Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 38 – The Game of Bear

August 25, 2014 | Episodes | Comments (16)

An episode of two parts this week.  In part one, Will and Mike open their box of James ephemera to play the “dreadful Game of Bear”.  We only have the opening pages of this unfinished tale, but fortunately three leading Jamesians have tried to finish the story. Big thanks to Kirsty Woodfield who returns to read for us this week.

In part two, we speak with Antonia Christophers and Noel Byrne of theatre company Box Tale Soup  about their brilliant new production of Casting the Runes.  They have just finished their run at the Edinburgh Fringe and will be in Cheltenham from 8-11 October.

Show notes:

  • The Ghost and Scholars text of Game of Bear and Rosemary Pardoe’s notes can be found here.
  • The stories written by Helen Grant, Jacqueline Simpson and Clive Wright were published in G&S Newsletter #15.  It’s now unavailable, but Rosemary has very kindly offered to send listeners a electronic copy if they get in touch by email.
  • We didn’t get chance to talk about the amazing music in Box Tale Soup’s Casting the Runes, by musician Dan Melrose.
  • Finally, picture credit. Not sure why the US military stores pictures of bears, but there you go.




  1. Kim says:

    Elmendorf is teeming with bears (or, as James might have phrased it, ‘is fuzzy with bears’?), which pose a severe threat to the nation’s security; which if you look at these two further images should become evident:

    Can this be linked to the story (stories?) “The Game of Bear”? If I’m found with my head exploded, you’ll know the answer was ‘yes’.

  2. A Rat In The Wall says:

    Game of Bear was shaping up to be a fine a little story, it’s a realm shame James never finished it. It’s a lesser fragment, but it’s a solid fragment and it has potential. I don’t think it would have been up there with your Warning’s and Whistling’s and Casting’s, but it would have been one of those really tight little tales that has some really good imagery in it that endears you to the story. Maybe he finished it because of that, because he felt it really was only going to be a middle-tier story.

    As for actual content, Mr A’s fear of loud, sudden screams got me thinking that Caroline was going to send him something to haunt him, a stalking something that hides and screams and tries to give him a heart attack or drive him mad, kill him from nerves. A little like the landmark ghost in Neighbour’s Landmark but roving and monstrous. I assume she wants Purdue’s house via legal shenanigans once he’s gone. I think she wants it because of her neuroses, she takes her not inheriting it as one of her hated slights or injuries.

    Also, we should all absolutely crowd-fund the renting of a country mansion to play a game of Bear and be all weird and creepy together for Halloween.

  3. Ward’s version of the “Bear” game, using pieces of paper to choose the “bear,” and hunting through a darkened house, sounds similar to the hide-n-seek-style game in A.M. Burrage’s great ghost story “Smee,” in which participants are chosen in a similar paper-slip fashion (Burrage’s story also takes place in a large house during a Christmas party). I have no idea if Burrage made up his own game or if it was based on an actual one; but it also sounds unnerving. I’d be curious to know of other commenters have read other supernatural stories that include actual games as part of the horror.

    How disappointing that James never finished the “Bear” story. The introduction of the game in the existing fragment is enticing. There’s often a game-playing quality in James’ finished tales (such as the pursuing spirit in “Oh Whistle,” the maze in “Mr Humphreys & his Inheritance,” and the nasty ghost lurking in “The Rose Garden”). I’d have loved to see how James would have invented a game and what features and rules he’d choose to emphasize.

  4. Carol Mikolj says:

    I have read Clive Wright’s story (which is very good, by the way) and the game of Bear that he describes is very similar to the Victorian game of Sardines, where an individual hides until found by other seekers. Those seekers, having found him/her, stay with the original person. They build up a group of people hiding in one place, until the last seeker finds a giggling group of humanity squashed into a small space.
    A similar game is also described in an excellent short story called ‘Smee’ by A. M. Burrage, where a group of people weekending at a country house opt to play a certain kind of hide and seek called ‘Smee’, unaware that they are also playing the game with a ghost. A. M. Burrage is a well-known writer of short ghost and supernatural tales, whose style has been called Jamesian and whose work would probably appeal to anyone who enjoys the great MRJ himself.

  5. Mike says:

    Thank you Carol, that’s fascinating! Will certainly check out Smee.

  6. Is “Smee” the story included in the anthology film, “Dead of Night”?

    • Carol Mikolj says:

      If you are thinking of the segment ‘Christmas Party’ in that film, IMDB credits Angus McPhail as the writer. However, he might well have read Burrage’s story before he wrote this.

  7. Rob Poyton says:

    Re Game of Bear….in the 80s we had this game, it sounds quite similar. One person is the (unkown) vampire, everyone hides around the house…and if the vampire gets you, you become a vamipre too. There was a cassette tape played throughout and a couple of other details I cant remember. We played it at my old place in London, a reasonable large Victorian house, there were around 6 of us and I remember it beng great fun and surprisingly creepy. I sold the game on Ebay a few years back and got a good price for it – wish Id kept it now, could have asked you all round for Halloween

  8. Rob Poyton says:

    …oh and it was the 90s lol…..

  9. Jeremy Greenwood says:

    2 examples of the real game of bear are described in the current edition of Ghosts and Scholars Archive. At £10 annually for 2 issues its a snip.

  10. Abbot Thomas says:

    Smee is indeed an excellent story, but I can add an additional layer of fright to it.

    The first wife of the actor David Niven is said to have died in just the accident described in Smee, but long after the story was written.

    • Carol Mikolj says:

      Oh now that is eerie. I knew that Niven’s first wife had died after a fall down stairs but I didn’t know the circumstances. I wonder if Burrage based the story on a real life case that he knew of? It certainly adds a frisson to the story.

  11. Chris Barker says:

    Quite surprised there is no reference to Reggie Oliver’s version of “The Game Of Bear”. Like MR James (and indeed HR Wakefield), Reggie attended Eton on the same scholarship (the Newcastle), so of all attempts to complete this unfinished story, his must surely qualify as the most informed (and, to my eye, the best).

  12. Laurence says:

    Really great look at this intriguing fragment. I also really enjoyed the interview and found Noel’s comments about the nature of puppetry – the fine line between expressiveness and blankness to allow for the viewer to project their own feelings (and fears) – to be an excellent analogy for James’ style, too!

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