Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 25 – The Uncommon Prayer-book

The Book of Common PrayerThis episode Mike & Will put on their golden pince-nez and crack the spine of ‘The Uncommon Prayer-book’ by M.R. James!

Big thanks go to our reader for this episode, Debbie Wedge.

Questions answered during this episode:

  • Is M.R. James an anti-semite?
  • Is Mr Poschwitz the Germanic Lovejoy?
  • How much snakebite is too much snakebite?

Show notes:

  • Michael Cox / Pleasing Terror story notes (amazon)
    M.R. James’ biographer Michael Cox has written some very useful notes for this story which can be found in the Oxford Classics edition of ‘Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories’. Another set of notes can be found in the ‘Pleasing Terror’ M.R. James anthology.
  • ‘The Books, Manuscripts and Literary Patronage of Lady Anne Sadleir (1585-1670)’ by Arnold Hunt (Google Books)
    This essay features in the volume ‘Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium’ contains a wealth of information on the real life individual on who provided M.R. James with the inspiration of this story.
  • Info on this story, Lady Sadleir and Anti-Cromwellian editions of the book of common prayer (Two Nerdy History Girls)
    Information often turns up in unexpected places, like here in the comments section of a competely unrelated article about Guy Fawkes! Scroll down to the thread of comments starting with Chris Woodyard for some interesting speculation on the inspiration for this story.
  • Stereotypes of Jews in Literature (Wikipedia)
    Anti-Semitism has been rearing it’s ugly head in literature for centuries. Was M.R. James jumping on the Hebrew-bashing bandwagon? We think not but this info on how Jews have been portrayed in literature over the years is certainly eye-opening.
  • “M.R. James, Antiquarian Sleuth: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth and the Blood Libel” by Steve Duffy (Ghosts & Scholars)
    This excellent article goes a long way to debunk the suggestion that M.R. James was harbouring anti-semitic tendencies by discussing James’ work to debunk the ‘Blood libel’ myth through close examination of the truth behind the martyrdom of William of Norwich.
  • Paul Lowe’s illustration of this story (
    Perennial M.R. James illustrator Paul Lowe produced a horrifying conception of what the flannel creature from this story may have looked like (scroll to the bottom of the page to find it).
  • The Book of Common Prayer (wikipedia)
    Here you can read about the troubled history of the Book of Common Prayer, the first book to publish the forms of common Christian worship in English.
  • Psalm 109 (
    Here you can read the full Book of Common Prayer version of Psalm 109, in all it’s doom-laden glory!



Episode 21 – The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance image by Alisdair WoodIt’s Christmas Special time again! This year Will & Mike look at the one and only M.R. James story actually set during the festive season, ‘The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance’.

This episode also features a Christmas Bonus in the form of an interview with film director Stephen Gray whose new adaptation of ‘A Haunted Doll’s House’ is available to watch online for a limited period only, starting Christmas Eve!

Our reader this week was Peter Ross and the accompanying artwork is by Alisdair Wood.

As mentioned in our interview, Stephen would like our listeners help deciding which story to film next! Please state your preference below.
Show notes

The image below shows the King’s Head/Arms inn which features in this story, as it looked in 1885.

The King's Head Inn, Bicester


Episode 15 – Mr Humphreys and his Interitance

Mr Humphreys Quote on Gate SignThis episode Mike and Will get hopelessly lost in ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance’. It’s a-maze-ing!

Show notes:

  • Two Ghosts & Scholars Essays
    We referred extensively to two outstanding examinations of the symbolism and antiquarian lore behind the story: Martin Hughes’, “A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James“, reprinted in Warnings to the Curious and “James Wilson’s Secret”, by Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls.  Both well worth a read.
  • Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance (TV Version)
    This story was adapted in an abridged form for the ITV schools programme ‘Music Scene’ in the 1970’s. A very low quality rip is available on YouTube but we recommend you invest in the DVD of Casting the Runes which features a much higher quality version as an extra.
  • Wilsthorpe (GoogleMaps)
    There are two real Wilsthorpes, one in Lincolnshire and the other in Yorkshire but there is no solid evidence that M.R. James was thinking of either when writing the story.
  • Possible Maze Inspirations
    James new Suffolk and it’s stately homes like the back of his hand. With his in mind, could the yew maze in this story have been inspired by the similar yew maze at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk, designed and planted in 1846? Like Wilsthorpe hall, the grounds have various classical/Italian features, including an globe-shaped equatorial sundial (decorated with astrological symbols) which reminds us of the globe in ‘Mr Humphreys…’.
    Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls speculate that the turf labyrinth at Hilton, Cambridgeshire may also have provided inspiration. It dates from the 17th century and would have certainly been known to James due to it’s close proximity to Cambride. It also features a central pillar at the centre, with a globe and an inscription in latin, that commemorates the death of the mazes creator William Sparrow (1641–1729).
  • Mazes (Wikipedia)
    Wikipedia features useful introductions to both hedge mazes and mazes in general, including a list of notable mazes.
  • Marjery Wardrop (Wikipedia)
    During this episode Will speculates that James’s choice of ‘Wardrop’ as a name may have been inspired by his contemporary folklorist Marjery Wardrop.
  • Labyrinth (1986)
    The mad-as-a-bag-of-ferrets maze-fest much loved by Mike, starring David Bowie’s crotch. It’s like ‘Alive in Wonderland’, but with added muppets and musical numbers. Watch the trailer on YouTube or chech out the bonkers Magic Dance Sequence. And if you enjoyed that, why not check out the Top 10 Mazes in Films, although they miss out Will’s personal favourite Cube.
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