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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 9 – A School Story

February 29, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (26)

Ancient Yew TreeIn this episode Mike & Will return to M.R. James’s old alma mater for chaos in the classroom, death in the dormitory and revenge in the refectory.

That’s right, it’s ‘A School Story’!

N.b. If you have forgotten your gym-kit, you have to listen to this episode in your vest and pants.

Show notes:

  • The History of Temple Grove School (.pdf)
    The school in ‘A School Story’ is based on the prep school that M.R. James attended, Temple Grove School which was at the time based in East Sheen, London.
  • Site of Temple Grove School on Googlemaps
    Temple Grove School is not longer in existance, but this gives an idea of where the parkland in which it stood used to be. Note Well Lane where the old stable stands (now converted to a very nice looking house) and where we spotted yew trees! In the photo of us below we are standing at the north-eastern end of Observatory road, where the lake used to be. This Map from 1895 gives an indication of where the school stood (see ‘H’), and this map shows the layout of Temple Grove Estate in 1811.
  • “I’ve Seen It!” – A School Story and the House in Berkeley Square by Rosemary Pardoe
    Here Rosemary Pardoe provides some background information on the legends surrounding the famously haunted 50 Berkeley Square in London, mentioned in ‘A School Story’.
  • Ancient Coin Pendants
    Jewelry such as the ‘coin charm’ that Mr Sampson wears on his watch chain is not hard to come by these days! For more info on Byzantine coins see Wikipedia.
  • Eton and Kings (Ghosts & Scholars)
    M.R. James published a volume of recollections about his life at school and in academia.
  • Ancient Yews Group FAQs
    Yew trees are a common sight in English churchyards. The Ancient Yew Group website provides some interesting information on the historical and mythological significance of yew trees.
  • ‘A School Story’ at FreakyTrigger
    Some excellent analysis of this story at FreakyTrigger, plus some interesting views in the comments.
  • ‘The Well’ by W.W. Jacobs
    This story, published in 1902 by James’s contemporary W.W. Jacobs, features some similarities to ‘A School Story’. Mike Pincombe highlights this story in his excellent essay ‘Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story’ (Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter 9).

Visit to the Site of Temple Grove School, East Sheen

Mike and Will's visit to the site of Temple Grove School in East Sheen, London

Top: Temple Grove Estate, East Sheen, 1812
Bottom: Mike & Will at Temple Grove Estate, East Sheen, 2012.

Can you spot the differences? Hint: top image = more bonnets, bottom image = less swans.

We are standing in the slight dip in Observatory Rd that marks where the lake stood 200 years before. Mike had brought his umbrella to fight off the swans. Turns out this was unneccesary.

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26 Comments

  1. Harley Warren says:

    Another excellent podcast, dudes. I’ve been a massive James fan for years and it was a pleasure to stumble across this site. I wish you every success for the future.

  2. Bertie says:

    Really enjoying your podcasts, guys. I do hope you keep it up as there are many longstanding
    M R James fans out there (me included) who have until recently, felt a little ignored in favour of the Lovecraftians.
    I love your amusing discussions and insights, and each new podcast is a real highlight for me. The links you provide are an added bonus too! And don’t worry that you’re missing anything with all the erudite comments you’re attracting on here. It’s an indication of the generally high level of intelligence of Monty’s fans, and it’s a testament to the depth of the stories that they have many layers of meaning, with everyone seeing something different. The debates you are inspiring are greatly to be welcomed! Thanks again for the great work 😉

  3. Mike says:

    Thanks Bertie, much appreciated!

  4. A Rat In The Wall says:

    Another great little podcast! I love weird thin humanoid monsters, they’re always fantastically creepy, like Slender Man.

    Will was in Dublin? No way, I live there and I missed you? I’ll have stalk you now.

  5. RogerBW says:

    Gradually catching up with the podcasts, having picked up the link via YSDC. Good stuff!

    A side note: it’s entirely possible to tell someone’s sex just from skeletal remains. (It’s mostly in the shape of the pelvis.) I don’t know when that technique was developed, though, and it might not have been in use by 1904.

  6. Nicky says:

    Interesting information. I had an ancestor who died of scarlet fever when he was a pupil at Temple Grove, East Sheen. I didn’t know the building had been demolished.

  7. Inner Prop says:

    I just listened to Julie H’s “Yew Will Know Me” in 19 Nocturne Blvd (http://www.19nocturneboulevard.net/Episodes.htm), and I hurried right over here to hear you gentlemen discuss the original story.

    I like listening to you two, but having not read any of the stories it is nice to have one where I actually know the story before listening to you. Also it is nice to hear an explanation of what is really happening.

    Good job and thanks.

  8. Jim Cameron says:

    You’re doing a great job with this podcast. I discovered it a few weeks ago and am working my way through the episodes. A School Story was one of the first James stories I read. I’ve wondered recently whether MacLeod’s Highland background might account for his being the conduit for the inhabitant of the well. My grandmother was from Skye, which is the seat of Clan MacLeod, and my dad told me that she used to talk about “the second sight,” so maybe James saw a MacLeod as particularly sensitive to emanations from the beyond. Anyway, I thought you did a particularly good job on this story, and I’m looking forward to more of the same.

    • Mike says:

      Thanks Jim. Good point – I didn’t realise the Macleods came from Skye. Probably should have done, as one of my favourite authors, Ken Macleod, based a science fiction novel called ‘Intrusion’ on the same theme.

