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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 31 – A Warning to the Curious – Part 2 of 2

Aldeburgh War MemorialThis episode concludes our coverage of M.R. James’s masterwork ‘A Warning to the Curious‘, and we also speak to James expert Patrick J. Murphy, whose essay ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ impressed us greatly when researching this story.

Lewis Davies returns again to lend his voice to the readings for this episode, and an excellent job he does too. Thanks Lewis!

Notes on Remembrance Day:

When we started our two-parter on Warning to the Curious, we didn’t realise that we’d be releasing the second part on Remembrance Day.

For all that M.R. James did to honour the memory of the war dead, it seems likely that his portrayal of the First World War in this story was intended to be  ambiguous, and likely coloured by  his role as mentor to students from Cambridge who were amongst the fallen.

Will and I are conscious that some might feel this as an insensitive topic for Armistice Day, and I am sure that M.R. James would have felt the same way.  But the podcast is ready, and I hope you agree that there is some merit in discussing how heavily the war weighed on James – as we remember those affected by war, in all conflicts.

Show notes:

  • ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ by Patrick J Murphy and Fred Porcheddu (under review)
    Our intereviewee in this episode is co-author of this excellent essay. Patrick assures us he will let us know when it is published!
  • ‘”No Thoroughfare” – The problem of Paxton’ by Mike Pincombe (Ghosts & Scholars 32)
    This fascinating article (sadly not available online) explores the implications of a wartime setting for ‘A Warning to the Curious’. For an entirely different take on the character of Paxton, see Pincombe’s very entertaining essay ‘Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story‘ (G&S Newsletter 2)!
  • The Martello Tower, Aldeburgh (Landmark Trust)
    Fancy a holiday in a real-life M.R. James location? The Martello Tower at Aldeburgh where Paxton meets his death is now a holiday cottage! If you are not familiar with martello towers, you can learn more about this particular type of coastal defence on wikipedia.
  • Beowulf (wikipedia)
    Patrick and Fred’s essay (see above) points out the glaring similatiries between this story and the most famous anglo-saxon story, Beowulf. Both stories feature theft from a burial mound with a guardian.
  • A Warning to the Curious directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (BBC TV 1972)
    Further details about the 1972 TV version of this story can be found on wikipedia, including differences between the TV version and the original story.
  • A Playmobil Warning to the Curious (youtube)
    For a different take on the story, watch this playmobil animation of the story created by author and James-scholar Helen Grant and her son. It is both scary and cute in equal measures!
  • A Warning to the Furious (BBC Radio Drama)
    Another highly entertaining riff on this story can be found in this BBC radio drama from Christmas 2007. A feminist film crew visit Aldeburgh to try and psychoanalyse M.R. James, but find they have bitten off more than they can chew! This drama is not currently available form the BBC but can be tracked down on the dark dingy corners of the internet with a bit of searching.
  • Our visit to Aldeburgh (Flickr)
    You can see some photos of the visit we made this August to Aldeburgh, Suffolk on our Flickr account. Also see below for a video of out visit. Don’t forget you can view these locations on Monty’s World, our online mapping app.

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Episode 30 – A Warning to the Curious – Part 1 of 2

'A Warning to the Curious' by Alisdair WoodThe waiting is over, it’s finally time for Mike & Will to tackle what is arguably M.R. James’s masterpiece – A Warning to the Curious! It’s a biggie, so we will split our coverate of this story over two episodes. Our examination of this story will conclude in episode 31.

To assist them in their task, Mike and Will are joined by Tom Baynham, whose article ‘A Return to Seaburgh’ sheds much light on the real-world locations which feature in this story.

Once again big thanks go out to Alisdair Wood for providing the awesome artwork. You can now purchase a set of eight postcards featuring Alisdair’s great M.R. James illustrations. Snap them up while you can from Alisdair’s online shop.

The excellent readings which accompany this episode were provided by Lewis Davies.

Show notes:

  • Story locations
    In his introduction to ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ M.R. James explained that he based the town of Seaburgh on Aldeburgh in Suffolk. The actual locations featured in this story have been explored in a few articles in Ghosts & Scholars: ‘A Visit to Seaburgh‘ by Darroll Pardoe (G&S 15), ‘Cambridge and Suffolk: A Perambulation of Two Counties’ by Brian J. Showers (G&S Newsletter 14 – not available online) and ‘A Return to Seaburgh’ by Tom Baynham (G&S Newsletter 23 – not available online). See also the White Lion Hotel. To see the locations features in this story on a map, visit Monty’s World, our M.R. James map.
  • Snape Common Anglo-Saxon Cemetary (Wikipedia)
    The idea of buried Anglo-Saxon treasure was probably inspired by the real archeological finds uncovered at nearby Snape Common during the 19th century. The story also mentions the crown found at Rendlesham, a reference to the real crown found at the famous burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, near Rendlesham.
  • ‘”No Thoroughfare” – The problem of Paxton’ by Mike Pincombe (Ghosts & Scholars 32)
    This fascinating article (sadly not available online) explores the implications of a wartime setting for ‘A Warning to the Curious’. For an entirely different take on the character of Paxton, see Pincombe’s very entertaining essay ‘Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story‘ (G&S Newsletter 2)!
  • ‘Lay of a Last Survivor- Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious” ‘ by Patrick J. Murphy and Fred Porcheddhu (not yet published)
    This article reveals the connection between this story and Beowulf, and elaborates on Mike Pincombe’s suggestions about the importance of WWI to the understanding of this story.
  • ‘”The Rules of Folklore” in the stories of M.R. James’ by Jacqueline Simpson (Warnings to the Curious, Hippocampus Press, 2007)
    This essay mentions various possible precedents to the myth of the Three Crowns, including the legend of Bran the Blessed and Drake’s Drum.
  • The name ‘Ager’ (Surname Database)
    It seems that ‘Ager’ is indeed a local name of some pedigree in the Suffolk and Cambridge area.

As if a bumper 2-parter on ‘A Warning to the Curious’ wasn’t enough, we have also produced a short video comprising footage taken on our recent visit to Aldeburgh, and featuring locations from the story such as Aldeburgh Parish Church, the White Lion Hotel (‘the Bear’ from the story), Wyndham House (home of M.R. James’s grandparents), the Martello Tower, Sluice Cottage (the likely site of William Ager’s house) and even a spot which matches James’s description and location of the mound where Paxton finds the crown!

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