Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 14 – Martin’s Close

June 17, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (24)

The New Inn, Sampford CourtenayIn this episode Mike and Will investigate strange goings on in 17th Century Devon in Martin’s Close by M.R. James.

Unrequited love, scoundrel squires, courtroom highjinx, bloody judges, amorous yokels and barbarous murder are all on the cards. It’s like The Archers, but even more horrible. Strap in!

Don’t forget to check out our Visit to Martin’s Close Video on YouTube.

Show notes:

Notes on Martin’s Close by Rosemary Pardoe (Ghosts and Scholars) Ghosts and Scholars remains the number #1 source for Jamesian scholarship, and these notes on Martin’s Close are essential reading.

Sampford Courtenay, Devon (Wikipedia)
In the intro to ‘Complete Ghost Stories’ (1931) James admitted that the village he had in mind for Martin’s Close was Sampford Courtenay in Devon. Sampford Courtenay is perhaps more famous for the Prayer Book Rebellion of 1549.

The New Inn at Sampford Courtenay (
The pub featured in Martin’s Close is a real place, a grade II listed old coaching inn originally build in the 16th Century. Also see Google Street View.

Judge George Jeffreys (Wikipedia)
The anti-hero of Martin’s Close is the famous ‘bloody judge’ George Jeffreys. Jeffreys was given the dubious honour of a 1970’s horror treatment in The Bloody Judge (1970) in which he is protrayed as a sadistic villain.  But was he really a bloody-handed executioner or much-maligned champion of justice? You can find out more at

Madam, Will You Walk? (
The love song which is given such a sinister twist in Martin’s Close is a real one. The tune and lyrics can be found here, or also on Also see YouTube for a rather nice Tin Whistle version under a different name.

A Source for Martin’s Close? by Murial Smith (Ghosts and Scholars)
As mentioned in the podcast, Murial Smith suggests that James may have taken inspiration for Martin’s Close from Annals of the Parish(1821) by John Galt which James is known to have read. Do have a look at the chapter for 1797 which has the story of Henry Malcombe and “poor haverel lassie Meg Gaffaw”, which might have inspired Monty to write ‘Martin’s Close’.

Was Ann Clark Pregnant? by Tina Rath (Ghosts and Scholars)
A controversial idea is set forward in this very interesting essay. James famously disapproved of sex in ghost stories, but the possibility that Ann Clark could be pregnant would certainly tie up a lot of loose ends in the story.

Thomas Gurney, Joseph Glanvill and John Dolben (Wikipedia)
Various minor names mentioned in Martin’s Close are those of real people. Thomas Gurney was an 18th Century courtroom shorthand writer. Joseph Glanvill was a 17th Century writer and philosopher who wrote a famous text on witchcraft. John Dolben was a 17th Century politician and barrister.

On the Care of the Dead by Augustine (Google Books)
Was Ann Clark an unholy vision, or divine vengeance? Monty namechecks Augustin’s letter On the Care of the Dead, which leaves both options open.

Red Barn Murders (Wikipedia)
We give the notorious 1827 ‘Red Barn Murders’ a mention during the podcast as an example where supernatural evidence has been presented in court.

The Spencer Cowper/ Sarah Stout (Newgate Calendar)
Another trial for murder from 1699 which bares some resemblance to the events of Martin’s Close. The son of the 2nd Baronet of Hertford was accused of murdering a young Quaker girl who had become infatuated with him.

Bonus video!

Camera in hand, Mike, Will and Kirsty head down to Devon to visit the real-world location of Martin’s Close…


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  1. GB Steve says:


  2. Stephanus Maximus says:

    So Judge Jeffries not such a bad old chap after all! On second thoughts…

    This show knocked it out of the ballpark (as our American cousins might be so bold as to venture)..great work as usual and a video to boot!! More video site visits please, time and petrol permitting.

    Looking forward to the next cast

  3. Jane says:

    Great podcast, as always. I’m so happy to learn that the New Inn an it’s sinister cupboard are real and still going strong. Hope I can pop in for a pint some day.

