Saturday, 4 September 2010

Uncle M R James

One of the strange things about being a writer is that you end up doing events, talking about a book that is at least a year old. Very soon, I will be going up and down the country promoting The Dead of Winter, a novel I submitted to Bloomsbury in the summer of 2009. I have already submitted the 1st draft of my next novel - Mr Creecher - but that will not be published until October 2011.

This autumn is even more confused because Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror has been chosen for the Booked Up list, as I mentioned in the last post. So, before I get involved in The Dead of Winter, I though I'd talk a little bit about how Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror came about and what inspired the stories therein.

I suppose I should start by talking about M R James, as Uncle Montague is named for Montague Rhodes James. M R James has a strong association with Cambridge, where I know live - he was an undergraduate here, and was Provost of King's College between 1905 and 1918. He is best known for writing a number of classic and very English ghost stories.

But my love of M R James had nothing to do with Cambridge and began many years ago, when I was in my teens. When I first came across his stories, I lived in a large council estate on the west side of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a world far removed from that of M R James and his stories. Added to which, I did not read the stories at all - or at least not at first.

M R James told his ghost stories in his candlelit rooms at Kings as a Christmas Eve treat for friends and favourite students. The BBC decided to give us all a similar treat in the mid 1970s, by adapting M R James' stories for television. I watched Lost Hearts and A Warning to the Curious absolutely spellbound and it was only later that I noticed the name 'M R James' on the credits and sought out his stories in print. Television is not always a terrible influence.

When I thought about having a character telling the creepy tales, it seemed only fitting to make a small acknowledgment to the one of the masters of the genre by having them share a first name. The very first story he tells in my book - Climb Not - was to some extent inspired by M R James' The Ash Tree - one of the stories the BBC adapted.

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror
owes a lot to both M R James and to the BBC adaptations of his stories, but their were many more influences at work. In the next few posts I'll talk about some of those. . .


  1. Hiya Chris
    I'd like to see those adaptations, I think I've only seen 'Oh Whistle and I'll Come To You, My Lad' with Michael Hordern, maybe it's the sort of thing that might come onto BBC4 one of these days. Did you see the short series of adaptations a few years back, with Christopher Lee reading the stories as James did himself, in front of a big fire with students gathered for the stories? Those were a real Christmas treat and deserve a repeat. I really loved Number 13 (one of my favourite stories) and I think I recall very short scenes being played out. Lovely.
    Best wishes

  2. Hi there. yes the 'Whistle and I'll Come To You' was a 1960s Omnibus film by Jonathan Miller. I have that on DVD. It's great. As for the 1970s adaptations I am hoping to see some of them when I go up to Halifax for a Spooky Literature Festival this October. I don't know if any of them are available as DVDs. The ones I remember are The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Lost Hearts, The Ash Tree and A Warning to the Curious. They also did The Signalman by Dickens and a something called Schalken the Painter (or something like that). They actually did show some of them fairly recently - and it probably was BBC 4!

  3. Hi Chris - thanks for the introduction to M.R. James! Can't believe I hadn't heard of his stories. I've also just been watching a fascinating BCC documentary about him on youtube.