers whiskey to Mr. Williams, presumably to dull the horror of it all.
- 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.
- Lord Saul in "The Residence at Whitminster" is chased to his death by the demons with whom he used to walk the night.
- 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 (thanks once again to her theft) 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.
- Archdeacon Haynes in "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" arranged the death of Dr. Pulteney to take the title for himself. He then makes the mistake of touching the carven figures on the titular stalls, made from wood from a tree where people were hanged — and carrying a death curse to anyone who has blood on their hands.
- Lord Saul of "The Residence at Whitminster" ends up being chased to his death by his demonic "friends" and his spirit is condemned to wander the land at night.
- The Calverts in "The Experiment" are so tormented by the ghost of their victim after they summon him to find out where his money is that they are eventually driven to confess and be executed for their crimes to get away from him.
- Literary Allusion Title:
Mamillius: There was a man.
- "'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 who moves 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:
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.
- Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: Dr. Abell in "Two Doctors" is implied to have made a Deal with the Devil in order to murder another doctor for stealing his patients.
- 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 poetically described as "one of the awful bird-catching spiders of South America, translated into human form and endowed with intelligence just less than human". It guards something beneath the church, and killed Canon Alberic when he took it.
- 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.
- The demon Karswell summons in "Casting the Runes" is never directly described, but is implied to be hairy and to possess very sharp teeth.
- After the Time Skip in "The Residence at Whitminster," Miss Oldys recounts having a vision of Lord Saul being hunted to his death by several indistinct creatures. The word "demon" fits them as well as any.I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs than anything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not.
- Our Ghosts Are Different: Many of James' ghosts take bizarre corporeal forms. Quite a few are felt before they are seen. Some of the more striking examples are:
- The ghost from "The Diary of Mr. Poynter" is humanoid, but covered in long hair to the point where no features are distinguishable.
- The phantom that kills Homberger/Henderson/Poschwitz is dressed in white linen, has beady black eyes and apparently has venom ten times worse than any snakebite.
- ""Oh Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" has an invisible phantom that takes on one of the most effective forms of Bedsheet Ghost near the end of the story. It is implied to be blind and tracks its victim by sound.
- The grandfather's ghost in "The Haunted Dolls' House" is described as akin to "a frog - the size of man - [with] scanty white hair about its head."
- 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.
- Gawdy in "The Mezzotint" does this, rising from the grave to abduct and kill the son of the man who had him hanged.
- Scarily Specific Story: "Wailing Well," which features a misbehaving Boy Scout meeting a supernatural fate, supposedly debuted while James was supervising a Scouting trip in the exact location featured in the story. Sleep tight, boys!
- 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.
- Secret-Keeper: A villainous example. "The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" features a letter from Jane Lee, the maid, demanding extra money from Archdeacon Haynes to keep her farm afloat. The wording of the letter implies that Jane helped arrange the "accidental" death of Dr. Pultney and was hanging this over Haynes' head, not least because doing so lead to her being fired.
- 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.
- The undead Gawdy in "The Mezzotint" avenges himself on the squire who had him hanged by abducting and killing his infant son.
- Spell My Name with a Blank:
- Lord D___ in "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas".
- Sir ______ ______ in "The Rose Garden".
- Spooky Silent Library: The main setting of "The Tractate Middoth."
- 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.