  4. RogerBW says:

    The traditional treatment of “naturals” in villages is very much separate from the treatment of mad people. The mad were regarded as dangerous; naturals were not. Every village had one (in the days before the bicycle allowed for outbreeding among the lower orders), and everyone knew that one had to look out for them – but an awful lot of village naturals had just one thing that they were really good at, as it might be shoeing horses or growing vegetables, and once it was found out what that was they could have happy lives doing the thing they enjoyed. I’m not saying it was perfect, but it was much closer to the “a bit dim, but still one of us” model than to the “mad, drive it away” model.

    Building on this, I find the pregnancy idea somewhat unconvincing – not completely implausible, but if any of the villagers had had any idea of that sort of thing going on the Squire would have had a series of nasty accidents until he changed his ways. These days we’d call it “inability to give informed consent”.

    I am also rather taken aback by Judge Jeffries as hero – particularly since the story doesn’t seem to require him, and one feels that any judge might have done. It’s a bit like Orczy’s Beau Brocade [1907], in which (in the aftermath of the ’45) our hero’s various travails are resolved by the Duke of Cumberland – Butcher Cumberland himself – turning up, being entirely willing to listen to our hero’s protestations of innocence, and sorting things out so that everyone has a happy ending.

    And yes, as GB Steve points out, it’s “hanged” when talking about the judicial punishment, “hung” in other contexts.

  5. A Rat In The Wall says:

    That weird feeling when one of the main characters has your family name…and another has the name of another family member and the other the name of a friend!

    Still, quite an entertaining podcast – I love your ramblings! That thing in the cupboard creeped me the hell out.

  6. Richard Leigh says:

    A great podcast, with plenty of new ideas and observations. I think that making Anne Clark a “natural” has the effect of making her even more vulnerable to the attentions of any man who showed an interest in her. I think the pregnancy theory’s pretty convincing, even if it is unlike James to acknowledge that such things happen!
    Incidentaly, on a pedantic note, there’s a misprint in the text of the story, in that God requites the blood of the innocent, and doesn’t require it – which would make no sense.

    Re Mr Humphries – I look forward to this. I’ve always felt that the rough draft, “John Humohries” is really good, and a very frustrating “might-have-been” in James’s work.

  7. RobP says:

    I was watching a TV docu about the East End this week which mentioned Judge Jeffreys. It seems he was arrested in the The Town of Ramsgate pub Wapping attempting to flee to France dressed as a sailor! He was put into the Tower, where he later died of natural causes.

    Needless to say his ghost has been spotted, I’m sure MRJ would approve 🙂

    Still enjoying the show!

  8. taratemima says:

    It seemed to me an oddly modern story, with or without the pregnancy. There is the issue of intimacy, love, and people with developmental disabilities. You could see Ann Clark following the squire as stalking, as well. Mind, no malice was involved; she just could get why someone who said he loved her now hates her. Of course, with the squire, he’s some dumb college kid who decided to have a little fun at someone’s expense, and went too far.

  9. Doug Bolden says:

    I’m not sure if I would go for pregnancy, but maybe I am considering a few details that would have been glossed over for the good of the story. Here are my three basic reasons against it:

    1) If she is a “natural”, she might not have understood early symptoms of pregnancy [then again, she might have known exactly what to look for…]. She was described as short and thick. Since at most 4.5 months had passed from their encounter, she would have been showing not at all, which probably out any of her family spotting it. It is, of course, possible that her status as a “natural” is slightly overstated for the purposes of the trial notes, to help spruce them up. Though second guessing the narrative in the narrative is more a Machen trick than a Jamesian one.

    2) Presumably had her family spotted it, they would have at least brought it up. Especially AFTER her death. Unless he is a Hammer Films sort of Squire, and then there would probably be some sort of ancient curse on his manor (and he would be played by Oliver Reed, and it would be amazing).

    3) If the pregnancy began somewhere around February of that year (or late January), then the baby would have been due only a short time before the trial. I mean, that’s built in “ghostly cries of an infant” right there. Since no ghost babies showed up during the trial, clutching or noose [and no ghostly baby cries drift across the moor], I’m guessing a child isn’t involved. Though James is probably gasping in his grave at this suggestion.

