Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 35 – Rats

March 25, 2014 | Episodes | Comments (29)

Rats by Alisdair WoodThis episode Mike & Will tackle ‘Moose’ by M.R. James.

No wait, that’s not right. Ah yes, ‘Rats’ by M.R. James, that’s the one.

The episode features readings by Lewis Davies and the illustration to the right by Alisdair Wood.

Show notes:


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  1. Steve Porter says:

    The real Tom Tidler – also the namesake of a nearby Pub

    I have a copy of the Richard Whitmore biography – he was effectively a proto reality TV star…

  2. lemuel says:

    I hadn’t realized how much listening your podcast has become a pleasing feature of my afternoon. Thank you both for all the excellent commentary.
    Your reader, going on about moldy blankets, “a-heaving and a-heaving like the seas…” reminded me of a character in one of my favorite films, “Quatermass and the Pit.” I’m sure you’ve seen it. I kept thinking of Sladden, an alien possessed electrician played by Duncan Lamont, going on about his vision of Martian armies, ” hopin and hopin.”
    P.S. I like the idea of blunch. It reminds me of Sylvester Stallone’s indulgence for ice cream. He eats it for breakfast, after his morning work-out. Breakfast, for an active man, is generally burned away by afternoon, so it is safe to indulge in fatty meals if it is done early and worked off.

  3. lemuel says:

    Have you considered doing the stories of the James circle? People like the brothers Benson, E.G. Swain, R.H. Malden? There are some good stories there. I found myself really enjoying Malden.

  4. RogerBW says:

    It’s very rare for all the rooms in an hotel to be the same. If it was converted from a large house, they’ll often be of odd shapes and sizes; if it was purpose-built before about 1960, there’ll still have been a desire to have a bit of personality, and more expensive and cheaper rooms, and one way to distinguish them is size and shape. It’s only your modern hutches that have every room identical (often across the entire chain — people who stay in Hiltons a lot often report having no idea which country they’re in when they take up).

  5. mark says:

    I keep wondering how you sell this property.. Why did the Betts buyit? Imagine trying to sell it today: imagine the surveyors reoort: some repointing is needed and there’s one other thing…

    Surely the Betts must have looked the place over before buying. Otherwise the house would be like those unsellable ond featured in House Doctor where the owner has convdrted it into the starship Enterprise.
    Full marks to your analysis. I am glad you noted the extra horror that comes from it happening on a summer’s afternoon and from knowing that something distrurbing is only afew doors away.
    What happens to the house if it’s abandoned? Maybe when it’s crumbled away the thing is released.
    Also the doesn’t seem overly dusty. What are the cleaning arrangements? Maybe the inmate runs around with a hoover and dusters

  6. Lars says:

    In Sweden moose, or elk, is the most dangerous animal due to all the car accidents they cause when they cross roads. The car hits their long legs and then the enormous body tumbles through the windscreen. Most accidents, and there are thousands every year, end with just the elk dead, but a couple a year are fatal also for the driver.
    Angry elks cans also kill by flailing their front legs.

    • Mike says:

      Nasty! I came face to face with an elk while hiking once, we stood to one side and let him pass. More dangerous than bears, apparently.

  7. VTM Collins says:

    Hi, guys! I’m a long-time fan of M.R. James but have only recently discovered your podcast (my relationship to the internet is similar to an antelope’s relationship with a safari jeep – it only becomes relevant seconds before there’s a big splat.) That said, you’re both doing sterling work and more power to your collective elbows (I have a vision now of some gestalt entity comprising nothing more than bony limbs adjusting microphones and tapping with manifold fingers at editing software…euggh!)

    Anyway, my personal quirks of the imagination aside I’m glad you’ve finally got round to Rats – it’s probably my favourite fantastic story ever. Not because of its simplicity (though it is a simple tale) but because of what it evokes. Here’s this creature alone in a room. No-one knows what it’s thinking, or even if it CAN think. Yet it possesses enough self control to lie down on a bed and pull the covers over its head. The question is – why? That’s what has always haunted me. Is it self-aware? If so, what corridors do its thoughts wander down while it lies in the dark with the fabric smothering its face? Does it dream? If so, of what?