  9. mark says:

    An excellent podcast series, but why is episode 1 unavailable? Have you thought about doing a special on the dramatisations? I have good memories of Michael Hordern’s readings.Derek Jacobi too has also done a fine job as a talking book, althoughhe was also involved in those lamentable bbc 15 minute dramatisations that were done some years ago

    • Mike says:

      Hi Mark. Sorry you can’t find ep1, a couple of listeners have mentioned this. I can find it on the website and the feed though! Please let me know if you can’t get it from http://www.mrjamespodcast.com/2011/09/episode-1-canon-alberics-scrapbook/. We love the audio books, and that is quite a good idea…

      • mark says:

        Thanks guys. I found the link.
        I’m living in Japan at the moment and your podcasts are making me homesick for the atmosphere of damp, musty Viictoriana.
        Are you familiar with those 15 minute dramatisations of which I spoke?
        They re complete pants.

        • Will Ross says:

          Hi Mark, if the dramas are the same BBC ones I am thinking of, I actually didn’t mind them at all, particularly the ‘Tractate Middoth’ one! They take quite a lot of liberties with the original stories but this didn’t bother me too much as I’m so familiar with the original stories I enjoye a bit of variation. Also I thought they did quite a good job of the unforgiving task of fitting each story into just 15 minutes.
          I am aware I am in the minority though, I have read some stinking reviews of the series elsewhere!
          – Will

  10. Thylacines says:

    Maybe this is too obvious, but I always thought the coin was something Sampson had taken off the body of the person he killed and that the date he carved into it was the day he murdered that person, and then he carried the coin with him to remind him to be penitent for what he’d done.

    • My assumption was certainly that the coin was the reason the specter pursued him and connected with his guilt. I’d more thought that he’d unearthed the coin from a Roman ruin, and taken it when he should not have (like the coin in somebody’s mouth or resting on somebody’s eyes).

  11. Michael Cule says:

    The Romans, for your information, regarded sorcery as ‘the Etruscan Art’ so they would presumably have regarded Etruscan as the peculiar, ancient and nearly extinct language to summon demons and spirits with.

    And yew trees are a) poisonous b) by tradition commonly grown only in graveyards and c) grown nonetheless because they make excellent longbows.

  12. Carla says:

    One of my favourite stories.

    I wondered if the coin was a romantic souvenir, with the date of a hot tryst carved on it…but what was the back story, and who was the strange wet man? If Sampson killed him, why? Was it over a woman?

    Another idea I had was that the ‘clasping’ skeleton was that of a former pupil of Sampson’s, who had been bumped off to keep his silence after some unpleasantness or other.
    More Henry James (Turn Of The Screw) than Monty James, that one, though.

  13. Alan says:

    When I first read this story I couldn’t help having the impression that Sampson was being haunted by the ghost of his father, who he maybe murdered and dumped in the well.

    James’ character Sampson, described as tall stout and Black bearded, as you mentioned is a name and physical description that may loosely allude to the biblical Samson. Just before his death Samson prayed to God “remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” This could be a link to the themes of revenge and remembering, i.e. Sampson’s lesson on how to express remembering in Latin (to which some students crafted the simple sentence ‘I remember my father,’ as their solution, perhaps meant to be a detail one may overlook as initially unimportant) and obviously the vengeance of the strange figure coming for him by the end of the story.

    Also the name Samson comes from Hebrew for “the sun” which, admittedly a stretch, could be read as “son.” Further, Samson’s corpse was buried next to his father’s and the bodies at the end of our story are found together in some manner of embrace, at once hinting at Samson and his father and showing that Sampson and the mysterious figure have a familiarity with one another.

    Sampson’s Byzantine coin picked up in Constantinople with the ‘effigy of an absurd emperor’ may be an important clue as well, perhaps referring to either Constans II or his son Constantine IV, both nicknamed “The Bearded” (the latter mastakenly nicknamed such by historians confusing him with his father). Constantine IV ascended to the throne after his father was murdered. I thought of all the Byzantine emperors that these two should be nicknamed, mistakenly or otherwise, “The Bearded” to be perhaps too much of a coincidence to not be who James’ intended to be featured on the coin, if he intended anyone specific at all. After all, I thought it strange that James should go out of his way to mention Sampson’s beard if it was not intended to stand out as a feature of the character to have some meaning. I don’t recall him giving this degree of attention to the physical appearance af any of his previous characters.

    I may be way off the mark on all of this and I am quite new to the works of M. R. James (having only begun reading the short stories about a month ago and seeing some of the Ghost Stories for Christmas adaptations several months ago) but I just found these points interesting.

    • Alan says:

      Also, it just struck me, that watches in general are a traditional patriarchal heirloom to be passed down between fathers/sons, grandfathers/grandsons, etc.

  14. Julia Morgan says:

    What language did the Romans think was suitable for cursing?

    I suggest Etruscan, or possibly Punic.

  15. Richard Leigh says:

    I agree about the oddly “tacked-on” nature of the sequel. I think the story would be better if the ending, and the reference to the coin, were omitted. Then, the use of the pupils by the ghost to communicate with Sampson would be the main point of the story. It would also remove the puzzle as to how exactly the ghost managed to convey Sampson from the school to Ireland.

  16. tom says:

    I love this podcast.My daughter, (an enthusiastic reader from the age if 6, ) now a PhD 8n Englisgh, claims she could not sleep for weeks after finding an MR JAMES book at an early age.

    Great stuff.

    PS I am living in dublin.

  17. tom says:

    is podcast.My daughter, (an enthusiastic reader from the age if 6, ) now a PhD in English, claims she could not sleep for weeks after finding an MR JAMES book at an early age.

    Great stuff.

    PS I am living in dublin.

  18. Three Crowns says:

    Here’s a tidbit of Victorian culture that is perhaps lost on a modern audience. The coin is a love token. In the 19th century, it was all the rage to take an obsolete coin, smooth one side, carve your initials on it and give it to your sweetheart. There were variations, sometimes you smoothed both sides and carved a little picture. I’ve collected coins and these things crop up from time to time.

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