Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

Download our free eBook

Episode 13 – The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

May 22, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (23)

Cat CarvingChurch matters concern Will and Mike this episode as they don their literary cassocks and plant their proverbial buttocks upon ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ by M.R. James.

Snow notes:

  • The Double Shadow Podcast (
    An exciting new podcast dedicated to American M.R. James admire Clark Ashton Smith.
  • M.R. James performances by the Nunkie Theatre Company (
    Nunkie Theatre Company has announced another run of performances based on M.R. James stories performed by the grand panjandrum and actor Robert Lloyd Parry. He will be invoking a pleasing terror in audiences throughout the UK between July and December. Don’t miss!
  • The Stalls of Barchester (1971 TV version – wikipedia)
    This story has been dramatised for the screen only once, back in 1971, as the first installment ofย  BBC television’s classic ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ series. The series is finally being given the DVD treatment this year by the BFI.
  • Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire (wikipedia)
    Was M.R. James’s Barchester based on the identically-named cathedral town which features heavily in a series of books by Anthony T? Or is that just a load of old Trollope?
  • The Gentlemen’s Magazine (wikipedia)
    In this story Archdeacon Haynes’s obituary is said to have featured in the Gentleman’s magazine, which ran between 1731 and 1922.
  • Sir George Gilbert Scott (wikipedia)
    The cathedral in James’s story is said to have been redesigned by Sir Gilbert Scott. James was not a fan of the rather radical changes which architects like Scott inflicted on English churches during the 19th century.
  • The Friar of Orders Grey (
    Haynes’s description of the choir stalls describes one as appearing like a ‘friar of orders grey’. This is a nod to a popular folk ballad about a bawdy Franciscan friar.
  • St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle (BBC Website)
    The ornate carvings described in this story could have been inspired by the misericords at a chapel in Windsor, near Eton where James spent much of his life. He went on to write a book about them in 1933 – ‘St Geroge’s Chapel, Windsor: The Woodwork of the choir’.
  • Warnings to the Curious (
    In this episode we mention various essays which appear in the excellent ‘Warnings to the Curous’, including essays by John Alfred Taylor and Steven J. Mariconda.

Tags: , , , , , , ,


  1. priit says:

    I’d say this is one of his better works. Specially the part where the days start to get shorter and the anxiety kicks in. Its like you almost could feel the shadow coming over yourself when reading it. Great stuff!

  2. Kim says:

    Glad to see another episode up! I am not a particularly voracious podcast consumer, but of all the ones I have followed, yours is my favorite. Aside from the intrinsic enjoyability of the subject matter, I love the — dialogue? cross-play? interchange? banter? between you two. The only thing I object to is the built-in termination date, when you run out of MRJ stories to review ๐Ÿ™

  3. Stephanus Maximus says:

    After MR could move onto Algernon Blackwood…!

  4. delbert says:

    Looking forward to Martins Close…probably my favorite story.

  5. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I was thinking that the fact the sculptures were oak might mean something, as oak was sacred to the druids. That pagan element creeping in.

    Can’t wait for Martin’s Close after what you guys said!

  6. James Barrett says:

    I was relistening to this episode, when it occurred to me that there’s a problem with Austin’s 1699 dream and Haynes 1817(?) death being on the same day of the year, 26 February. England switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar in 1752, so unless supernatural forces are subject to such human conventions, Haynes should have died on 10 March. I would have thought James would be aware of this, as it must have affected the dating of many of the things he studied.

    • Will Ross says:

      That’s a really interesting point, good spot! Sheila Hodgson wrote a really good radio play in the James style called ‘The Lodestone’, the denouement of which hinges on the difference between the Julian and Gregorian calendars. Wonder if she had spotted the same inconsistency that you did?

  7. Guy Garrud says:

    Just a thought on the “There is no kitchen cat” line.

    I’d always inferred this as a statement that the Arch Deacon knew the cat he was seeing was supernatural, i.e. he has investigated the possibility that the cat could belong to one of the servants, and found that there was none. Rather than denying that there is a cat, this seems to me to be more of a creeping acknowledgement of what he’s experiencing, which I felt fits in rather well with the other little acknowledgments he makes to hearing voices etc.

