How M R James’s ghost stories became a Christmas institution

M R James is, by general agreement, the most accomplished of British ghost story creators - the perfect antidote to Dickens's sickly sweet "A Christmas Carol".

Silent fright: spine-chillers thrive on the holiday from rationalism that Christmas induces. Photo: Robin Halioua

The “family Christmas” was institutionalised by Prince Albert and Queen Victoria. The Christmas ghost story was institutionalised around the same time by Charles Dickens, who had realised the market value of the holly-festooned gift book and was, in his later years, in the habit of plumping out his weekly papers Household Words and All the Year Round with “double” editions at Yuletide. It wasn’t just the goose that got fat. The seasonal stuffing was fiction, spine-chillers and heart-warmers, short enough to be consumed as hors d’oeuvres to the banquet.

Amid a mood of holiday relaxation, these stories worked best if read aloud, ideally by the paterfamilias, in an atmosphere of intimacy. Dickens liked to read his Christmas stories and books ahead of publication to invited friends around his hearth. There’s a charming sketch by Daniel Maclise picturing the Inimitable reading his 1844 effort The Chimes. Thomas Carlyle is in the place of honour at the author’s right hand, looking as if a particularly sharp spasm of his chronic constipation has just stabbed his vitals.

The best known of the Dickensian ghost stories is the sickly sweet A Christmas Carol. The much scored-over manuscript now resides in the Morgan Library in New York. Legend has it that J P Morgan, the old robber baron, liked to read from it to his family on Christmas Eve.

M R James is, by general agreement, the most accomplished of British ghost story creators. His own age saw his accomplishments differently – as those of a self-made man, a country parson’s youngest son who ended his life crowned with the highest honours won by sheer superiority of mind. The obituaries, when James died in 1936, made scant reference to his spine-chillers. There were greater things to memorialise.

Young Montague (“Monty” to his friends) was brought up in Suffolk. He celebrates the county’s bleak beauty in stories such as “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”. Brilliant from his earliest years, he won a scholarship to Eton, where he displayed an interest in biblical apocrypha and the college’s extensive collection of medieval manuscripts. Winning prizes on every rung of his rise in academic life, he outshone all his contemporaries at King’s College, Cambridge, as undergraduate, fellow and, in his early forties, provost.

True to the monastic traditions of the university, he never married. He was, it is now assumed, gay – but either “non-practising” or so discreet that it amounted to the same thing. To his father’s disappointment, he never took orders and his devotion to Anglican religion was probably formal. In 1918, he was appointed provost of Eton. He died, aged 73, in post. A late-life memoir is entitled Eton and King’s, which just about says it all.

In the time he could spare from his duties (which he took seriously), he undertook a massive cataloguing exercise of medieval manuscripts, books and sundry literary remains. His ghost stories are glistening splinters of that decades-long labour. They, too, became an institution over the years. Every Christmas, James invited a select audience; he wrote until the last moment. Then, as one observer recalled the annual ritual: “Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read, with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible script in the dim light.” Christmas brings out the ham in all of us.

The BBC got in on the institutionalising racket in the 1970s. It perceived that Christmas viewing patterns were demographically unusual – all the family would gather around the TV set, as they would around the turkey. The result was the series A Ghost Story for Christmas, the brainchild of Lawrence Gordon Clark, which ran over the holiday viewing period as 45-minute episodes from 1971 to 1978 (the series was also revived in the mid-2000s). The first five were dramatisations of M R James stories; the sixth, The Signalman, was an adaptation of a Dickens story published in All the Year Round. It’s a welcome antidote to A Christmas Carol’s saccharine overdose, drawing on the post-traumatic stress of the Staplehurst railway disaster in which the author and his mistress, Nelly, were nearly killed. The result here: a spectral signalman signalling something more sinister than an on-time through train. You can sample the story in the BBC box set or, if you’re a cheapskate, on YouTube.

The Signalman is judged the best of this pioneering set but all are excellent. The opening episode, The Stalls of Barchester, is echt M R James. It runs a dark thread through the cosiness of Trollope’s Barsetshire novels, with the gargoyles’ slime all over the cathedral, let loose by macabre doings in the crypts and cloisters. You’ll never read Barchester Towers in the same way again. There’s something evil under the pews.