    This is, in my opinion, what makes it a great tale – there are no real answers. The best horror fiction of any decade leaves the reader guessing, wondering: think Hill House by Jackson or Erich Zann by Lovecraft to name but two. Less is invariably more, allowing the reader to conjure horrors far more fearsome than any wordsmith could evoke.

    Anyway, I think I’ve blethered long enough. Just wanted to express my love for this tale and to say your efforts are appreciated – it’s a quality podcast. Cheers!

    • mark says:

      Who tucks him in? Is he bored? Does he do the dusting? Has he got anything to read?
      ironically the presence of such a being in a hotel today would probably be excellent for business.

  8. Richard Leigh says:

    Thanks for a very interesting discussion, of a story I’ve always liked a lot. I suppose it doesn’t lend itself to much annotation, but I agree that it’s very effective.
    I assume that Mr Betts bought the place and was then told about the occupant. Also, that his comment about what it might do now is justified by the fact that Thomson doesn’t have the presence of mind to lock the door. I agree that the personage concerned was probably telling the highwaymen
    when his guests were due to leave, and that other local businessmen didn’t take kindly to this.
    Incidentally, I love the idea of a hotel with a Poe Room – presumably with en suite pit and pendulum.

    • Mike says:

      It was the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Oregon. I just checked the website and sadly the Poe Room has gone – and the Tolkien room has been “modernised”. Hope they still do sherry in the library before dinner.

  9. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I have a real fondness for this story. It’s simple and creepy, a real gem. Whenever the ghost or whatever it is turns up, it’s a sucker punch of sudden imagery and it really sticks out horribly, I love it. James’ undescription of the thing is also a perfect example of how horror really works. All he does is throw out some odd details which give no proper picture of the whole, makes your mind create all kinds of horrible images. I also liked how sneaky the narrator was, trying to get in that room. He wasn’t what you might expect from an antiquarian ghost story, wanting to stay right away from that place and having IT come for him. Although, maybe it did, maybe that’s what his boldness was.

    Although I didn’t think the bedsheets scene sexual at all, which I never do with James because he was about making you uncomfortable, not titillated. There’s a reason our man was scared and not embarrassed. Reading it, I honestly went right to ‘there’s probably something really horrible under those sheets’.

    In all fairness, it is rather simple and short, nothing particularly stands out, save for its sudden shocks of imagery. It’s a good James intro story, I think, short and spooky with a clear whollop. It’s like watching a master magician execute a card trick, the building block of their trade. James does this with ‘Rats’ and does it perfectly.

    And very lastly, about podcasting suggestions, what do you’s think of covering James’ contemporaries, like the Benson Brothers or Amyas Northcote? Maybe the Ingulphus stories? ‘The Everlasting Club’ is a rather enjoyable story, I think.

    • Mike says:

      Funnily enough, our reader Hamish did the jacket design for a recent reprint of the Ingulphus stories. He introduced them to us and we both enjoyed them.

      Our aim is to cover only public domain stories, like the Hi podcraft – sadly that rules out Sir Andrew Calderone, one of my faves 🙁

      How did we forget to mention Rats in the Walls?

      • A Rat In The Wall says:

        Ah, that’s fair enough. I mean, there are certain stories available out there online – it’s how I read Everlasting Club – but they might be of…dubious legality.

        And Rats in the Walls! Another story about rats that fails to actually show us any rats. Though we might be hearing them, so that’s okay.

  10. I am profoundly fond of this story as well; the whole “it’s not a scarecrow, though…” progression brings up the sweat every time. Very wallop-intensive.

    I can’t provide any numbers on death by moose, I’m sorry to say. I found a news item regarding a recent fatal encounter ( and I know Newfoundland has a serious problem with car/moose interaction ( but I think we’re saved by having an awful lot of country to distribute both people and moose into.

  11. Carol M says:

    I think covering some stories by the Bensons would be an excellent idea, especially as they were members of the group who would gather round the fire and listen to MRJ read out his ghost stories…also check out ‘The Stoneground Ghost Tales’ by E G Swain, who was also a member of the group.

