Tuesday, 29 January 2008

And speaking of M R James. . .

M R James was on my mind a lot last year, one way and another. Uncle Montague was named after him and the stories are set in the fusty, oppressive world he and Saki portrayed so well. Uncle Montague's tales deliberately aim at the sort of dreamlike atmosphere James evoked in his classic ghost stories and I now live in Cambridge where James, as Provost of King's College and later Vice-Chancellor of the University, would read those stories to invited guests in his rooms at Christmas.

I was asked to write a piece about James for Deathray magazine recently and I pointed out that I initially came to him via television. In the 1970s, the BBC had the inspired idea of adapting M R James' stories as creepy Christmas treats (echoing those readings at Kings). The BBC repeated some of these classic adaptations this Christmas, including the earlier, 1968, weird and wonderful Omnibus film, Whistle and I'll Come to You, directed by Jonathan Miller.

And I visited my old friend Francis Mosley in Bath last summer and discovered he was illustrating M R James for the Folio Society. He sent me a copy of the book at the end of last year and it is a lovely thing. It is not easy to illustrate James - the drawings need to be as subtle as the storytelling or the spell is broken - but Francis's etchings hit just the right note. His beautiful illustration to The Tractate Middoth is a particular favourite.

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