Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 12a – Casting the Runes

April 26, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (28)

Casting the Runes - It's in the trees! It's coming!Join Mike & Will as they delve into Brian Blessed’s beard, the truth of alchemy, diabolical magic lantern shows and class war in the first of our two-part extravaganza on M.R. James’s chilling story ‘Casting the Runes’!
Our reader for this episode is Mr Torion Bowles.

Show notes:


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  1. optionfour says:

    Another wonderful episode! I seriously adore this podcast so much (*^^*) And this one is really special to me, because it’s the first story of M.R. James I ever read. I can’t wait for Part.2! And in the meantime, I’m so excited you now have a shop. Can’t decide which item to buy!

    Ahh, Karswell really does seem like Aleister Crowley! It’s such a pity if M.R. James and Crowley never actually got to meet each other. (Or maybe, considering the latter’s reputation, it’s better…) I remember reading a quote from a contemporary of James’ at King’s – I’m pretty sure this was at Ghosts & Scholars, though I’ve forgotten exactly where – saying Crowley was one of the few truly interesting people of his era. I’m not sure if “interesting” is quite the right word for a man who did such a horrible thing to a goat, but… he certainly stood out from the crowd, and it would have been fascinating to hear what James thought of him if they’d met. And the whole story about Crowley and the mountaineering society is just too funny!

    You asked everybody’s three favourite stories ~ these are mine:
    1) Count Magnus (The reason why I never ever want to go to Sweden (x_x))
    2) A School Story / Casting the Runes (I really honestly can’t choose. The little details that stick in your mind’s eye after the light goes out are equally creepy)
    3) An Evening’s Entertainment (I so cannot wait for the podcast of this!)

    Wah, my comment became way too long again… I’m sorry (;_;) Thank you again so much for always making such amazing podcasts. I really look forward to the next episode!

    • Will Ross says:

      Thanks for your kind comments, we really appreciate them! I’d also have loved to hear James’s take on Aleister Crowley (I’m guessing Not A Fan!). Thanks for letting us know your favourites, I’m interested to see ‘An Evenings Entertainment’ in there, it seems to get overlooked a lot but it’s one that I’m really looking forward to researching for the podcast as it is deliciously weird and nasty (even a bit kinky perhaps?).

      • optionfour says:

        Oh, you’re most welcome! (^^) Yes, somehow I don’t think he would have been too fond of Crowley… at the very least, he probably would have had a few choice words about his writings. (Speaking of which, didn’t he once refer to H.P. Lovecraft’s style as “apalling” or something? I can’t remember his exact words, but it was pretty funny!)

        “An Evening’s Entertainment” deserves more love (;_;) The delicious weirdness is exactly why I adore it so much! I’ve always been fascinated with druidic imagery, which James somehow manages to transform into something exquisitely creepy. And now that you mention it, it IS a bit kinky (o_o) Shocking, even! Especially if you bring in the whole “homosexual panic” angle… In any case, I can’t wait to hear your commentary on it!

  2. Nick C says:

    Most enjoyable, as ever. A couple of points; The 70s adaptation of Casting the Runes was filmed in a snowy Leeds, my hometown. Despite being a rather un-Jamesian setting, the use of the University’s Brotherton library for the slipping of the curse and the disused St Mark’s Church as Karswell’s home are quite effective.
    Secondly, Muriel Gray, who some will remember as a presenter on 80s music show The Tube, wrote a novel inspired by (rather than based on) Casting the Runes. It’s called Furnace and I believe that it’s now out of print, but on the whole is worth tracking down. The setting is even further away from rural Warwickshire than Leeds is.
    My favourite James stories
    1. A View from a Hill
    2. Oh, Whistle…
    3. Casting the Runes
    Honourable mention to A School Story

    • Will Ross says:

      Thank Nick, the info on Leeds is really interesting. I had no idea where it was filmed, and this gives me and Mike a new destination for our on-going M.R. James site-seeing tour! Is St Mark’s Church still in the state it was in during the filming?
      I haven’t heard of the Muriel Grey book, I’ve have to see if eBay or ABEbooks can come up with a copy!

