Saturday, 22 December 2007


Outside, the cold wind is howling. Tree branches scrape across the window sill and the moon lights up a snow-covered lawn where a procession of footprints lead to the front door. Inside, it's warm. A roaring log fire, one glass of mulled wine on the table alongside a plate of mince pies. All is quiet now, save for the sound of a ticking clock which will soon be drowned by the chimes of midnight. It's late but still time for one more story before bedtime. One more tale from the master of the classic ghost story.

Montague Rhodes James was born in 1862 near Bury St Edmonds. He was educated at Eton and Kings College, Cambridge and elected a fellow of Kings in 1887. From 1913-15, James was vice chancellor of Cambridge University and was appointed provost at Eton college in 1918. During his time at Cambridge, James would gather together his friends and colleagues and entertain them by reading a series of his ghost stories, making those winter's evenings seem a good deal darker. Today, those blood-curdling tales seem more popular than ever, with DVD's, audio CD's and TV productions introducing James to a new generation of admirers. For me, his magic works best on the printed page and his book "Collected Ghost Stories" is essential reading for any dedicated fan of supernatural fiction. Here' you'll find 30 tales which serve as a warning to the curious of the dangers involved in the pursuit of knowledge. The author specialised in medieaval manuscripts supplemented by decoration, and also biblical texts of uncertain authenticity where the authorship was in question. In James' stories, the central character is usually a scholar who arrives at a historic building with the aim of deciphering ancient manuscripts; an action which invariably awakens dark forces. James' work succeeds on a number of levels: He's an absolute master at manufacturing tension, taking what first appear to be mundane characters and prompting us to become immersed in their work, before moving on to shake us with lovingly applied descriptions of things/beings we'd rather not know about. For sure, our local church has never seemed the same again after reading 'The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral' and olde worlde English hotels have often brought to mind his 'Number 13' ; a story where something is most definitely rotten in Denmark as a trio of petrified men play unwilling hosts to unearthly cries that eminate from a room that doesn't exist. (un)Fortunately for us, James insisted his ghosts be largely malevolent types rather than spirits who are driven by the forces of good, and the pacing of his tales ensure their appearances hit home with real menace. Check out 'The Wailing Well': a story of boy scouts who witness the most hideous of ends for one of their number who dares to encroach within an off-limits area known as 'The Red Ring'. Many of James' stories have been translated into TV productions. WHISTLE, AND I'LL COME TO YOU' and A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS are both available on BFI DVDs, and Christopher Lee's 'Ghost Stories For Christmas' on the BBC featured Lee reading 'The Ash Tree', 'Number 13', 'A Warning To The Curious' and 'The Stalls Of Barchester'. My own favourite TV production was first broadcast on BBC2 in 1986. Here, Robert Powell gave beautiful readings of 'The Ash Tree', 'Wailing Well', 'Oh Whistle, And I'll Come To You, My Lad' and 'The Mezzotint'; the latter being a story that has often compelled me to fearfully glance back at many of the paintings I come into contact with. Ultimately, I think James greatest strength was his ability to transform everyday places of learning into palaces of the damned. Just imagine sitting down in a library whose silent population decreases as the hours go by. Where shadows lengthen and even the tiniest sound takes on enormous magnitude.

James understood the meaning of fear, and his stories still send those icy shivers down the spines of his readers.

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