Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 23 – The Fenstanton Witch

February 21, 2013 | Episodes | Comments (16)

Fenstanton Village SignIn this episode Will and Mike travel back in time to the early 18th century to examine some diabolical goings on in rural Cambridgeshire in M.R. James’s ‘The Fenstanton Witch‘.

Show notes:


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  1. RogerBW says:

    A good stew of thin meat, I think – as you say, this is a pretty straightforward by-the-numbers approach to a horror story, and I’m not surprised that James didn’t feel it was good enough to be published. I think one has to read for the atmosphere, and let oneself be carried along, rather than delving into details and meanings as one would perhaps prefer to do.

  2. lachlan says:

    This story is also available in “The Haunted Dolls House and other Ghost Stories”.The Penguin 2006 edition with notes and introduction by S.T. Joshi .

  3. B. Sullivan says:

    Really love your map/Monty’s World project – have decided to happily blame you for the several hours I spent looking at various satellite views and checking wikipedia for history on various places and houses. But thank you for spending the time putting that together – it’s especially fun to track the sites of the stories.

    Also who was the Arthur Grey that was mentioned in the first part of the podcast? (Or am I missing him somewhere in a link?)

    • Mike says:

      Hi! Glad you like Will’s map, it does look awesome. If it helps, I guess you’ve saved time by not needing to drive to those places…

      Arthur Gray was Master of Jesus College and wrote antiquarian ghost stories under the name Ingulphus. Our very own reader Hamish did the design and type setting for the republished Oleander Press edition a few years ago – well worth a look!

  4. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I actually love the creature in this story. It kind of reminds me of the beastie from the Mothman legend, although I see the Toho monster resemblance! Godzilla vs. The Fenstanton Demon!

    I think, had James taken this story and re-wrote it later, ironed it out and changed the characters to students, it would have been a far more solid story, although it would become rather too reminiscent of Lovecraft’s ‘The Houd’.

  5. Laurence Cornford says:

    The BBC play “Turn, Trun, Turn” was re-broadcast on Radio7 (aka Radio4extra) over Christmas (together with “Echoes From The Abbey”), and so it might turn up again in their cycle? The broadcast tapes are lost, I believe (like much of British radio), but a good quality off-air recording was used (remastered) and sound pretty good considering, better than copies I’d previously heard. I don’t know if there’s a big enough market for a commercial release however. I think they have very few of the broadcast tapes left, so would have to reply on off-air copies for most of the plays.

  6. Tom says:

    Regarding the Flickr photos from Fenstanton, I initially thought that photo of Will by the gravestone was Gok Wan!

  7. Delbert73 says:

    Hi Chaps
    I enjoyed this podcast – not the best James story but I do have a slight affinity to it because it is the only one which mentions Kent, where I am from.
    In regard to the conventional demon, though I agree this does have the feel of an early attempt at writing, I’ve always thought James may have used the conventional look and description because it appropriate to the contemporary accounts and descriptions (for example in the old woodcuts). Did James in fact describe what people of the time were saying they saw?

    Just a thought

  8. Tom says:

    Maybe you could hire Gok, what with all the fame and money that comes from podcasting!

  9. optionfour says:

    Dear Will & Mike, thank you for another enjoyable podcast! (*^^*)/

    You mentioned Sheila Hodgson made this story into a radio-play. While I haven’t heard this (how I wish the BBC would re-release it!), I have read the short story version, which she also wrote. It’s called “The Turning Point”, and I’m wondering if either of you might also have read it?

    If not, you absolutely must! It’s in her book “The Fellow Travellers”, which is a whole collection of stories she wrote based on the ideas in “Stories I Have Tried to Write”. I can’t say the stories are as beautifully creepy as some of James’, but they have their own unsettling charm. At least, I liked them (^^)

    Amazon has it as an e-book:

    Please check if you haven’t read it! And feel free to share with the podcast, too.

    Oh… I also wanted to tell you, I really like the music at the beginning of this episode. I’m not sure if WIll also composed it, but it’s so nice!

    • optionfour says:

      Omg… I am so sorry! (>_<)

      Just after posting my previous comment, I realised you had already introduced "Stories I have Tried to Write" before! Sorry about that!

      Looking forward to the next episode (*^^)/

  10. Richard Leigh says:

    I agree with you about the giant bat – it’s pretty ridiculous, compared to MRJ’s other horrors. I also think that the story is too full of detail, not all of it relevant. I can’t see what the man being dragged off “whither he would not” is doing there, apart from being a foretaste of Baxter. As for the precise nature of the relationship between the two very strange clerical chaps – I’m not one to gossip, but I wonder if it was ever the practice for two scholars to share a room. Also: I’m rather vague about the workings of universities in those days, so I can’t figure out what duties the two of them would have had. Teaching? Research? Or just general skulking about?

  11. Karen says:

    Might the Fellows have decided that the pair had suffered for their sins? Might not the guy who was eventually ordained make a good priest, being now highly motivated to stick to the straight and narrow and knowing what to look for in cases of potential diabolism? In this case, he may feel that his ministry is a lifelong act of repentance.

    I’ve never heard the term “art magic” – is this ceremonial magic, as opposed to folk magic?

    The scene of the captive being hauled off reminds me of Tam Lin, in which Tam is being taken to Hell by the fairies as part of their 7-year tithe.

  12. MarkB says:

    A few thoughts… I suspect the ‘sweet smell’ usage was ironic, like the reference to the demons carrying the man off as ‘gentry.’

    Regarding ‘many such men in Germany,’ our podcast hosts may not know – and James probably did know – that in Germany, a much higher proportion of convicted witches were men than in Britain. I believe it was over half.

    Finally, a general comment. In Britain, many charged with witchcraft and magic with intent to harm (not necessarily witchcraft) were acquitted. While locals with sick cows liked to blame the nearest older woman, judges were often skeptical. I highly recommend Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas. A big book, with chapters on cunning men and wise women, astrology, witches and legal changes, etc. I’ve learned that the association of witchcraft with devil pacts and sabbath meetings actually came late in history. Far more common over time were things like the evil eye and interference with marriage/procreation. And finding lost treasure, which shows up in a James story.

  13. MarkB says:

    Is this the story that includes a night burial? If so – night burials are mentioned in Diamaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. Apparently, the Reformation brought about a rejection of purgatory – which ruled out both ghosts and the effectiveness of prayer for the dead. As a result, cemeteries were moved out of towns, and night burials were carried out. This seems to have been common in the German lands, and Calvin requested burial with no ceremony or memorial. Later, in England, in order to distinguish themselves. the upper classes began holding night burials for their dead, with torchlight parades.

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