Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 15 – Mr Humphreys and his Interitance

Mr Humphreys Quote on Gate SignThis episode Mike and Will get hopelessly lost in ‘Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance’. It’s a-maze-ing!

Show notes:

  • Two Ghosts & Scholars Essays
    We referred extensively to two outstanding examinations of the symbolism and antiquarian lore behind the story: Martin Hughes’, “A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James“, reprinted in Warnings to the Curious and “James Wilson’s Secret”, by Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls.  Both well worth a read.
  • Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance (TV Version)
    This story was adapted in an abridged form for the ITV schools programme ‘Music Scene’ in the 1970’s. A very low quality rip is available on YouTube but we recommend you invest in the DVD of Casting the Runes which features a much higher quality version as an extra.
  • Wilsthorpe (GoogleMaps)
    There are two real Wilsthorpes, one in Lincolnshire and the other in Yorkshire but there is no solid evidence that M.R. James was thinking of either when writing the story.
  • Possible Maze Inspirations
    James new Suffolk and it’s stately homes like the back of his hand. With his in mind, could the yew maze in this story have been inspired by the similar yew maze at Somerleyton Hall, Suffolk, designed and planted in 1846? Like Wilsthorpe hall, the grounds have various classical/Italian features, including an globe-shaped equatorial sundial (decorated with astrological symbols) which reminds us of the globe in ‘Mr Humphreys…’.
    Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nicholls speculate that the turf labyrinth at Hilton, Cambridgeshire may also have provided inspiration. It dates from the 17th century and would have certainly been known to James due to it’s close proximity to Cambride. It also features a central pillar at the centre, with a globe and an inscription in latin, that commemorates the death of the mazes creator William Sparrow (1641–1729).
  • Mazes (Wikipedia)
    Wikipedia features useful introductions to both hedge mazes and mazes in general, including a list of notable mazes.
  • Marjery Wardrop (Wikipedia)
    During this episode Will speculates that James’s choice of ‘Wardrop’ as a name may have been inspired by his contemporary folklorist Marjery Wardrop.
  • Labyrinth (1986)
    The mad-as-a-bag-of-ferrets maze-fest much loved by Mike, starring David Bowie’s crotch. It’s like ‘Alive in Wonderland’, but with added muppets and musical numbers. Watch the trailer on YouTube or chech out the bonkers Magic Dance Sequence. And if you enjoyed that, why not check out the Top 10 Mazes in Films, although they miss out Will’s personal favourite Cube.

Episode 12b – Casting the Runes

Thomas Bewick ImageThis episode we return to the diabolical doings of Mr Karswell in part two of our examination of ‘Casting the Runes’ by M.R. James.

Show notes:

Also! Robert Lloyd Parry was announced the next run of his excellent M.R. James stage performances between July and December 2012, including the world premier of his new show featuring ‘Count Magnus’ and ‘Number 13’! For more information visit the Nunkie Productions Website.


Reading: Stories I Have Tried to Write

Writing Desk ImageMike is away on holiday at the moment so in lieu of a full episode we are pleased to present a full reading of M.R. James’s essay ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’, read by Tom Hemmings!

Regular service will resume in a few weeks when Mike returns from his reckless galavanting.


‘Stories I have Tried to Write’ was written by M.R. James in November of 1929 and first published at the end of that month in ‘The Touchstone 2’, a publication of Eton College where James was Provost at the time. The editors would no doubt have preferred to have received a completed ghost story of the sort James had produced for the Eton Boy Scouts two years previously (‘Wailing Well’, one of the last James ghost stories to find print during his lifetime) but instead they received a short essay in which James runs briefly through a number of story ideas that never saw completion.
Some of these stories are the merest hint of an idea (the Christmas cracker, the tap on the shoulder) while others provide the outline of an almost completed story, with settings, characters, names and so on all prepared. As James mentions in the essay, some of these stories he not only tried to write, but did write, only later deciding they were not good enough for publication. A draft of the Marcilly-le-Hayer story can be found among James’s papers in King’s College Library and was publishes in Ghosts & Scholars 22 in 1996. Likewise, the draft of the story involving two students at King’s was found and published in Ghosts & Scholars 12 as ‘The Fenstanton Witch’.
Other story elements James mentions in the essay hint at plot devices that James did actually use in some of his published stories, for instance the mask that appears amongst the curtains brings to mind the leering face that peers through the hedge in ‘The Rose Garden’ and similarly in James’s story ‘A Vignette’, a story written in 1935 and not published until after his death in 1936. James’s reference to ‘common objects being vehicles of malice’ was an idea he later fleshed out into the macabrely humorous fable ‘The Malice of Inanimate Objects’ which was printed in another Eton publication, ‘The Masquerade 1’ in 1933.
The essay saw wider publication when it was included in The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (Arnold 1931), and since that time many authors have yielded to the temptation to flesh James’s ideas out into complete stories. The most notable being Sheila Hodgson who produced not only a series of stories based on the ideas (published by Ash Tree Press in 1998 as ‘The Fellow Travellers and Other Ghost Stories’), but a highly enjoyable series of radio plays which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4 between 1976 and 1992. As far as I am aware these radio plays have never seen the light of day on cassette or cd but can be tracked down by anyone with a search engine, bit torrent client and ‘relaxed’ attitude towards copyright law. Or so I am told. *cough*.
More information on the essay and the various stories it has inspired can be found in the excellent ‘Stories I Have Tried to Write’ story notes at Ghosts & Scholars.

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