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Stories that inspired M.R. James

Twelve tales of terror recommended by the master of the genre!

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Episode 62 – The Upper Berth by F. Marion Crawford

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Mike and Will take a cruise across the pond in the good ship Kamchatka – but who’s hiding in The Upper Berth?  Joining us to narrate F. Marion Crawford’s classic tale is reader Rupert Simons, who tells us that he’s found a cheap cabin for his trip from The Hook to Harwich next week…

Show notes:

  • F. Marion Crawford was a very successful writer who penned comparatively few ghost stories and as chiefly known for his historical novels.
  • The Upper Berth was originally published in “The Broken Shaft: Tales in Mid-Ocean”, an anthology of tales told by passengers on a stranded ocean liner.  Friend of the show Dewi Evans (whom we interviewed at JamesCon in Episode 51) has written an excellent post about this collection on his blog.
  • Ruthanna Emrys and Anne Pillsworth have written an excellent essay on this story, mentioned in our show.  Anne suggests that “Bertie” is the ghost of a man who justs wants the bed for which he paid!
  • There is a short film adaptation of ‘The Upper Berth’ by Mansfield Dark. You can watch it online but it’s also available as an extra on the DVD ‘The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance’.
  • Our fabulous cover art came from illustrator and designer Mike Godwin, whose website is full of wonderful things and links to his Etsy shop.
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Episode 61 – The Open Door by Margaret Oliphant

Colinton Castle, EdinburghThis episode join Mike and Will as they don their kilts and sporrans and head north of Hadrian’s wall for some Scottish horror (no, not the midges) as we explore ‘The Open Door’ by Margaret Oliphant!

Big thanks to Kirsty for chilling us to the bone with her readings for this episode.

Show notes:

  • Margaret Oliphant (Wikipedia)
    Margaret Oliphant (1828 – 1897) was a prolific and very popular author in her day, and M.R. James describes ‘The Open Door’ as one of only two ‘… really good ghost stories I know in the language wherein the elements of beauty and pity dominate terror.’
  • Colinton House, Edinburgh (oliphantfiction.com)
    Brentwood house’ in the story was mostly likely inspired by this house, where Oliphant stayed on a number of occasions as the guest of her friend William Blackwood III, publisher of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in which this story was first published. The house, now a school, features a picturesque castle ruin in the grounds, complete with open doorways leading to nowhere.
  • Lasswade, near Edinburgh (Leedstrinity.ac.uk)
    While the house in the story is almost certainly based on Colinton House, the adjoining village of Brentwood is more likely to be based on the village of Lasswade, where Oliphant grew up. Like Lasswade, the village in the story is described as being a centre for paper-making. This article by Rosemary Mitchell also provides some fascinating analysis of the religious symbolism in the story.
  • Margaret Oliphant and the Romantic Novel (dangerouswomenproject.org)
    This essay by Laura Witz, subtitled ‘Subtle subversions of Victorian gender conventions’, argues that Oliphant was a feminist whose fiction struggled against the restrictive gender norms of the time. Not that you see much of that in ‘The Open Door’, sadly.
  • The Margaret Oliphant Fiction Collection (oliphantfiction.com)
    This website contains not only a bibliography of Oliphant, but also plot synopsis for all her published fiction. The ‘Stories of the Seen and the Unseen‘ section will be of particular interest to fans of the ghost story.
  • Bogle (Wikipedia)
    A ‘bogle’ is a uniquely Scottish ghost of folkloric creature, one which the stable-master Jarvis is particularly keen to insist he is not afraid of in this story!
  • Mass Hysteria (Wikipedia)
    The doctor is keen to attribute the multiple ghostly sightings as an example of mass hysteria. The wikipedia page on mass hysteria  contains some fascinating examples of this, from mewing nuns in the middle ages to modern forms of viral mass hysteria reportedly spread by the internet.
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Episode 60 – The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

penny-illustratedWe’re back! This week Mike and Will descend gingerly into a gloomy railway cutting to investigate Charles Dickens’ The Signal-Man.  Dickens dissects the harsh realities of life in industrial Britain, but can he also deliver a pleasing terror and a locomotive-sized Jamesian Wallop? (spoiler: yes, in spades)

Show notes:

  • Higham Station was the closest to Dickens’ home at Gads Hill Place and he’d have had plenty of time to contemplate it’s formidable tunnel.
  • Fatal crashes and accidents were by no means rare in the early days of the railways.  Dickens was himself involved in a hideous rail crash while in the company of his mistress and her mother, as memorialised in the picture above.  Mike mentioned hearing about the Thirsk rail disaster on the excellent podcast Note to Self – he didn’t, but admits it was actually on a lecture about sleep on BBC Radio 3.
  • An approachable essay on Dickens and the Trauma of Technology, which covers some of the main themes of the story.
  • Oldstyle Tales Press have released a wonderful edition of Dickens’ ghost stories with great footnotes and illustrations (disclaimer – we were kindly sent a couple of free copies by the lovely editor, Michael Grant Kellermeyer).
  • Another slim edition worth getting hold of is by Profile Books, which includes the incredibly funny story The Boy At Mugby Junction – I would like to say that railway catering has improved in the UK, but it’s only by degrees.
  • And of course, please check out the BFI Ghost Story for Christmas DVD, including LGC’s dramatisation of the Signal-Man.
  • Huge thanks to our reader this week, Mike’s very own father in law… Mike.  Yes, it gets confusing.

Finally, a huge apology from me (Mike) for the delay in getting this out –  we ain’t dead yet!

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