Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 29 – A View from a Hill

September 2, 2013 | Episodes | Comments (19)

A View from a Hill by Alisdair WoodThis episode Mike and Will whip out their podcasting binoculars and peer through them at ‘A View from a Hill by M.R. James.

This episode we are very lucky to have actor Scott Wichman (@scottwichmann) as our reader! Scott is starring as comedian George Burns in “Say Goodnight, Gracie” at the Virginia Rep later this month: do check that out if you can!  His co-producer Ryan Corbett – who wrote all the music and edited Scott’s readings – runs ‘Songwire‘ studios, in Richmond, VA.

Big thanks once again to Alisdair Wood for providing the great illustration to the right. Check out his new set of MR James postcards, which will soon be available on his store.

Do check out our photos of the very spooky Coombe Gibbet on flickr.

Snow notes:


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  1. RogerBW says:

    I confess that I am inclined to regard this as James on the down-slope, something many authors are prone to — the good idea is there (in this case the conceit of the binoculars filled with distilled bones), but the flesh that should go on those bones, the effect of writerly craft, I find rather lacking. I picture him thinking “five pages in… give ’em a scare… a dream will do it”. The hand turning hairy feels like a horror-film cliché, even though this publication was ten years before the first filmed anthromoporphic werewolf in Werewolf of London. It feels at times as though he’s going through the motions.

    Still, poor James is better than no James!

  2. mark says:

    Couldn’t disagree more. I love the Idea of being able to see into the past and how can you accuse uim of being on the downslope when there’s rats and warning to the curioys to come?

  3. Matt says:

    It falls into that set of James stories that have some creepy elements but which are not particularly scary, but as M&W point out, it has some nice ideas.

    I thought the BBC adaptation was pretty good, especially if the budget was that small, but by adding more generic “Jamesian” elements becomes a little characterless. I got the feeling the makers would have preferred to make one of James more effective tales but due to the budget and the fact that the most well known had already been done (Count Magnus aside but which would require money for good effects) they settled on this more modest tale.

    With reference to the binoculars themselves, I think the key is the “blood sacrifice” that Fanshawe inadvertently makes. All supernatural qualities of the item are awoken by this I think and while taking them into a church removes the power to see the past, it does not remove all their evil history and power as evidenced by Fanshawes experience at Gallows Hill and the liquids deadly effects on plant life.

  4. A Rat In The Wall says:

    This might not be a powerhouse of a story, but it’s got some damn creepy elements. The necromantic binoculars are a damn cool idea and that forest scene is absolutely perfect in terms of creepiness. Even the hairy hand dream is great in a way, because it doesn’t want to grab you or claw you, it just wants to shake hands – that’s downright freaky.

    I also really liked the BBC adaptation, it’s really atmospheric and well shot. That skull mask scene still bothers me.

  5. mark says:

    On a not unconnected note. Several posters have mentioned, when discussing earlier stories, how good Michael Hordern’s readings of M R James were. They’ve also said how difficult it is to buy them.
    If one goes to kickass torents, type in m r james,, you may find something to your advantage.

  6. I loved this story, and think it holds up as an interesting specimen in the Jamesverse, especially when compared with “Warning to the Curious”. What it does is follow the same vision of the basic, unadorned Jamesian ghost, or “shades” as I think of them: able to exert some physical presence, variably visible, but very weak and insubstantial. I’m pretty sure that the blown tire, the clawing branches, and “fancies” are all the direct action of angry shades weakened by the light of day. The ghost in Warning the Curious is of a similar caliber, though solitary and with the added vision-manipulation power.

    I think that the deceased necromancer might have been in no real danger until he decided to take the arcane practices and dial them up to eleven. It’s sort of like coca leaves. Chew them raw and you can wake up a little, refine them into a powder and soon you’ve got the sensation of spiders and bloody holes for nostrils. Maybe the communion even made him more vulnerable to their physical contact, and the shades could have actually done very little to the observer if he tried to intervene in their abduction of the necromancer. Proximity to their own remains seems to give them strength.

  7. Stuart Eve says:

    Thanks for the shout-out to my blog. I love this story, and it really is inspirational for us archaeologists. If only we could get Baxter’s glasses (perhaps filled with less dead man’s goo!)

  8. Joyce says:

    There was a great cycling boom during the 1890’s, so James’ letter on the state of the roads seems quite timely. J.K. Jerome’s “Three Men on the Bummel”, which recounts a cycling tour in Germany by Harris, George and Jay was published in 1900. And H.G. Wells’ cycling story “The Wheels of Chance” was published in 1896.

  9. M. M. F. says:

    I think that this is one of my favorite M. R. James stories.

