Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 82 – Echoes from the Abbey

December 24, 2020 | Episodes | Comments (8)

the-monk.jpg!LargeThis week Will and Mike don their warmest Christmas jumpers for dinner with Dr James and the troubled incumbents of Medborough Abbey, in the company of Sheila Hodgson.

  • What could be more seasonal than a cracker, eh?  Oh the fun that tumbles out when it goes snap! Paper hat, plastic keyring, lighthearted message of impending doom, that sort of thing. Indeed, Monty James felt a cracker could prompt a ghost story, “if the right people pull it, and if the motto which they find inside has the right message on it. They will probably leave the party early, pleading indisposition; but very likely a previous engagement of long standing would be the more truthful excuse.”  (Stories I have Tried to Write, 1929)
  • Sheila Hodgson ran with this suggested plot device, setting her tale at the fictional Medborough Abbey.  The story appeared as a radio play, Ghosts and Scholars magazine and  ultimately in Fellow Travellers, a collection of her Jamesian tales published by Ash Tree Press in 1998. The same idea also inspired Andrew Caldecott to write ‘A Christmas Reunion’, the story we covered for our Christmas episode in 2017.
  • Sheila was a script writer best known for her radio and TV dramas between the 1950 and 1980s, including thrillers, detective stories and then supernatural fiction.  Her first ghostly tales were adaptations of Algernon Blackwood’s ‘Dr John Silence: psychic detective’ stories for radio in the mid 1970s.  She subsequently wrote seven radio plays inspired by James, and the stories collected in Fellow Travellers.
  • Alas there is no real Medborough Abbey in the UK, but the name may have been inspired by Medmenham Abbey in Berkshire, which was a 12th century Cistercian monastery until it was dissolved in 1547 and became a private residence. It is more notorious for being one of the haunts of Sir Francis Dashwood’s ‘Hellfire Club’ (but that is a whole other story).
  • FACT: Will once dressed as Death and pursued me, Mike, around a ruined abbey, as part of a short film made by a friend.  Still gives me nightmares.


  1. Jan says:

    Saving this up for later tonight, with a few candles. Thank you so much for getting one out for Christmas. Had to come out any earlier I probably couldn’t have resisted.

    Keep up the good work!!


  2. David Malcolm Sommer says:

    I heard the radio play adaptation of this story a few years ago and enjoyed the human drama, but also felt that the supernatural elements provided little beyond a spooky mood. The ghostly monks are woefully undeveloped and seem incidental to the goings-on. If they indeed killed the schoolmaster because they didn’t want their treasure interfered with, then why did they give away the gold crucifix?

    Sheila Hodgson is obviously a skilled writer, but I’m not sure that her use of MR James as a character really works. Why do so many weird and ghostly events keep happening to him? “This is why I write ghost stories — because I’ve seen ’em myself!” It feels very Psychical Detective and goofy rather than scary. It seems to me that Hodgson’s allegedly James-inspired stories owe far more to Algernon Blackwood than to James. Atmosphere is great, but ghost stories with nothing but atmosphere leave me rather unsatisfied.

    Regarding the sneering carolers: Possibly I’m thinking of a different story, but I was of the impression that the schoolmaster had previously played the arson trick elsewhere and had become infamous for it among the locals, with his return to fiery form serving to emphasize his laziness and desperation.

    Thanks for another great episode!

  3. John says:

    Medmenham Abbey is in Buckinghamshire not Berkshire (and not even the part of Buckinghamshire ceded to Berkshire in 1974.)

    “Medborough Abbey” may be inspired by Milton Abbey in Dorset, where part of the church (not in ruins) survives, and the adjoining house (built on the site of the domestic quarters) is now a school. But there are other possibilities.

    The part of an abbey where monks can talk was the Parlour (hence the name) in the domestic quarters, not in the abbey church – so it would have been in the school buildings, not the ruins.

  4. craig lancaster marr says:

    I concur with the comment above, the inclusion of MRJ as the central character was a mistake If anything, (IMHO), it takes away from an already rather average story which fumbles the scares.

  5. Nadia A says:

    Oh, this was unexpected! I discovered Sheila Hodgson during this summer through the BBC radio dramas. Her stories were rather hit and miss.
    I agree with the comment about it being more Algernon Blackwood rather than MR James ( doesn’t help that Blackwood’s psychic detective was his worst stuff).
    To me it wasn’t weird enough and the setting was too predictable.

    My favourite of Hodgson’s stories is ”Here Am I, Where Are You?”. It has the mystery, the weird and a bit of a sinister mood, in my opinion.

  6. Lehelejui says:

    I had heard the radio drama, but didn’t even know about a written version of the story until now, so perhaps that colors my reaction and impression. But I really liked this story. Likely that’s because from the radio version it’s made clear at the outset that it’s pretty tongue-in-cheek, and the focus is the character of “James” dealing with the grotesques (mortal and post-mortal) that seem to always dog his steps. I wonder if the written version doesn’t take it all too seriously, and so fail both the written and theatrical intents.

  7. Richard says:

    This story had some useful ideas such as a ruin by a school and a chorus of ghostly monks. However it lacked a dynamic, gradual build up of horror and menace. Gerald Durrell’s ‘The Entrance’ might be worth considering in these dark winter days.

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