  3. RobP says:

    Hi chaps

    Really enjoying the podcast! Thanks for that info about the MRJ plays – I live in Bedford so will definitely be going to see that! I visit Cambridge a fair bit so must take in some of the MRJ sites some time

    You mentioned Hound of the Baskervilles – you probably know this already but Conan Doyle is said to have based it partly on the legend of legend of Richard Cabell (Devon) but also the tales of Black Shuck – he was a frequent visitor to Suffolk by all accounts! There seems to be a huge amount of ghostly stories / hauntings in East Anglia, then again the Fens do have their own unique atmosphere

    Another aside – my band The Von Nitros (based in Cambridge) has an MRJ dedicated song, You Haunt Me. Just a rough demo version up at the moment

    but we are scouting locations to do a suitable atmospheric video shoot in the near future….

    Keep up the good work!


  4. Karswell says:

    Great podcast! You guys have done for M.R. James what Chris & Chad have done for H.P. Lovecraft – created a podcast worthy of his stories.
    Speaking of Lovecraft, I’m not sure I’d use the term ‘weird fiction’ to describe James’ stories. ‘Ghost Stories’ was what James called them, though I realise it’s a somewhat old fashioned term.
    ‘Horror stories’ has the opposite problem of being too modern (at least I dont beleive it was the assumed name for the genre that it is today.) Perhaps ‘dark tales’ or ‘supernatural tales’ would work?

    Regarding the ‘big three’, I think you’ve certainly hit on the most iconic tales. However my choice of favourites would have to be:
    1) Casting the Runes
    2) An Evening’s Entertainment (talk about unusual territory for an M.R. James story!)
    3) Lost Hearts

    What I find chilling in each of these 3 stories is the presence of a flesh & blood villain (Karswell, Mr. Davis, Uncle Abney) who delves into the powers of darkness. They just seem more of a tangible threat than the ghosts/vengeful spirits of James’ other tales.

    Anyway, looking forward to future episodes!

    • Will Ross says:

      The ‘weird fiction’/’ghost stories’ thing was something that me and Mike argued about quite a bit back last summer when we were starting out. I can’t quite remember why ‘weird fiction’ won out in the end, I think perhaps because we see M.R. James as bridging the gap between the Victorian ‘ghost story’ (which had actual ghosts in it) and the more modern upstarts like Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith who were influenced by James. Possibly also because if you call them ‘ghost stories’ there are dozens of people waiting to point out that there are hardly any actual ghosts in James’s stories, just lots of demons! ‘Supernatural tales’ is probably the most accurate description of the stories. Is it too late to change out tag-line? 😉

  5. Stephanus Maximus says:

    Hello Chaps! I just chanced upon your podcasts whilst looking around on the intertubes and I must say its a great find! I will be tuning in religiously from now on…

    A note re the habit of James’ wehere he omits place names. Its seems a commonplace thing (Poe uses this device) for written accounts of 18th/19thC memoirs etc to omit names..even dates out of a sense of ‘delicacy’ misplaced or otherwise. Perhaps James is using it as an atmospheric device. For me, it works. It seems to add an extra air of mystery..uncertainty even. It could be YOUR district…

    It’s a device still used in Japan (especially in true haunting accounts eg. In X city of B district, Mr. A saw a peculiar thing hopping in Y street near the grocery store of Mr. P…sort of thing)

    Keep up the Creepiness!!


    • Will Ross says:

      I agree that omiting the names can add to the air of mystery about the stories, but if he is doing it for the sake of delicacy I find he is sometimes weirdly inconsistent about what and when he withholds. Sometimes he will put in real-world detail that surprises me and at other times he will leave stuff out for no reason I can tell. James strikes me as really methodical so I am sure there is a method to his madness!

      But thanks for the comment, really glad you are enjoying the podcast!

      • Stephanus Maximus says:

        It is also quite plausible that its an affectation. I am sure he came across many such records in his own research of old manuscripts or rather accounts of manuscripts and gazetteers old places long forgotten in in England where the name is perhaps in doubt or no longer available. The manuscripts he would have looke at in the libraries and collections of Cambridge and Oxford and for that matter parish records are sadlu unlike himself in that they are inconsistent with names and tiltes – something that he may be refelecting with this on/off usage

      • Marcia says:

        It’s possible he was occasionally just lazy and didn’t want to think up a name.

  6. Stephanus Maximus says:

    BTW forgot my top 3..