  12. GB Steve says:

    We’ve stayed at the Eel Foot Inn, it’s a great base for walking the coast from Dunwich to Thorpness. However, you can’t really see the sea from there, it’s too far across Minsmere. The coastguard cottages, now National Trust, on Dunwich Heath would be a good location for the story.

  13. mark says:

    As Richard Leigh points out there’s no sign that after hs second look inside the room and faint, that he has the presence of mind to lock the door. So what stopped Boney from getting out?
    The whole situation reminds me of a model figure that used to give me the heebie-jeebies as a child: The Forgotten Prisoner of Castlemare.
    Anyone else remember it?

  14. Dylan says:

    I live in Portland, Oregon, and have been to the Sylvia Beach several times! The Poe Room featured a papier-mache bladed pendulum over the bed, some rather nice bits of raven art, and a “closet door” which opened to reveal a bricked-up wall. Also a very nice sea view.

    You can find photographs of it through Google image search.

  15. mark says:

    I suspect that the thing can’t or doesn’t wantt to leave the room. Betts says he has never seen him so presumably it was Boney himself who closed the door.
    One puzzler; how did he get from the gibbet to the room in the first place?

  16. This story is a thing fully become itself. It’s just good, and it works even better as an audiobook by Naxos Audiobooks, with narrator Stephen Critchlow.

    As for your future plans, might I suggest you do a podcast review of certain James Homages or completions? Like, finished versions of John Humphrey, or the fully realized tale of the Christmas crackers?

  17. mark says:

    I recommend Derek Jacobi’s reading of this story. He truly captures what I imagine Betts’ voice to be like.

  18. Daniel Lönn says:

    I also come from Sweden and can confirm the danger of having one of these huge creatures caught up in your quarterlight.

    One of several things I find so entertaining with your brilliant podcast is that you combine the gruesome things of the contents of these stories with the fact that you seem to have fun together recording them 😉

    By all means, continue with this, and I may as well announce that Count Magnus is starting to become my favorite story, perhaps with a touch of some kind of local pride…

    / Daniel

  19. strudders says:

    I loved this story for some reason. Simple but chilling in an unexpected way. The juxtaposition of the summers day and the discovery in the bare room seemed to add to the ‘wallop’.

    I was pleased to hear you have enough MRJ material to last the year. Your show is such a treat. Are you sure you couldn’t just go back to the beginning ? 😉

    Whatever you do, don’t stop, as you are an entertaining and intelligent double-act !

  20. Richard Leigh says:

    I think that the shortness of this story might be due to constraints on space in “At Random” – but I can’t be sure as I’ve never seen the publication. Has anyone? Does anyone know how many of the Eton ephemerals have survived? It would be really interesting to know what else they contained.

  21. Joyce says:

    Just ran across an alternative name for the game discussed: “Tom Tickler’s Ground”. Seems to be referenced in the title of a country dance tune from the 1700’s: “I’m a top of Tom Tickler’s Ground”.

  22. Andy Elliott says:

    FYI, exorcism isn’t just a Catholic thing. CofE has the “deliverance ministry” which exists even today and helps those people with Haunted /disturbed properties.

  23. Stephen Matthews says:

    Hello from the future – nearly 7 years after the last comment. I’m rediscovering James after many years and really enjoying the stories. Reading a story, then googling to see what others have made of it. I really liked Rats – gave it a big build-up by falling asleep on several occasions while listening to an audiobook version in bed, before finally getting to the denouement. The scarecrow description is brilliant- the executed man with the hood over his face, head lolling on his broken neck. Classic James storytelling with gaps for the imagination to fill. For those concerned about Mr and Mrs Betts buying a haunted inn, I bet the ghost meant they could afford it. They had been in service so maybe had only a small dowry from their previous employer/s to set themselves up in business with. They’d have been looking for a bargain and better for them to get a discount for a non-troublesome ghost than for a leaky roof or dodgy foundations. Again it’s what James doesn’t say that tells you so much.

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