Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

Download our free eBook

Episode 10 – The Rose Garden

March 13, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (24)

The Popish Plot playing card of Pickering being executed.In this episode Will & Mike experience the horticultural horror of M.R. James’s ‘The Rose Garden’. Thanks to Kirsty Woodfield who was our reader for this episode.

Show notes:

  • Popish Plot Playing Cards (
    Having trouble getting your head around the popish plot? Why not invest in a pack of Popish Plot Playing Cards! Alas hundreds of years out of print. The Seven of Hearts is the one of Edward Coleman being ‘drawn’ to his execution behind a horse, and the Six of Diamonds is also particularly gruesome.
  • M.R. James’s Women by David G. Rowlands (Ghosts & Scholars)
    This essay looks at the small selection of women who appear in James’s work, including ‘The Rose Garden’s Mrs Anstruther.
  • “The Rules of Folklore” in the Ghost Stories of M.R. James by Jacqueline Simpson
    Landmarks and Shrieking Ghosts by Jacqueline Simpson

    An excellent pair of essays originally published in Ghosts & Scholars that drew our attention to the influence of Danish and Suffolk folklore on ‘The Rose Garden’.
  • Weald Country Park, Essex (Wikipedia)
    The site of the former Weald Hall, residence of the terrible Sir William Scroggs and the possible real-world ‘Westfield Hall’. The hall fell into disrepair and was pulled down after world war II but the park can still be visited and looks like a nice day out!
  • Victims of the Popish Plot (Wikipedia)
    Wikipedia provides a brief rundown of those accused during the popish plot. Play special attention to Sir William Scroggs, Oliver Plunkett and Edward Colman!
  • The Head of Oliver Plunkett (Wikipedia)
    As mentioned in this episode, popish plot victim Oliver Plunkett’s head is on display in Drogheda, Ireland. A possible inspiration for the strange face in ‘The Rose Garden’?
  • Proceedings against Sir William Scroggs (on Google Books)
    Cobbett’s Complete Collection of State Trials features a transcript of the indictment against Sir William Scroggs that makes very interesting (and frequently humorous) reading.
  • Gaude, Gaudy, Domini in Laude by Roger Johnson
    The essay that drew my attention to Weald Hall was featured in the Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter 15, not available online but an incentive (if more were needed) to subscribe to this foremost Jamesian news source.
  • Eastscapes: Doggerland
    Photographic work by friend of the podcast and M.R. James fan David Senior will be on display at the House Gallery in Camberwell, London from the 15-22nd March 2012 as part of his collaboration with artists Misa Tamura and Dan Howse.

Errata: Since recording we have been informed that the correct term is ‘Hanged’ rather than ‘Hung’. Could we be arsed to go back and re-record? We could not.


Tags: , , , , , ,


  1. Taha Yunus says:

    Chavs in the shrubbery! With their owls!

  2. Delbert says:

    One of my fav MRJ stories – great podcast

    There was also a television version, I think the representation of the judge/court scene is very good – reminds me of the judge Jeffries portrayal in Martin’s Close (another fav)…


  3. GB Steve says:

    Judge Jeffries is one of my ancestors. Explains a lot.

    Great reading by Kirsty and a very enjoyable discussion.

  4. Genus Unknown says:

    A good episode on one of James’s weakest stories. The whole thing is a barely-coherent mess. I do like the idea of a ghost being pinned down under the ground with a stake, and trying to coax passersby into removing it, but I wish such a cool and creepy device had been used to better effect in a better story.

    Oh well. “The Tractate Middoth” is up next, and I think we can all agree that hooray.

    • Will Ross says:

      Me and Mike had a rant about that China Mieville article a while back, which I think we ended up cutting from the podcast! I think we both found it a frustratingly pretentious read, he knows his stuff and probably makes a good point or two but when he starts chucking around terms like ‘synecdochic signifier’ … I have to admit my brain kind of turns off. (Plus I have issues with the term ‘Hauntology’, which seems to be the current meaningless buzzword-du-joir).
      That Enlish Heretic stuff looks super-cool though!

