Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 19 – John Humphreys

November 22, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (11)

M.R. James by Alisdair WoodThis episode Mike & Will examine John Humphreys. No, not the newsreader, the unfinished story draft by M.R. James!

The most complete version of the manuscript, as transcribed by Rosemary Pardoe, can be read online at the Ghosts & Scholars Website.

Big thanks for the readings goes to Kirsty W… no wait, Kirsty Taylor! Also thanks to Alisdair Wood to the excellent M.R. James image to the right. Don’t forget to check out his T-shirts at

Show notes:

Also, we’d love to hear what you think about this story! Get in contact via Facebook, Twitter, Email or in the comments section below.



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  1. RogerBW says:

    “et si ambulavero” is translated to “though I walk”, not “I will fear no evil” – that part would be “non timebo malum”. So I don’t think this really works as a countercharm, unless James is aiming to refer to the whole passage, and certainly his educated audience would have been likely to recognise it.

    What I think is most remarkable about this story is its very fine portrait of panic and despair, something I haven’t come across elsewhere in James’ writing.

    I’m slightly reminded of the opening chapter of Georgette Heyer’s The Toll-Gate, where a bunch of characters are introduced who are never heard of again; the original plan was to have one of the cousins plotting to do in the hero, but there wasn’t room for this strand as the plot developed. In those pre-word-processor days, a wholesale revision was a very major effort – and I’m thinking that James may have given up on this as a single story when he realised he could get more out of it, and rather than try to revise this specific framework he just pulled out the ideas as he wrote other stories. So I think the answer to your question, “how would it have ended”, is – as we see in those other stories that grew out of it.

  2. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I can’t be the only one who likes hearing people’s dreams, can I?

    This was an interesting one, guys, shame it was never finished. I really liked the idea of seeing human figures that turn out to be mundane shapes, could have went something terribly ominous. But it does seem like he took a ton of ideas he liked from his other stories (or ideas for other stories) and just threw them in a bag and shook it up. But clearly, there was some serious s**t going down, definitely someone trying to get him out with dark magics. I think they were haunting him by screwing around with his perception to drive him mad or to suicide.

    I’m thinking maybe Humphreys and his friend were going to somehow set up some defence against increasingly terrible hauntings that would end in some massive hideous apparition that they’d defeat but leave Humphrey’s scarred.

    Also, on the subject of staying in touch, have you guys thought about making a forum as a general hub to discuss everthing? Is the listenership high enough to warrant one?

    And M.R. James needs some good black metal treatment, starting with that quote! I can imagine the band would be called Rune Caster with a few songs dedicated to Count Magnus.

  3. David R says:

    Is it just me or does the references at the start of the story of walking and the Vale (effectively valley?) and meeting inanimate objects that look like people through tricks of the light (shadows) are meant to tie in with the Shadow of Death theme? Also if the manor is the place where Humphreys grew up is there any significance to the half remembered plate (from childhood?) with the full quote on it? Also, as you’ve pointed out the matter of inheritance seems important, but annother thing that may be significant – if the ownership of the manor is a hereditary thing is there any significance to the difference in name with the previous owner as well as the uncertainty of an heir. Is this somehow a reference to Humphreys somehow being the last of a line, and possibly not the propper one (at least in the eyes of some malign forces) at that?

  4. Rich Johnson says:

    Well. I hadn’t heard or read this fragment before, and although you’re right in saying that it’s a bit of a jumble of ideas, those descriptions of the journey ‘beyond’ are memorably disturbing – and, yes, there is a suggestion of severe depression about them.

    I think the absence of a possible third party at the beginning is something that James would have redrafted – Karswell and Mr Humphrey’s uncle are mentioned at the outset of those stories. It may well be that the candidate for the malicious third party *has* been introduced, in the shape of the mysterious lady that has been seen about the grounds – particularly as she walks around “as if she owned the place.” The fact that objects are found suggests that she left them. I would hazard that her motives for wanting Mr Humphreys out of the house would be revealed later.