    However, the fact that she waited for him out away from her family (flapping arms was because she was standing around in the cold?), and the fact that *her* singing the song at him fills him with terror, I’ve interpreted it as him having sex with her, whether they had been having trysts the whole time [possibly even during the “he beat her and ignored her” stage, being part of the reason why she couldn’t understand why he was suddenly doing it] or he essentially had sex with her that one day in May and then killed her out of guilt or because he was afraid she would tell (which is how I go with it).

    With the variation of the song where the guy talks the girl into affection and then turns against it, I think this fits. Though of course, she doesn’t seem to be a vengeful ghost. She seems to just want to keep spending time with him, so maybe it was never sex at all and he just talked himself into killing her over time.

    As for the “Can there be a version where she is more normal, though maybe simple and dedicated”, I’d suggest the movie Shutter (the Thai version) presents this scenario as workable. One of the plot elements [this shows up later, so hopefully I’m not spoiling too much] involves a pretty, affectionate woman who seems to be just a little odd and clingy, and the guy she falls for goes cold on her after a bit, until things get tragic. And, in non-horror circles, there are dozens of movies where the rich/pretty boy goes after the ugly duckling and then ends falling for her, some turn up thrillers and some turn up romantic comedies.

  10. Stant says:

    So do you think there might be any chance that M.R. James was acquainted with the Erasmus Stribbling Trout Shue trial of 1897?

  11. Joyce says:

    One of my least favorite of the stories I’m familiar with yet (about half of the total). Something about the telling of this one makes it seem terribly anticlimactic to me. We know what’s happened almost from the very beginning, and though some macabre details get added, there is never a fundamental shift in our understanding, or even much of a crescendo of horror. “He killed her, and, uh, yup, he killed her. The end.” Where’s the Jamesian wallop?

    Re: hanged/hung, the story uses both:

    ‘Was he hung for it?’ ‘Yes, sir, he was hung just up yurr on the roadway….’

    … sentence of death was passed upon him, and that he should be hanged in chains upon a gibbet….

    Tomato, tomahto, let’s call the whole thing off. 🙂

  12. Richard Leigh says:

    A further thought, after listening again to the podcast. You discuss the possibility of a radio or TV adaptation. I think that, depressingly, a consequence of the Jimmy Savile saga is that a story about a celebrity getting off with a woman with learning difficulties would be MOST unwelcome, just now. Also- did I imagine it, or was Savile buried sitting upright?

  13. Michael Cule says:

    The line about ‘starting like a player who sees a ghost’ reminds me of a moment in the novel TOM JONES where the hero takes his manservant to see the great actor David Garrick as Hamlet and the manservant is distinctly unimpressed by Garrick’s naturalistic style:

    “He the best player! Why, I could act as well as he myself! I am sure, if I had seen a ghost, I should have looked in the very same manner, and done just as he did…. I know you are only joking with me; but indeed, madam, though I never was at a play in London, yet I have seen acting before in the country; and the King for my money; he speaks all his words distinctly, half as loud again as the other. Anybody may see he is an actor.”

  14. Karen says:

    The issue of a learning disabled woman being too difficult to portray sensitively is something that’s being addressed by Act For Change, a grassroots organisation challenging the dismal combination of lack of training, casting, and reasonable roles for actors and crew who are women, members of ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, and/or have disabilities. Writers and directors CAN create non-exploitative roles for people with disabilities, it’s just a case of wanting to. Here we have a great – and very timely – role for a learning disabled actor if writers and directors could be bothered putting the effort in.

  15. Martin Closer says:

    On Sunday coming, 25 Feb 2018, on 4 Extra there will be a 30 minute play of Martin’s Close first broadcast on the Home Service Basic on 20 August 1963. I wouldn’t be surprised if this was the first ever repeat of this play.

  16. Jibran Shaikh says:

    Having written a story where a poor girl gets justice by her murderer being punished by death, M R James doesn’t look like much of a misogynist, quite contradictory what was discussed in previous podcasts

  17. […] Behind the immediate bustle of the story, with its ghostly to-ing and fro-ing, lies the sinister mystery of the relationship between the carefree young Squire George Martin and the “natural” […]

  18. Martin Closer says:

    re Simon Williams

    The wikipedia page for The Blood on Satan’s Claw film mentions that Gatiss also featured in a spoken word adaptation of the film released by Audible.

  19. Martin Closer says:

    oops, comment above in wrong thread!

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