    • Richard Leigh says:

      I’d like to hear the censored rant. Mieville seems to be intent on using all the currently fashionable terms of literary criticism; but though I was on the tentacles of expectation throughout, I could find not a single idea on MRJ which was of interest.

  5. Dave Stainton says:

    “It was a face – large, smooth and pink.” Never mind Oliver Plunkett, surely it’s David Cameron!

  6. Lovecraft says:

    Just discovered your podcast and think it is absolutely terrific! I’ve been downloading the episodes and listening to them in my car, much improving the commute. Excellent work, and please keep it up.

  7. Stant says:

    This one does not have much by the way of an ending does it. I was rather disappointed by it….the story not the podcast. The podcast episode was spot on as usual.

    Keep up the good work.

  8. Richard Leigh says:

    Highly irrelevant, but Dave Stainton’s comment re Cameron reminds me of Alan Bennett’s remark about two Tory politicians looking like two cheeks of the same arse.

  9. Wendy says:

    Just found this pod-cast and listening non-stop! Really love your work.

    Just want to put in a bit of thought on this. Towards the end of the story of “The Rose Garden”. The local rector said “….But lately there has been very little: I think it will die out…..”

    You mentioned it was odd why the rector thought it will die out.

    I originally thought this was M. R. James’s sort of subtle way of saying: when the modern life move in and start to take over. Eventually there will be no one who remember or follow the local folklores and warnings.So it will “die out” as ghost becomes forgotten and can no longer play with the mind. (you don’t know you won’t be scared.)

  10. Nate says:

    While your podcast was great and cleared some things up, I found this story pretty damn confusing.
    If it’s the judge that’s been trapped underneath the stake, why do people dream of someone else’s trial? And why that face in the bushes (which can’t be the judge, cos judges have good teeth!)? How many ghosts are we dealing with here? Are they all trapped? And just how trapped can a ghost be said to be if he’s running all over the place at night causing a ruckus?
    A real head-scratcher…

  11. Karen says:

    Mrs Anstruther’s blithe reassurances about thought transference would’ve surely been considered pretty rational and mainstream at the time.

    Spiritualism, Theosophy, and stories about the magical and religious beliefs and practices of various areas of the Empire were part and parcel of Victorian life, along with the gathering interest in the collection of British and Irish folklore and customs.

    It was pretty mainstream to believe that British and Irish magical traditions were directly descended from pre-Christian worship, thereby making mediaeval and early modern witches the custodians of ancient rituals. According to Prof Ronald Hutton, there was something of a panic in respectable society about the growing influence of a modern Pagan movement towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    The more scientifically-inclined reacted to claims of magical and spiritual phenomena by considering them in terms of ESP and so on – natural occurrences as yet unexplained, largely originating within humans, rather than emanating from the world of spirits, fairies, demons, or god(s). In fact, research into thought transference has gained its second wind of late:

    • Karen says:

      Just occurred to me to say that the tensions between Protestants and Catholics remained in place in large parts of England right up until the 60s and 70s, and remain in certain parts of Scotland – I know people whose interdenominational marriages caused massive ructions. The ban on royals marrying Catholics was still in place when this podcast came out, as well as the ban on Catholics becoming PM.

      The lyrics of Faith Of Our Fathers contains the lyrics:

      Our fathers, chained in prisons dark,
      Were still in heart and conscience free;
      And blest would be their children’s fate,
      If they, like them should die for thee:
      Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
      We will be true to thee till death!

      Faith of our fathers, we will strive
      To win all nations unto thee;
      And through the truth that comes from God
      Mankind shall then indeed be free.
      Faith of our fathers! holy faith!
      We will be true to thee till death!

      and were probably a reaction to the sometimes virulent anti-Catholicism that kept resurfacing, though they tended to confirm the darkest fears of Protestants that Catholics planned on taking over all nations and uniting them under the authority of the Pope. Seriously.

