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Montague Rhodes James, Collected Ghost Stories

Ed. Darryl Jones, Oxford University Press, 2011, xxxvi + 468 p. ISBN 978-019-956884-0
Sophie Mantrant
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Montague Rhodes James, Collected Ghost Stories, ed. Darryl Jones, Oxford University Press, 2011, xxxvi + 468 p. ISBN 978-019-956884-0

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1A biblical scholar, palaeographer and lover of old manuscripts, Montague Rhodes James (1862–1936) published a great many scholarly works, but he is best remembered for his ghost stories, many of which were originally read aloud to friends. One of their distinguishing features is the richness of their antiquarian background and they are usually considered as among the finest achievements in what is sometimes labelled the ‘antiquarian subgenre’ of the ghost story. In his ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’ (1927), H. P. Lovecraft describes M. R. James as ‘gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life’.

2Oxford University Press has just released a beautiful hardcover collection of all of James’s ghost stories, including the posthumous ‘A Vignette’. In addition, the book offers a scholarly introduction, a select bibliography, a chronology of M. R. James, an appendix, and over forty pages of explanatory notes. The editor, Darryl Jones, is a senior lecturer at Trinity College, Dublin, and he has written extensively about horror in fiction.

3The introduction first underlines the influence of the East Anglian landscape as well as of educational institutions on the writer’s work. James spent most of his childhood in rural Suffolk, was educated at King’s College, Cambridge, where he was later appointed Provost, before filling the same position at Eton. Many of his stories have East Anglian settings and stage academics or antiquarian scholars, for example ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’, a typically Jamesian story and probably one of his best known. Darryl Jones then draws the portrait of James as a conservative, staunchly opposed to new ways of thinking and writing. He was critical of T. H. Huxley and called James Joyce a ‘prostitutor of life and language’. It is implied that it was only natural that James should have turned to the ghost story, which is described by Jones as a conservative form. Although there is certainly much to be said in favour of this view, the conservatism of the short story is stated rather than demonstrated and a reference to some critical work examining this aspect would not have come amiss. The recurrent features of James’s stories are then discussed, among them the images of the monstrous-feminine (with reference to Barbara Creed and Julia Kristeva) and the often interrelated motifs of spiders and hairiness. Jones finds in them an element of sexual terror which, he suggests, is to be seen in light of the author’s biography and psychology. While this is undeniably a valid approach, it seems superfluous to mention that James was rebuked for wearing his hair too long as a young man... More generally, the focus being mainly on subject-matter approached from a psychological angle, the introduction does not offer a detailed discussion of James’s narrative skills or his skills at mimicking the colourful speech of his characters; but Jones does give a very clear idea of the kind of ghost fiction that is to follow.

4The extensive and detailed notes provide valuable information and sometimes even interpretative clues. To explore these paths further, the reader may turn to the up-to-date select bibliography (22 items), which includes material published in 2010. Besides biographical works, the bibliography contains critical studies of James’s work as well as more general, book-length studies of the ghost story.

5The Appendix, ‘M. R. James on Ghost Stories’, is a most valuable addition and a must-read for anyone interested in the craft of ghost fiction. It gathers the key passages in which James exposes his views on how ghost stories should be written, including the famous discussion of the ‘loophole’ device extracted from the introduction to Ghosts and Marvels (1924). In James’s view, a ghost story writer should allow the possibility of a natural explanation, but this so-called loophole should be ‘so narrow as not to be quite practicable’. Other comments are not as well known and their inclusion is undoubtedly one of the strong points of the book. The first extract may seem rather out of place, being mainly about the illustrations James McBryde was to have provided for Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), but the choice is in keeping with the stress placed on James’s attitude to men in the introduction, where a whole page is devoted to his feelings for McBryde. Besides, this first extract also contains James’s much quoted statement that his sole purpose in writing ghost stories was to cause his readers to feel ‘pleasantly uncomfortable’ when walking along a deserted road at dusk or sitting beside a dying fire. In addition to giving an opportunity to experience this creepy feeling, this new collection offers valuable information on both the texts and their author. The introduction may leave some paths unexplored, but it fulfils its function of highlighting the most salient features of M. R. James’s short stories and pointing the way to further study.

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Sophie Mantrant, « Montague Rhodes James, Collected Ghost Stories »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 79 Printemps | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2014, consulté le 28 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Sophie Mantrant

Université de Lorraine

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