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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 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 59 – The Haunted and the Haunters by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

The Haunted and the Haunter by Edward Bulwer-LyttonThis episode Mike and Will cover ‘The Haunted and the Haunters‘ by Charles Dickens’s BFF, Edward Bulwer-Lytton.

M.R. James considered this story essential reading, saying “Nobody is permitted to write about ghost stories without
mentioning ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’.” (Some Remarks on Ghost Stories). Will it live up to our expectations?

Our reader for this episode is talented artist and family member, Peter Ross!

We also mention the new book from friend-of-the-podcast Patrick J. Murphy, Medieval Studies and the Ghost Stories of M. R. James, check it out!

Show notes:

  • Edward Bulwer-Lytton (Wikipedia)
    Some basic biographical details about EBL’s life. A more detailed biography can be found at
    www.victorianweb.org.
  • Edward Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest (www.bulwer-lytton.com)
    Inspired by EBL’s famous clunker “It was a dark and stormy night…”, this competition challenges would-be writers
    to come up with the worst possible opening line to a novel!
  • 50 Berkeley Square, London (Wikipedia)
    Often touted as ‘the most haunted house in England’, this place gained a fearsome reputation for ghostliness in the
    latter half of the 19th century. It’s description and locations are tantilisingly close to the house described in
    this story, although the story pre-dated the house’s notoriety.
  • The Haunted House (Wikipedia)
    The ‘haunted house’ as a concept goes back for at least 2000 years, and has inspired writers for just as long.
  • ‘The Haunted House’ by Charles Dickens et al (Wikipedia)
    Could the publication of this story be connected in any way to the publications of ‘The Haunted House’, the
    portmaneau story that was ‘conducted’ and published by EBL’s friend Charles Dickens in the same year that EBL’s
    story was published?
  • Essay by Ellis Jordan (www.cherylblakeprice.com)
    This essay on ‘The Haunted and the Haunters’ sheds some more light onto the story and EBL’s aims in writing it. It
    also compared the two differing versions of the story that were published.
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Episode 27 – There was a man dwelt by a churchyard

'There was a man dwelt by a churchyard' by Les Edwards (copyright Les Edwards)In this episode Mike & Will don their funeral garb and shuffle mournfully into ‘There was a man dwelt by a churchyard‘ by M.R. James.

A big thanks to Robert Lloyd Parry for giving us permission to use readings extracted from his excellent CD ‘Curious Creatures: The Shorter Horror of M.R. James‘, available to purchase from his website nunkie.co.uk!

An equally big thanks go to Les Edwards for giving us permission to use his gorgeous artwork inspired by this very story, just one of the many illustrations Les did for the recent M.R. James collection ‘Curious Warnings: The Great Ghost Stories of M.R. James‘. »

You can buy a print of this painting as well as many others from his website lesedwards.com

Show notes:

  • A Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare (wikipedia)
    This title of this story comes from a line spoken by young Mamillius in Act 1 Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s ‘A Winter’s Tale’. Our audio extract came from the BBC’s lovely Shakespeare Animated Tales version of the play, available to watch on YouTube.
  • Brass rubbings at Oddington, Oxfordshire (White Winds Brass Rubbing)
    In this episode M.R. James refers to an ‘old brass in a church with a figure of a person in a shroud’. While it may not be the exact brass James was thinking of, the shrouded figure at Oddington Church is certainly of a similar kind to the one he refers to.
  • Ghosts & Scholars story notes (Ghosts & Scholars)
    Rosemary Pardoe’s notes on this story throw some very helpful light on some of the more perplexing parts of this story.
  • John Poole, playwright (wikipedia)
    We forgot to mention it in the episode, but it is likely that M.R. Jame’s choise of the name ‘John Poole’ is a nod towards the English playwright John Poole (1786–1872) who was famous for this Shakespeare parodies.
  • “‘I seen it wive at me out of the winder’: The Window as Threshold in M.R. James’s Stories” by Rosemary Pardoe (Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter 4)
    This is the essay Will mentions in this episode which explores how James uses the window as a reoccuring feature of this ghost stories. Sadly the essay is not available to read online.
  • Will-o-the-wisp or corpse lights (wikipedia)
    In this story the smith asks John Poole if he has ever seen any ‘lights’ in the churchyard. Rosemary Pardoe suggests that this is a reference to ‘corpse lights’.
  • Ghosts & Scholars Survey (G&S)
    This story has an unenviable reputation for being voted one of the least popular M.R. James stories with readers of Ghosts & Scholars!
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