Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 37 – Wailing Well

June 24, 2014 | Episodes | Comments (15)

Scouting Manual (1931)This episode Mike & Will pack their tents, pull up their socks and strap on their woggles (woggles are a scout thing, right?) as they explore M.R. James’s ‘Wailing Well’!

Big thanks to Debbie Wedge for providing the readings for this episode.

Show notes:

  • Worbarrow Bay
    This story was read to the Eton boy scout troop during a camping trip to Worbarrow Bay in Dorset. Today Worbarrow Bay is owned by the Ministry of Defense and is notable for being the location of the ghost village of Tyneham.
  • Characters
    This story features a veritable who’s-who of Eton staff members from the period, including Headmaster Cyril Alington, Vice-Project Hugh V. Macnaghten, James himself and most prominently Eton’s Maths teacher and Scout Master William Hope Jones, who is most famous for writing the humorous song ‘National Anthem of the Ancient Britons‘ aka ‘The Woad Song’.
  • The Scouts
    Will thinks that the antics of Stanley Judkins resemble those of Just William, but they remind Mike more of the scout troop in Moonrise Kingdom.
  • Three women and a man
    Who are the mysterious haunters of the wailing well field? It is never revealed, but if the location is Worbarrow Bay in Dorset, then it is possible that the local gaol records suggests they may have been smugglers.
  • The Wailing Well (short film)
    Film-makers Stephen Gray and David Lilley have committed this story to celluloid. You can watch it on Youtube in it’s entirety. Check out their other work at
  • Wayland Wood, Norfolk
    In his ‘Suffolk and Norfolk’ M.R. James mentions in passing that Wayland Wood near Thetford was known locally as ‘Wailing Wood’ on account of it’s supposedly dark past as the setting for the crimes which inspired ‘Babes in a Wood’.
  • Of Three Girls and of their Talk by Derek John
    This story, a highly enjoyable Wailing Well prequel, appears in the sadly hard-to-find Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows.
  • Dutch Oven
    The sort of ‘dutch oven’ referred to in the story is this and definitely not this.

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  1. A Rat In The Wall says:

    I love how this was written for children, but it incredibly brutal. These vampire skeleton things in this horrible abandoned thicket. And the description of the vampeletons/skelempires is so typically Jamesian but he adds in that one little detail that makes them unique – no real face to be seen, but they have teeth. They very clearly have teeth. Maybe not even a mouth, just these teeth in a heap of withered flesh.

    I think there is a sort of element of a warning to the curious in there amongst Judkin’s being a brat, his sort of obstinate, arrogant need to abandon cautiousness in favour of his own instincts, and humans are rather curious. This, with this apparent apathy towards authority, pretty much gives a neat the little moral for the kids.

    Can’t wait to see what yous have next! I don’t know if you’ve thought of it, but James wrote that little article, ‘Some Remarks on Ghost Stories’ which might be worth some discussion or for a reading. You could comb through it for future stories to analyze, too.

  2. mark says:

    Please do The Experiment. No one seems to know this James’ story

  3. Jay Watson says:

    A fun story made even more fun by one of your best podcasts ever…thanks guys.

  4. Richard Leigh says:

    I think the humour of the early part of the story still works, even for people who share none of MRJ’s background and who come almost a century later. As a story to be read to scouts, it seems perfect in the way it makes everyone expect a purely humorous story but then – like “After Dark in the Playing Fields”, becomes suddenly serious.
    I do wonder, though, when he was writing about the boys who “succumbed”, whether he had in mind the dead of the war, or the drowning of Seton Donaldson in the 80s, from which he seems never to have recovered. I don’t share Benson’s hostile view of MRJ’s lack of feeling; but still I’ve always felt a bit dubious about this aspect of the story.

  5. Helen Grant says:

    Super podcast. When I was a child, this story puzzled me very much because I didn’t understand the humour! I was astounded by the tale of the life saving and the school sending out a form when someone had died…! A shame I couldn’t have heard it at Monty’s knee as I am sure the penny would have dropped when I saw the twinkle in his eye.
    Incidentally, my maiden name was Bond and there is a family tradition (quite unsubstantiated by any documentation!!!) that we are related to the Bonds of Tyneham. It would be nice to think so.

  6. The stuff about the lifesaving competition really put me in mind of the scene from Addams Family Values:

  7. Joyce says:

    I adore this story, it reminds me delightfully of Saki’s “The Story-Teller” (collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts), except, of course, far grislier.

  8. Joe Muszynski says:

    I’m a latecomer to your show and am only on Episode 10. But I love it! Hopefully can catch up soon. And you probably know about this, but if not, seems you might be interested: Cheers!

  9. M.M.F. says:

    Wonderful story! In my scout troupe there are several kids (not naming names) that could replace Stanley Judkins and the story would be exactly the same. No joke, though I didn’t notice any Arthur Wilcox in my troupe.

    How about The Five Jars next.

  10. Serena Nocturna says:

    I’m REALLY excited to find out about this wonderful M.R. James podcast! I am working my way through the H.P.Lovecraft podcast at and just came to the part where the hosts mentioned yours, so I hurried right over to partake of your interesting discussions. I grew up having a dad who would read me stories by MRJ, HPL and also Arthur Machen.
    I don’t know about AM, but at least now I can get a chronological presentation of all of the works of the first two!
    One of my favorites is MRJ’s “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas”; I look forward to your podcast of it.

  11. Serena Nocturna says:

    Hey, my goof! I see that “The Treasure of Abbott Thomas” was covered by you two already.
    I just haven’t gotten to it yet. Oh, goody!

  12. Caro says:

    I read this to my class of 11 year olds & they were terrified & loved it in equal measure!

  13. Nate says:

    Ha! I’m glad you brought up Moonrise Kingdom, cos I was totally picturing this as a Wes Anderson movie as I read it! Maybe the old yokel could be played by Bill Murray.

  14. Patricia says:

    Hi Mike and Will, I’m not sure if you’ll be reading messages so long after broadcasting this, but I would love to know what the music is that plays at the start this episode. It’s delightful. I play this episode regularly just to hear the music.

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