Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 30 – A Warning to the Curious – Part 1 of 2

'A Warning to the Curious' by Alisdair WoodThe waiting is over, it’s finally time for Mike & Will to tackle what is arguably M.R. James’s masterpiece – A Warning to the Curious! It’s a biggie, so we will split our coverate of this story over two episodes. Our examination of this story will conclude in episode 31.

To assist them in their task, Mike and Will are joined by Tom Baynham, whose article ‘A Return to Seaburgh’ sheds much light on the real-world locations which feature in this story.

Once again big thanks go out to Alisdair Wood for providing the awesome artwork. You can now purchase a set of eight postcards featuring Alisdair’s great M.R. James illustrations. Snap them up while you can from Alisdair’s online shop.

The excellent readings which accompany this episode were provided by Lewis Davies.

Show notes:

  • Story locations
    In his introduction to ‘Collected Ghost Stories’ M.R. James explained that he based the town of Seaburgh on Aldeburgh in Suffolk. The actual locations featured in this story have been explored in a few articles in Ghosts & Scholars: ‘A Visit to Seaburgh‘ by Darroll Pardoe (G&S 15), ‘Cambridge and Suffolk: A Perambulation of Two Counties’ by Brian J. Showers (G&S Newsletter 14 – not available online) and ‘A Return to Seaburgh’ by Tom Baynham (G&S Newsletter 23 – not available online). See also the White Lion Hotel. To see the locations features in this story on a map, visit Monty’s World, our M.R. James map.
  • Snape Common Anglo-Saxon Cemetary (Wikipedia)
    The idea of buried Anglo-Saxon treasure was probably inspired by the real archeological finds uncovered at nearby Snape Common during the 19th century. The story also mentions the crown found at Rendlesham, a reference to the real crown found at the famous burial mounds at Sutton Hoo, near Rendlesham.
  • ‘”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)!
  • ‘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 Porcheddhu (not yet published)
    This article reveals the connection between this story and Beowulf, and elaborates on Mike Pincombe’s suggestions about the importance of WWI to the understanding of this story.
  • ‘”The Rules of Folklore” in the stories of M.R. James’ by Jacqueline Simpson (Warnings to the Curious, Hippocampus Press, 2007)
    This essay mentions various possible precedents to the myth of the Three Crowns, including the legend of Bran the Blessed and Drake’s Drum.
  • The name ‘Ager’ (Surname Database)
    It seems that ‘Ager’ is indeed a local name of some pedigree in the Suffolk and Cambridge area.

As if a bumper 2-parter on ‘A Warning to the Curious’ wasn’t enough, we have also produced a short video comprising footage taken on our recent visit to Aldeburgh, and featuring locations from the story such as Aldeburgh Parish Church, the White Lion Hotel (‘the Bear’ from the story), Wyndham House (home of M.R. James’s grandparents), the Martello Tower, Sluice Cottage (the likely site of William Ager’s house) and even a spot which matches James’s description and location of the mound where Paxton finds the crown!


Episode 25 – The Uncommon Prayer-book

The Book of Common PrayerThis episode Mike & Will put on their golden pince-nez and crack the spine of ‘The Uncommon Prayer-book’ by M.R. James!

Big thanks go to our reader for this episode, Debbie Wedge.

Questions answered during this episode:

  • Is M.R. James an anti-semite?
  • Is Mr Poschwitz the Germanic Lovejoy?
  • How much snakebite is too much snakebite?

Show notes:

  • Michael Cox / Pleasing Terror story notes (amazon)
    M.R. James’ biographer Michael Cox has written some very useful notes for this story which can be found in the Oxford Classics edition of ‘Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories’. Another set of notes can be found in the ‘Pleasing Terror’ M.R. James anthology.
  • ‘The Books, Manuscripts and Literary Patronage of Lady Anne Sadleir (1585-1670)’ by Arnold Hunt (Google Books)
    This essay features in the volume ‘Early Modern Women’s Manuscript Writing: Selected Papers from the Trinity/Trent Colloquium’ contains a wealth of information on the real life individual on who provided M.R. James with the inspiration of this story.
  • Info on this story, Lady Sadleir and Anti-Cromwellian editions of the book of common prayer (Two Nerdy History Girls)
    Information often turns up in unexpected places, like here in the comments section of a competely unrelated article about Guy Fawkes! Scroll down to the thread of comments starting with Chris Woodyard for some interesting speculation on the inspiration for this story.
  • Stereotypes of Jews in Literature (Wikipedia)
    Anti-Semitism has been rearing it’s ugly head in literature for centuries. Was M.R. James jumping on the Hebrew-bashing bandwagon? We think not but this info on how Jews have been portrayed in literature over the years is certainly eye-opening.
  • “M.R. James, Antiquarian Sleuth: William of Norwich, Thomas of Monmouth and the Blood Libel” by Steve Duffy (Ghosts & Scholars)
    This excellent article goes a long way to debunk the suggestion that M.R. James was harbouring anti-semitic tendencies by discussing James’ work to debunk the ‘Blood libel’ myth through close examination of the truth behind the martyrdom of William of Norwich.
  • Paul Lowe’s illustration of this story (
    Perennial M.R. James illustrator Paul Lowe produced a horrifying conception of what the flannel creature from this story may have looked like (scroll to the bottom of the page to find it).
  • The Book of Common Prayer (wikipedia)
    Here you can read about the troubled history of the Book of Common Prayer, the first book to publish the forms of common Christian worship in English.
  • Psalm 109 (
    Here you can read the full Book of Common Prayer version of Psalm 109, in all it’s doom-laden glory!



Episode 21 – The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance

Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance image by Alisdair WoodIt’s Christmas Special time again! This year Will & Mike look at the one and only M.R. James story actually set during the festive season, ‘The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance’.

This episode also features a Christmas Bonus in the form of an interview with film director Stephen Gray whose new adaptation of ‘A Haunted Doll’s House’ is available to watch online for a limited period only, starting Christmas Eve!

Our reader this week was Peter Ross and the accompanying artwork is by Alisdair Wood.

As mentioned in our interview, Stephen would like our listeners help deciding which story to film next! Please state your preference below.
Show notes

The image below shows the King’s Head/Arms inn which features in this story, as it looked in 1885.

The King's Head Inn, Bicester

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