    • Karen says:

      Weren’t cats very closely associated with witchcraft and demonology even then?

    • Rich Johnson says:

      Yes, I agree with this. It’s a payoff to the previous (apparently throwaway) observation that the cat is probably the kitchen cat. Now he’s seeing the cat still – and he knows there isn’t one. I think it’s a brilliantly economical piece of writing as it instantly recalls that first mention and tells you so much about how the Archdeacon is feeling.

  8. I have a theory on the dream message, more the thing that occurred to me the first time I read it.

    No carver ever actually tucked that note into the statuette. The note was “written” by the tree itself, within its wooden flesh. The signature is the name of one of its sacrificial or executed victims.

  9. Richard Leigh says:

    Re-reading Cox’s biography, I was struck by MRJ’s utter inability to be idle. Apart from the period at Cambridge when he really was rushed off his feet, he seems to have been an obsessive multi-tasker all his life. His frantic need to catalogue things, together with his apparent dread of reason (“No thinking, gentlemen!”) seem to point to some underlying emptiness, perhaps associated with his failure to join the clergy when younger. Perhaps this gives an added urgency to his portrayal of the villain of Barchester.

  10. Richard Leigh says:

    Further thought. I wonder about the circumstances of the murder. Was Jane Lee instructed to misplace the stair-rod, or did Haynes do it himself, and subsequently blame her? Either way, I can’t see how she could have blackmailed him. It would be her word against his, after all.

    • Karen says:

      Perhaps a whispering campaign against an eminent clergyman, even if orchestrated by a maid with a tarnished reputation, would be enough to bring him down? It might depend on how well he’d ingratiated himself with his parishioners and the church hierarchy, and we hear that he’d had various wranglings with those who stood in the way of his modernising plans.

    • Berry Teddy says:

      I took it that he isn’t evil. I guess I found him more sympathetic. And in fact the whole story is really about his guilt. I assume if push came to shove he would break down immediately like a blubbering fool. Like a kid who stole a pack of gum.

  11. Richard Leigh says:

    There’s another possible source for “Friar of Orders gray”:
    in Percy’s “Reliques of Ancient English Poetry” – an anthology quite popular in MRJ’s day – there’s a poem of the same name which is a collection of quotations from Shakespeare strung together with verses of Percy’s own invention. Many of them are from Ophelia’s mad song. I can’t see anything in Ophelia’s words which might be relevant to the story; but I think Percy is a more likely source of MRJ’s quotation.

  12. Joe says:

    This is a great story, and I found the BBC adaptation quite good, one of my favorites. Robert Hardy is, as usual, masterful. He has very few lines but fully inhabits the part just through his movements and expressions.

  13. Jibran Shaikh says:

    Another great discussion on M. R. James story. I would like to thanks you guys for clearing some doubts I had when I read the story (actually just before listening to this podcast, now you know how excited I am for your podcast)
    And another special thanks to Kirsty Woodfield for reading ‘with punctuation’.
    This story is most horrifying until now in the series to me.

  14. Jibran Shaikh says:

    A question to Mike, Will and rest of the audience in comment section:
    Why didn’t Haynes destroy the blackmailing letter sent by the maid , if on findings of it can implicate him?

  15. Jack Montgomery says:

    I don’t understand the significance of asking his friend what colour the maid’s clothes are and that the reply ” white or grey” seems very significant and ominous.

    • Ann Whiteaker says:

      I think it indicates that he’s not only being haunted by the cat. The figure of death, the figurine of which he initially mistook for a friar, is also walking the stairs and hallway. Maybe that’s who asks “may I come in”. This is definitely one of James’s best stories in my view.

  16. Ann Whiteaker says:

    This is one of my favourite M R James stories. I’ve read all of them many times and once I was familiar with the stories I became very conscious of and impressed by the way James’ writing mirrored the style, where appropriate, of the period when the stories were set. For example, the obituary notice at the start of this story.

Leave a Reply

Store Link

Help Support the Podcast