Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 89 – Cushi

Open your hymn books to episode 89, as we’re back in church for Christopher Woodforde’s “Cushi”: a tale of capering cats, sabotaged surplices and vengeful vergers. Don’t lose your head!

Show notes:

  • Christopher Woodforde studied at Peterhouse, Cambridge before becoming an Anglican priest. He was later Fellow and Chaplain at New College, Oxford, and Dean of Wells (as was Richard Maldon of ‘The Sundial’ fame – Episode 80). He was an antiquarian with a love for stained glass, rather like MR James!
  • ‘A Pad in the Straw’ was his only book of stories. It is currently out of print, but previously available from Sundial Press.
  • Richard Dalby wrote that Woodforde based some of his clerical and antiquarian characters on himself, and many of the locations on the parishes in which he served.
  • In his introduction to ‘A Pad in the Straw’, Lord David Cecil said that “A waft of the uncanny blows through these tales, just enough to make the spine agreeably tingle… The general atmosphere is at once eerie and friendly… The intimate apprehension of landscape and the past gives his tales an unexpected weight and depth. Slight and fanciful though their action is, they are the expression of an imagination soaked through and through in the English scene and in English history.”
  • Hymn number 386 ‘The Sower Went Forth Sowing’ was written by William Bourne, a pastor, for a harvest festival in 1874. And very jolly it is, to: “And then the fan of judgment/Shall winnow from His floor/The chaff into the furnace/That flameth evermore.”





Episode 84 – Bosworth Summit Pound

t1112~2Ahoy there listeners!  Be grabbin’ yer nautical gear for a  cruise on the high seas of Leicestershire, with LTC Rolt and his story Bosworth Summit Pound.  (Enough.  It’s set on a canal – ed) What terrors might await us on England’s peaceful inland waterways? And just who digs a canal tunnel under an ancient graveyard anyway?

Story notes

  • Thank you to our reader this week Tony Walker: you must check out his Classic Ghost Stories podcast and episode on this story.  If you’d like to know more about his podcast, make sure you listen through to the end of our show for an exclusive trailer from Tony!
  • Tom Rolt built Spitfires during WW2, and in 1944 had his first book ‘Narrow Boat’ published. It was a big success, and through it he made connections with the people with whom he would form the Inland Waterways Association, an organisation dedicated to preserving Britain’s canals and other waterways. He was actually expelled from this in 1951 after falling out with founding member (and fellow author of supernatural fiction) Robert Aickman (see this amusing plaque, which suggests the enmity lingered after both their deaths!).
  • Rolt’s one volume of ghost stories ‘Sleep No More’ was published in 1948.  Mike Ashley wrote of this, “Rolt had a formidable knowledge of the byways, waterways and railways of Britain which made Sleep No More (1948) a most unique volume of the supernatural”. Ashley adds that of  MR James’s imitators, “Malden, Munby and Rolt achieve the most success in blending James’s techniques with their own narratives… Because of his ability to utilise original surroundings, L.T.C. Rolt’s stories are perhaps the most refreshing.”
  • In another essay worth reading, Kai Roberts wrotes that “Rolt succeeds because the industrial setting he evokes is one about which he is passionate and knowledgeable.”

Episode 82 – Echoes from the Abbey

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.
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