  12. Marcia says:

    I actually really like this story though I agree that the ending is very fragmented and rather vague all the way around. It’s hard to believe a hanging judge such as the one described would feel any twinge of guilt over his actions, let alone one that would linger so strongly after death that he needed to be staked. It almost infers he was so evil that he wouldn’t stay completely dead so they had to stake him.
    And one word in defense of Mrs. Anstruther. She’s annoying, I admit, but for a couple that we assume has been married for many years, it’s possible she only became this domineering and bossy because her husband is a wishy-washy milksop who won’t do anything without being nagged. I’ve seen it happen where the woman ends up looking like a total bitch but it’s because her husband just won’t accomplish anything without being hagridden. He gets pitied, she gets blamed but it’s at least half his fault. Just saying.

  13. Marcia says:

    Oops and meant to say too that Collins being ill in bed after removing the stake put me in mind of MacLeod being sick in bed after the automatic writing incident in A School Story. It’s as if contact with that supernatural force causes the recipient physical harm.
    In regard to confusion about Collins thinking he should not have removed the post, he is obviously listening to the village gossips and it’s his wife with the level head saying the gossips are full of it. and THANK YOU for clearing up ‘You pull, I’ll push.’ I never did get that. Your theory makes sense.

  14. Tim says:

    “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.” Proverbs 22:28 KJV
    Or else…

  15. Joe says:

    Just discovered the podcast, really enjoying it! I too appreciated the explanation of a very confusing story. I didn’t realize it was the ghost of the judge, I thought it was the executed man. Enjoyed all the previous podcasts too and looking forward to the rest.

  16. SRebInNH says:

    I can’t help it: in my mind this story is a big, ghosty episode of “Keeping Up Appearances.” I’m sure that Mrs. Anstruther would really be the kind of lady Hyacinth would fall all over herself trying to impress, but…

    “I WILL not have roughs in my authentic 17th-century Sir William Scroggs shrubbery, Richard!”

    Love this podcast, thanks for all the hard work you’ve put in over the years!

    • OldeGuto says:

      For me Mrs Anstruther IS Mrs Bucket. “Good gracious no, my dear Richard; I thought I had made that quite clear. No, it’s that small clearing just off the shrubbery path that goes towards the church.”

      Richard: “Oh yes, where we were saying there must have been a summer-house once: the place with the old seat and the posts. But do you think there’s enough sun there?”

      Hyacinth: “My dear Richard, do allow me some common sense, and don’t credit me with all your ideas about summer-houses.”

      Basically Richard sorry George realises what’s going on, bad place for a rose garden (as confirmed by Collins) and there was a summer house (as confirmed by Miss Wilkins) whilst Hyacinth sorry Mary is busy making bad plans and bossing the house staff around (like they don’t know what needs to be done already).

  17. In Icelandic folklore putting stakes in the the grave of a ghost (or draugur) is one of the way of putting it down. That’s the tame version at least, the more gory version is pinning a stake into the corpse to nail it to the coffin then decapitating the corpse and placing the head between the legs. This is because much like the vampire of Eastern Europe the Icelandic ghost was an undead corpse rather than just a spirit so damaging it meant attacking either the grave or the body itself. Another aspect that the draugur has in common with the vampire is that its condition is contagious. People killed by a draugur always become one themselves and like the vampire draugar are very fond of shapeshifting turning into anything from foxes to flies to birds.

    That is to say until the late 19th century when spiritism became all the rage and the draugur underwent a process of spiritification where it became increasingly less corporeal and more benign more like it’s colleagues on the continent.

    There is one story about a particularly stubborn female ghost that was put down by driving metal spikes into the hands and feet. Unfortunately this didn’t work and the haunting continued only now the ghost, angrier than ever before, would crawl around on her elbows and knees when terrorizing people in the night.

    Another story tells of a boy who was walking down by the shore when he happened upon skeletal human remains that had washed ashore. As he came closer to examine them the skeleton suddenly sprung up and began to chase the boy around. Eventually the draugr was subdued and given a proper burial in hollowed ground but it continued to escape its grave and haunt the boy. The boy, desperate and terrified, went to and old man who told him that the only way to get rid of the haunting for good was to drive two spikes into the grave, one one the top and one on the bottom, and then dig a hole into the exact center between them and defecate into it. He did so and was never plagued by the skeleton again.

Leave a Reply

Store Link

Help Support the Podcast