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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 84 – Bosworth Summit Pound

t1112~2Ahoy there listeners!  Be grabbin’ yer nautical gear for a  cruise on the high seas of Leicestershire, with LTC Rolt and his story Bosworth Summit Pound.  (Enough.  It’s set on a canal – ed) What terrors might await us on England’s peaceful inland waterways? And just who digs a canal tunnel under an ancient graveyard anyway?

Story notes

  • Thank you to our reader this week Tony Walker: you must check out his Classic Ghost Stories podcast and episode on this story.  If you’d like to know more about his podcast, make sure you listen through to the end of our show for an exclusive trailer from Tony!
  • Tom Rolt built Spitfires during WW2, and in 1944 had his first book ‘Narrow Boat’ published. It was a big success, and through it he made connections with the people with whom he would form the Inland Waterways Association, an organisation dedicated to preserving Britain’s canals and other waterways. He was actually expelled from this in 1951 after falling out with founding member (and fellow author of supernatural fiction) Robert Aickman (see this amusing plaque, which suggests the enmity lingered after both their deaths!).
  • Rolt’s one volume of ghost stories ‘Sleep No More’ was published in 1948.  Mike Ashley wrote of this, “Rolt had a formidable knowledge of the byways, waterways and railways of Britain which made Sleep No More (1948) a most unique volume of the supernatural”. Ashley adds that of  MR James’s imitators, “Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives… Because of his ability to utilise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing.”
  • In another essay worth reading, Kai Roberts wrotes that “Rolt succeeds because the industrial setting he evokes is one about which he is passionate and knowledgeable.”
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Episode 82 – Echoes from the Abbey

the-monk.jpg!LargeThis week Will and Mike don their warmest Christmas jumpers for dinner with Dr James and the troubled incumbents of Medborough Abbey, in the company of Sheila Hodgson.

  • What could be more seasonal than a cracker, eh?  Oh the fun that tumbles out when it goes snap! Paper hat, plastic keyring, lighthearted message of impending doom, that sort of thing. Indeed, Monty James felt a cracker could prompt a ghost story, “if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.”  (Stories I have Tried to Write, 1929)
  • Sheila Hodgson ran with this suggested plot device, setting her tale at the fictional Medborough Abbey.  The story appeared as a radio play, Ghosts and Scholars magazine and  ultimately in Fellow Travellers, a collection of her Jamesian tales published by Ash Tree Press in 1998. The same idea also inspired Andrew Caldecott to write ‘A Christmas Reunion’, the story we covered for our Christmas episode in 2017.
  • Sheila was a script writer best known for her radio and TV dramas between the 1950 and 1980s, including thrillers, detective stories and then supernatural fiction.  Her first ghostly tales were adaptations of Algernon Blackwood’s ‘Dr John Silence: psychic detective’ stories for radio in the mid 1970s.  She subsequently wrote seven radio plays inspired by James, and the stories collected in Fellow Travellers.
  • Alas there is no real Medborough Abbey in the UK, but the name may have been inspired by Medmenham Abbey in Berkshire, which was a 12th century Cistercian monastery until it was dissolved in 1547 and became a private residence. It is more notorious for being one of the haunts of Sir Francis Dashwood’s ‘Hellfire Club’ (but that is a whole other story).
  • FACT: Will once dressed as Death and pursued me, Mike, around a ruined abbey, as part of a short film made by a friend.  Still gives me nightmares.
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Episode 79 – The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster

PanToday we head to East Anglia for a round of golf in the company of enthusiastic James fan H.R. Wakefield. No whistling ‘ere though – you might just wake up something nasty…

  • Wakefield published seven volumes of ghost stories between 1928 and 1961, but also wrote three detective novels and two non-fiction ‘true crime’ studies.
  • He served in the military and as a private secretary to his father, a bishop, before moving to the publishing industry, where he spent most of his working life and which is reflected in a lot of his stories. He was also a keen sportsman, reflected in his stories which feature a lot of golf!
  • Much of his personal life was opaque until recently, when Barbara Rodin tracked down a living relative. The picture she painted of Wakefield was not entirely endearing. Barbara’s introduction to the Ash Tree Press edition of Old Man’s Beard, Wakefield’s third volume of ghost stories, sets out this more intimate biography (trigger warning for the tormenting of small children and cats).
  • M.R. James wrote that Wakefield’s first volume of ghosts stories, They Return at Evening “gives us a mixed bag, from which I should remove one or two that leave a nasty taste. Among the residue are some admirable pieces, very inventive.”
  • True to this description, many of Wakefield’s ghost stories contain brash and depressing misogyny. This is especially so in those stories written after his first volume and, perhaps as a result, we can’t find any of his collections in print. Ash Tree Press editions of his volumes of ghost stories are however available as ebooks and include Rodin’s honest assessment of his writing.
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