  10. Robert Ross says:

    Classic Tales Podcast by B. J. Harrison has narrated M. R. James “Casting the Runes” Episode #335
    B. J. is great. thanks Robert

    rss chrome-extension://nlbjncdgjeocebhnmkbbbdekmmmcbfjd/subscribe.html?

  11. Jim Peters says:

    I wanted to comment on the excavation aspect and the mention of having a team of men to assist in the digging. Before the formalising of archaeology as a discipline it was not unheard of for well-to-do-folk to gather together and do a bit of amateur grave robbing. By this I mean that those lucky enough to have barrows or other such tumuli on the land would get labourers to dig a shaft straight down the middle on the earthwork in the hope of finding the burial chamber and getting easy access to any buried treasure.
    The workers would do the digging whilst the invited guests stood around excitedly awaiting the discovery of the burial chamber at which point they would take over and claim the goodies for themselves. I suspect from Baxter’s approach to `archaeology’ that this is the previous experience of excavation he alludes to.
    ….just a thought.

  12. Tony Lindberg says:

    It seems like that kind of binoculars may be commonly available in the near future:

    I really liked the concept of this story. Indeed it wasn’t fleshed out as much as the concept held potential for though. For some reason I find the binoculars filled with distilled human remains very horrific as it ties into the “dabblers alchemy” theme. It’s horrible dark arts but on the same time so easy that anyone could do it if they really wanted to, and that adds to the horror. The binoculars may be destroyed in the end but the story that the narrator tells, also includes the recipe for making a new pair, which in turn implicates that the horror may not stop as long as the knowledge is passed on. You just heard the story, so will you be strong enough to resist making a pair?

  13. Richard Leigh says:

    Baxter has the glasses for a week, took them for a trial run and only drew a church. Maybe the hanged men came for him because he would have pried into their lives if left to continue his researches, and that’s what they’d have found unacceptable – that he would literally dig up the dirt.

  14. Richard Leigh says:

    ps. I wonder if what happened in Baxter’s kitchen really was an accident. Perhaps the dead men planned to spill themselves on his leg, as a warning to the curious.

  15. Richard Leigh says:

    I wonder whether the hanged man seen through the binoculars is in fact Baxter – the first warning from the men with boiled bones (the second being the dream).

  16. Jonathan says:

    A long standing fan and reader of M R James, I came across your very informative site quite by chance last night. Am off to Chrishall in Essex the setting of “The Story of A Disappearance and An Appearance” in a couple of weeks for the purpose of rubbing a fourteenth century brass in the church there. Let’s hope, in true M. R. James’ fashion that in the process I don’t disturb anything that should be left “unmolested”!

    However, the first Podcast I listed to though was this one, because of its local setting to me (Herefordshire). Very interesting what was said by both of you, although personally I thought the television version played around with the story far too much. Added to which the scenes on the station, supposedly set in the 1930s, 3rd rail and electric colour light signals, in Herefordshire? Er no.

    The suggestion that it was cost that may have scaled back a more faithful version is possibly the reason but often in these situations I would venture to suggest that it is the over-weaning ego of a Director wanting to be seen to put his or her stamp on something. Rather as in the film version of Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” which turned a fine, traditional English ghost story into horror. As James’s work exemplifies what is needed in this medium is restraint.

    Anyway, I shall listen to some more of your episodes, and doubtless come back with some more observations.

  17. Belinda says:

    A View from a Hill is actually one of my favourite James stories, possibly because of the writing rather than the content. Given that the standard setting for a ghost story is the dark, I love that he has been able to locate one in full summer daylight.

    Baxter is, of course a Bad Lot, because boiling people’s bones is not a polite thing to do, but it strikes me that he is also a victim of the class snobbishness that we’ve seen elsewhere. ‘If the man had had more early schooling, thought Fanshawe, he would have been a very distinguished antiquary; or he might have been (he thus qualified his opinion a little later), but for a certain love of opposition and controversy, and, yes, a patronising tone as of one possessing superior knowledge, which left an unpleasant taste.’ In fiction at least, and I can think of several factual examples, the argumentative and abrasive don is a stock character; his ‘patronising tone’ is not an obstacle to academic success. Baxter’s failing is not only his lack of education but also that he is not a gentleman, so that his interest in history is probably seen as aping his betters.

    The story also, I think, takes on new resonances with the recent discussions of cultural vandalism and disrespect, particularly in relation to the archaeology of graves. Baxter ramps it up by bone boiling and by making masks out of bits of skull for personal gain, but, for example, the upper class Victorian enthusiasm for all things Egyptian included public unwrapping of mummies, and many museums still show a partially unwrapped mummy – who also might well object to having her bones displayed!

    Count me in among those who think that the Squire knows – or suspects – more than he’s saying…

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