The ghost story thrives on that holiday from rationalism, clear thinking and emotional self-restraint, which Christmas induces (even the most rigid of republicans may feel a spark of allegiance at three o’clock on 25 December, fight it as they will). Anyone who gives it a moment’s thought realises it’s a survival from the pagan world, specifically the appetitive orgies of the feast of Saturn. Ghost stories pander to the unextinguished primitivism that, like the fat in streaky bacon (a favourite Dickens image) is still with us. As M R James catalogued that mass of ancient writings it must have gone through his mind: did not these mouldering documents contain a larger grain of truth within them than the latest scientific paper from the Cavendish?

James adapts wonderfully well to the small screen. Mark Gatiss, whose creative juices seem to be running at flood levels at the moment, recalls: “The wonderful adaptations of M R James’s tales that I saw on TV as a child [he’s 47] have been a lasting inspiration to me.” The BBC has duly commissioned him to harness his inspiration for a version of a hitherto unadapted story, “The Tractate Middoth”.

The scenario is simple. A rich, diabolically misanthropic clergyman has surrounded himself with ancient books. He has a “soul like a corkscrew”. He has two possible heirs – one, John, he hates; the other, a harmless widow with a daughter, he despises. As he dies, he resorts to mortmain (“the hand of the dead”), the will that outlasts the body. His vast property he leaves, by one will, to his male heir. A later will leaves everything to the heiress. Yet he has secreted the revised will in an ancient and particularly sinister book: The Tractate Middoth. He has donated this to a rare book library – but which one? And, if it is found (which, 20 years later, it is), what dark forces will the Tractate release?

Gatiss makes confident changes to his source text. He moves the main action from the Edwardian period to the 1950s. He introduces characters, a deathbed scene (which James might have thought a trifle heavy-handed) and Doctor Who-style visual effects. He makes the young hero a jaunty Cambridge undergraduate, not a beaten-down assistant librarian. It all works, although for those who love the story it jolts a bit.

Two things combine to make the M R James story as perfect in its “movement” as a Swiss watch: brevity and a feather-light touch. Henry James had the necessary delicacy but in his over-rated “Christmas-tide toy”, The Turn of the Screw, he went on 100 pages too long. “Ghost novel” is a contradiction in terms. Suggestion, rather than precise narrative linkage, Lawrence Gordon Clark decreed, was the only way to contain a good story within a 45-minute time frame. Gatiss observes the rule of Clark.

The other rule in ghost stories is to appreciate that ghosts are not dangerous in themselves but dangerous in the unsettling effects they produce. Ask anyone what they consider to be the most horrible moment in M R James’s fiction and the chances are that they will come up with the passage in “Casting the Runes” in which, waking in the dark, Mr Dunning puts his hand under the pillow to get his watch and: “What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being.” On the face of it, that mouth should be no more frightening than the false teeth in the glass on the bedside table. The ghostly mouth doesn’t bite or even lick the hand. It’s just there and it shouldn’t be. It stops the heart.

Love them as one does, there’s something inherently donnish about M R James’s stories. And toffish. One appreciates the charm while knowing that one’s not of the class that was invited to those select Christmas events at Eton and King’s. Boris Johnson would have fit in well enough. Not us.

In 1972, reviewing “The Exorcism”, an episode of the BBC series Dead of Night, Raymond Williams asked if socialism had any place in the ghost story genre. The episode, written and directed by Don Taylor, centres on a middle-class couple entertaining friends on Christmas Eve in their enviably comfortable second home in the country. It’s a converted artisan’s cottage. A family once starved to death there, at Christmas, after the man of the house was hanged for taking part in a labourer’s revolt. “It is,” wrote Williams, “a feeling many of us have had, who live in old houses: that the walls might speak, ought to speak.” But, somehow, Williams concluded, “The Exorcism” doesn’t quite work. Such real horrors are out of place in the ghost story, which requires you to turn your brain off. So, as you tune into The Tractate Middoth this Yuletide, don’t think, enjoy.

“The Tractate Middoth” is on BBC2 on Christmas Day at 9.30pm, followed by the documentary “M R James: Ghost Writer” at 10.05pm. The six-DVD box set “Ghost Stories for Christmas” is out now (BFI, £59.99)