Stories that inspired M.R. James

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

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Episode 13 – The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

Cat CarvingChurch matters concern Will and Mike this episode as they don their literary cassocks and plant their proverbial buttocks upon ‘The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral’ by M.R. James.

Snow notes:

  • The Double Shadow Podcast (
    An exciting new podcast dedicated to American M.R. James admire Clark Ashton Smith.
  • M.R. James performances by the Nunkie Theatre Company (
    Nunkie Theatre Company has announced another run of performances based on M.R. James stories performed by the grand panjandrum and actor Robert Lloyd Parry. He will be invoking a pleasing terror in audiences throughout the UK between July and December. Don’t miss!
  • The Stalls of Barchester (1971 TV version – wikipedia)
    This story has been dramatised for the screen only once, back in 1971, as the first installment of  BBC television’s classic ‘Ghost Story for Christmas’ series. The series is finally being given the DVD treatment this year by the BFI.
  • Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire (wikipedia)
    Was M.R. James’s Barchester based on the identically-named cathedral town which features heavily in a series of books by Anthony T? Or is that just a load of old Trollope?
  • The Gentlemen’s Magazine (wikipedia)
    In this story Archdeacon Haynes’s obituary is said to have featured in the Gentleman’s magazine, which ran between 1731 and 1922.
  • Sir George Gilbert Scott (wikipedia)
    The cathedral in James’s story is said to have been redesigned by Sir Gilbert Scott. James was not a fan of the rather radical changes which architects like Scott inflicted on English churches during the 19th century.
  • The Friar of Orders Grey (
    Haynes’s description of the choir stalls describes one as appearing like a ‘friar of orders grey’. This is a nod to a popular folk ballad about a bawdy Franciscan friar.
  • St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle (BBC Website)
    The ornate carvings described in this story could have been inspired by the misericords at a chapel in Windsor, near Eton where James spent much of his life. He went on to write a book about them in 1933 – ‘St Geroge’s Chapel, Windsor: The Woodwork of the choir’.
  • Warnings to the Curious (
    In this episode we mention various essays which appear in the excellent ‘Warnings to the Curous’, including essays by John Alfred Taylor and Steven J. Mariconda.

Episode 11 – The Tractate Middoth

The Old Library at Cambridge UniversityIn this episode Mike & Will whip out their library cards and prepare to crack the spine of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ by M.R. James.

Questions addressed in this episode include: Does Mr Eldred like MC Hammer? Did Sir Jimmy Saville make a pact with the devil? Is Miss Simpson a slamming hotty or merely a comely wench? And is it even politically correct to call someone a wench in this day and age?

Show Notes:

  • The Lost Will of Dr Rant (1951) (
    This American television version of ‘The Tractate Middoth’ was part of the ‘Lights Out’ mystery series, and stars none other than a young Leslie Nielson!
  • Cambridge University Library (
    The real world location of this story was the university library at Cambridge, though the current library is no longer housed in the same building as it was in James’s time.
  • Bredfield, Suffolk (googlemaps)
    The likely real-world location of Dr Rant/Mr Eldred’s house, Bredfield in Suffolk. Note Melton station about three miles to the south east (or shorter if you go across country!).
  • E.W. Pugin (1834 – 1875) (Wikipedia)
    Information on E.W. Pugin, who may or may not be linked to this story.
  • The Real Tractate Middoth (google books)
    More information on the real book can be read in ‘A history of the Mishnaic law of Holy Things, Volume 2’, available on Google Books.
  • Squire Toby’s Will by J. Sheridan le Fanu (
    The plot of this story by M.R. James’s favourite author of ghost stories bares some resemblance to the plot of ‘The Tractate Middoth’.
  • Piccadilly Weepers and More (
    Information on Piccadilly/Dundreary Weepers and other fabulous contemporary facial hair styles can be found here.
  • Tractate Middoth Postcard & Bookmark (Ghosts & Scholars)
  • Burial of William McKenzie (
    Liverpool architect and builder William McKenzie (1794 – 1851) was supposedly buried sitting up in a pyramid-shaped tomb to trick the devil, to whom he had sold his soul in exchange for luck at cards.
  • Burial of Sir Jimmy Saville (
    We were slightly mistaken in the podcast, Sir Jimmy Saville was not buried sitting up but propped up at a 45 degree angle so he could ‘see the sea’!

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