    I like the suggestion above that this third party believes itself to be the rightful heir. I think Mr Rowlands is off the mark in wondering about who would inherit the house next, rather than who feels they should have inherited it.

    There are, as you point out, a number of things that turn up in other stories, such as the post and the Irish yew; the envelope is strongly similar to the runes in that it’s innocently accepted by the recipient, taken into the house, and then irredemably burned.

    I would also say that the description of a man leaning over a gate and gazing at a fine, tranquil, Best-of-England landscape in the evening light before then going on to experience unpleasantly oppressive emotions in a field reminds me of ‘A Neighbour’s Landmark.’

  5. I really like the packet he finds; its contents are all nicely suggestive.

    The thread, at my guess, could be a reference to the Fates and the idea that a person’s life is a thread that Death cuts off. The idea that someone could wind up the thread of your life and put it in their pocket is rather chilling.

    The pins … I can think of two possibilities: either it’s the metal or the symbolism. If the pins are steel, it could be a cheap way of introducing some iron into the charm, iron being a traditional protection against magic, which you might imagine was a way of protecting the spell against being broken? A kind of pocket-sized horseshoe, maybe. Or else, they’re a kind of miniature nail, like the pins you’d drive into a fetish or symbolic of binding something to something else. Or of stabbing: miniature swords, perhaps, a kind of pocket-sized weapon.

    The leaves … Depends very much what tree they’re from. James refers to yew trees in ‘A School Story’, for instance – ‘quatuor taxos’ – which has a witchy history, and there’s a witchy yew tree here, so maybe they’re leaves from that tree? Maybe the leaves are what summoned the tree to come haunt the place?

    And the dust … well, who knows what was burned to powder to create that?!

    • Karen says:

      The colour of the thread could be important – there’s a tradition of hanging keys by red thread by doors to confuse the fairies, with the keys not being ones that match the locks, for example. If there are knots in the thread, we could be seeing the tradition of spells knotted in.

  6. Richard Leigh says:

    Re the description of the dream over the empty catalogue – I’m struck by how different this is to MRJ’s usual style.
    I wonder whether it was a (very) rough draft for a passage which he might have completely rewritten. His nightmares are so much better described in other stories -even in the unsatisfying “Two Doctors”.

  7. Tom Clare says:

    Perhaps you addressed this and cut it in the edit (or perhaps I missed it – I was hanging curtains while I listened), but M. R. James mentions a story with many of the same elements in ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’:

    “Then there was quite a long one about two undergraduates spending Christmas in a country house that belonged to one of them. An uncle, next heir to the estate, lived near. Plausible and learned Roman priest, living with the uncle, makes himself agreeable to the young men. Dark walks home at night after dining with the uncle. Curious disturbances as they pass through the shrubberies. Strange shapeless tracks in the snow round the house, observed in the morning. Efforts to lure away the companion and isolate the proprietor. Ultimate defeat and death of the priest, upon whom the Familiar, baulked of another victim, turns.”

    (What a wonderful last sentence). In this we have the…
    – Young man, owner of an estate;
    – Pal staying with same;
    – Friendly priest;
    – Summoned thing set upon proprietor.

    Of course the time of year is different and particular episodes are different, it has always struck me that one could be a draft of the other.

  8. Karen says:

    The envelope is carried into the house of the inhabitant’s free will, echoing the necessity of the acceptance of the papers in Casting The Runes. There is a whole tradition of harmful magic which requires the victim to freely accept the object in which the curse is embedded. The Wicker Man plays with this theme, and makes explicit that this is absolutely not about informed consent, as opposed to helpful magic which shouldn’t be done without the beneficiary’s consent.

  9. Ivy says:

    Regarding the contents of the envelope, the items sound a lot like the ingredients of a Witch Bottle. This obscure bit of British magic is protective in nature and involves filling a sealable container with assorted items such as thread, pins, rowan berries and hair or nail clippings and topping up with urine. It’s meant to ward off witches and defend against evil spells. The fact that the objects weren’t in a bottle perhaps suggests that the protection had been broken and removed.

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