    1) Number 13

    2) Lost Hearts

    3) A View From a Hill

  7. bertie24 says:

    How about… M R James’ Tales of Unease? Just a suggestion. Been following the podcast since January and am still loving it. Your posts are a genuine highlight which I look forward to enjoying and having a giggle at your amusing comments. I looked up the H P Lovecraft podcast after you guys mentioned it & although it’s more elaborate and “out there” than this site, I think this one benefits by being simpler and easier to access, so don’t change anything!
    My top three:
    1)treasure of abbot thomas
    2) the mezzotint
    3) number 13

  8. Mike says:

    Listener Ecgbert has mailed me an interesting snippet re Crowley and Karswell, tying in two other literary greats:

    “You may be interested to hear that Alan Moore has weighed into the “Is Karswell Crowley?” debate via his “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 1910″ graphic novel. One of the characters the heroes confront is a Dr Karswell Trelawney of Stonedene and Lufford in Warwickshire, otherwise known as Oliver Haddo. Haddo is a character in a novel by Somerset Maugham called The Magician and published in 1908. Crowley was convinced that the villain in that novel was meant to be him and was not flattered. Given that it precedes Casting the Runes by three years, perhaps James was indeed having a joke at Crowley’s expense.”

    • Ecgbert says:

      Professor Dunning still lives on in fictional form. He’s one of the main characters in the comedy-supernatural-scifi drama series THE SCARIFYERS (often broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra).

      The first ever adventure, THE NAZAD CONSPIRACY, is a clear homage to CASTING THE RUNES, with a demon from Russian folklore being summoned up. Dunning in this show is a version of James himself and Aleister Crowley turns up as a comic turn. Think James meets Buchan via a nodding acquaintance with H P Lovecraft and that should give you the flavour of the series as a whole.

  9. Katherine says:

    ‘Ringu’ can be considered another notable adaptation/re-imagining of ‘Casting the Runes’. It’s particularly Jamesian in that the central conceit of the death-dealing video serves as a ‘warning to the curious’; as in many of James’ stories (and horror fictions in general) the victims are subtextually *complicit* in their fate owing to their hubristic ‘overreaching’ or acquisition of forbidden/unnatural knowledge. Also, it adds another turn of the screw in that victims have to pass on the contagion to *any* uninfected (and presumably often entirely innocent) party in order to survive, in contrast to the more traditionally just/happy resolution of the original.
    By the way, I recently discovered the podcast and have been rapidly devouring episodes ever since. Your insightful comments and background information on James’ stories often make me completely rethink my earlier evaluations and interpretations, and the podcast is consistently amusing and enlightening. I will be bereft once I exhaust the backlog of older episodes!

  10. Excellent stuff;nice detail.Casting the Runes is one of my top favourites,along with the Barchester Stalls & Oh Whistle….

  11. T Hall says:

    Excellent program.
    Libre vox offers a remarkably fine reading of “Casting The Runes” by one Kat Matfield.
    I wish I could hire her to record all the James stories. I think it would be a remarkable collection.

  12. Jenny says:

    Like a couple of folks above, I would definitely count Number 13 in my top 3; I think this is because I first read it when I was 13, so I have a soft spot for it (and the numeric coincidence is just a pleasing extra)

    I always found the omission of names (in James’ stories and others) a bit disorienting – I quite like to assign names to characters in my mind when I’m reading. I always had the impression it was done to add mystery (as mentioned above – as in, this story is so heinously horrific that I can’t even mention names) but I always found it a wee bit off-putting!

    Anyway…..wonderful, amazing podcast – I’m working my way through them all currently 🙂

  13. Richard Leigh says:

    Great to see THE advert for Pyretic Saline. I must confess, however, that the endorsement from the LATE King of Denmark is less than reassuring.

  14. Joyce says:

    Maybe Karswell got off lightly with his rejection letter from the Association. I just ran across a sizeable quote from the Royal Society of London’s reply to a 1676 letter from pioneering microscopist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and it’s pretty over-the-top! The quote appears toward the beginning of the article here.

  15. […] fiction M. R. James. (a great podcast discussing this seminal short story can be heard at: […]

  16. Marcia says:

    Random derivation: the US cartoon Extreme Ghostbusters did an episode that is based on this, loosely. You get tossed a runic stone by a bad guy and if you are dumb enough to catch it, you go to hell.
    And PS jiangshi are Chinese hopping ghosts. They’re really more like vampires of zombies but in essence they’re reanimated corpses that suck blood and move by hopping. I got chills the first time I read about the horrid hopping thing all in white dodging among the trees because I instantly thought of jiangshi. They also have long fingernails they can flay you with, which came up in Lost Hearts so I of course wonder if these were James’ inspiration.

  17. Saklani says:

    All talks about US hiking end up about being chased by bears… well, I guess we do encounter bears more than a few times if we go hiking in our wilder places. A shame there are no more bears in the UK. I’ve met a few black bears in my time. They’re awesome.

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