Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 31 – A Warning to the Curious – Part 2 of 2

Aldeburgh War MemorialThis episode concludes our coverage of M.R. James’s masterwork ‘A Warning to the Curious‘, and we also speak to James expert Patrick J. Murphy, whose essay ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ impressed us greatly when researching this story.

Lewis Davies returns again to lend his voice to the readings for this episode, and an excellent job he does too. Thanks Lewis!

Notes on Remembrance Day:

When we started our two-parter on Warning to the Curious, we didn’t realise that we’d be releasing the second part on Remembrance Day.

For all that M.R. James did to honour the memory of the war dead, it seems likely that his portrayal of the First World War in this story was intended to be  ambiguous, and likely coloured by  his role as mentor to students from Cambridge who were amongst the fallen.

Will and I are conscious that some might feel this as an insensitive topic for Armistice Day, and I am sure that M.R. James would have felt the same way.  But the podcast is ready, and I hope you agree that there is some merit in discussing how heavily the war weighed on James – as we remember those affected by war, in all conflicts.

Show notes:

  • ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ by Patrick J Murphy and Fred Porcheddu (under review)
    Our intereviewee in this episode is co-author of this excellent essay. Patrick assures us he will let us know when it is published!
  • ‘”No Thoroughfare” – The problem of Paxton’ by Mike Pincombe (Ghosts & Scholars 32)
    This fascinating article (sadly not available online) explores the implications of a wartime setting for ‘A Warning to the Curious’. For an entirely different take on the character of Paxton, see Pincombe’s very entertaining essay ‘Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story‘ (G&S Newsletter 2)!
  • The Martello Tower, Aldeburgh (Landmark Trust)
    Fancy a holiday in a real-life M.R. James location? The Martello Tower at Aldeburgh where Paxton meets his death is now a holiday cottage! If you are not familiar with martello towers, you can learn more about this particular type of coastal defence on wikipedia.
  • Beowulf (wikipedia)
    Patrick and Fred’s essay (see above) points out the glaring similatiries between this story and the most famous anglo-saxon story, Beowulf. Both stories feature theft from a burial mound with a guardian.
  • A Warning to the Curious directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (BBC TV 1972)
    Further details about the 1972 TV version of this story can be found on wikipedia, including differences between the TV version and the original story.
  • A Playmobil Warning to the Curious (youtube)
    For a different take on the story, watch this playmobil animation of the story created by author and James-scholar Helen Grant and her son. It is both scary and cute in equal measures!
  • A Warning to the Furious (BBC Radio Drama)
    Another highly entertaining riff on this story can be found in this BBC radio drama from Christmas 2007. A feminist film crew visit Aldeburgh to try and psychoanalyse M.R. James, but find they have bitten off more than they can chew! This drama is not currently available form the BBC but can be tracked down on the dark dingy corners of the internet with a bit of searching.
  • Our visit to Aldeburgh (Flickr)
    You can see some photos of the visit we made this August to Aldeburgh, Suffolk on our Flickr account. Also see below for a video of out visit. Don’t forget you can view these locations on Monty’s World, our online mapping app.


Investigating James: an interview with Patrick J. Murphy and Fred Porcheddu

Montague Rhodes JamesThis week we’ve got an interview for you with two splendid chaps from the U.S., who are delving into what lies behind MR James’ stories.

Patrick J. Murphy and Fred Porcheddu are also super-fun guys and we hope you enjoy hearing their take on what made Monty tick, the deeper meanings in his stories, and just what academics get up to in reading rooms all day.

Patrick and Fred’s recent articles on James’ fiction are:

  • “Renovation and Resurrection in M.R. James’s ‘Episode of Cathedral History.’” Studies in Medievalism (July 2013)
  •  “The Antiquarian Diaries of Thomas Hearne and Mr. Poynter in the Fiction of M.R. James: Duty Unfulfilled.” English Literature in Transition (July 2012)

If you aren’t sat on an academic network, then Fred has kindly offered to send interested listeners copies of these papers – follow the link for his email address.

Big thanks to Patrick and Fred for their time – we’ll be be back in a few weeks with View from a Hill.


Episode 18 – An Episode of Cathedral History

An Episode of Cathedral History by Alisdair Wood

This episode Will & Mike slip into their cassocks, whip out their prayerbooks and head down to Southminster for ‘An Episode of Cathedral History’ by M.R. James.

Questions answered in this episode:
– When is a vampire not a vampire?
– Do Lamia have hairy legs?
– What length of skirt do Mike and Will wear?

Big thanks go out to Roger Burton West who provided the readings, and Alisdair Wood for the awesome custom illustration on the right!

Show notes

  • The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens (wikipedia)
    This story refers twice to characters in Dickens’s famously unfinished novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’.
  • Rochester Cathedral (Monty’s World)
    There are various suggestions in the story that M.R. James may have had Rochester Cathedral in mind while writing this story.
  • Isaiah 34:14 (
    This website illustrated quite how much the Isaiah quote which appears in this story differs from one translation to another!
  • Lamia  & Satyr (wikipedia)
    The latin quotes in this story make reference to two creatures from Greek Mythology, the Lamia and the Satyr.
  • The Demon in the Cathedral by Rosemary Pardoe (Ghosts & Scholars)
    Apparently the plot of this story was used as part of a hoax played on Fate magazine in 1977!
  • The Lamia and the Screech-owl by Peter Bell (Ghosts & Scholars)
    This essay examines ‘An Episode of Cathedral History’ and discusses the mythical creatures mentioned in the story.
  • Charles Simeon (wikipedia)
    This story refers to ‘Simeon’s Lot’, a reference to the English evangelical preacher Charles Simeon, who James’s own father was a follower of.
  • Patrick J Murphy (Miami University) & Fred Porcheddu (Denison University)
    Patrick and Fred are two American academics who are conducting research into the medaevalist and antiquarian background of M.R. James’s stories.
  • Warnings to the Curious (
    During this episode we mention various essays which are featured in this book, including essays by Michael A. Mason, Jacqueline Simpson
  • A Pleasing Terror (
    The excellent footnotes on this story in the ‘A Pleasing Terror’ ebook were of great help to us when researching this story.
  • Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb (Ghosts & Scholars)
    The unfinished James tale dubbed by Rosemary Pardie ‘Speaker Lenthall’s Tomb’ bears some striking similarities to ‘An Episode of Cathedral History’.
  • The Gothic Revival (Wikipedia)
    It is an understatement to say that M.R. James was not a big fan of the architectural changes undertaken in British churches in the name of the gothic revival during the 18th and 19th century.

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