Montague R. James

Genres - Horror

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Montague Rhodes James, usually referred to as M.R. James or Montague R. James, led the quiet life of an academic virtually from childhood. Born in 1862 in Kent, England, he developed a love of reading while still a young boy, and was known for preferring the company of books and the environment of the library to the companionship of friends. By the time he attended school at Eton and later at King's College, he was a dedicated scholar, and subsequently joined the staff of the Fitzwilliam Museum as an assistant in classical archeology. His dissertation, entitled "The Apocalypse of St. Peter," earned him the rank of fellow at King's College at age 25, and he later became provost of the college. James subsequently held a similar position at Eton from 1905 until his death 21 years later. Widely known in his own time as a biographer, medieval scholar, reviewer, biblical scholar, as well as a writer on the subject of antiques, James also had a pet interest in the occult and supernatural that would outlive him by decades and constitute his major literary legacy.

M.R. James came to horror writing in his early thirties, writing his first ghost story, Canon Alberic's Scrap-book, in 1894, for the entertainment of friends over the Christmas holidays. He amassed more such works over the ensuing decade and published his first body of short stories, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, in 1904, followed six years later by More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary. In 1919 he published A Thin Ghost, and followed this with A Warning to the Curious (1925). In between the release of those two collections of his own work, he assembled and published the first modern compilation of horror stories by one of his idols, J. Sheridan LeFanu, entitled Madame Crowl's Ghost (1923), which led to a revival of interest in LeFanu's work 50 years after his death. LeFanu's story Carmilla became the basis for one of the most important horror movies of the early sound era, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Vampyr. In 1922, James published the supernatural fairy-tale children's novel The Five Jars. And in 1924, he also wrote a story, A Haunted Doll's House, specifically to fill one of the miniature volumes in the library of a celebrated doll's house belonging to Queen Mary. A compilation containing most of James' work, The Collected Ghost Stories, appeared in 1931 (five years before his death). His most famous story is probably Casting the Runes, a chilling tale of devil worship gone awry, which became the only one of James' tales to be turned into a feature film: the 1957 Jacques Tourneur release Curse of the Demon (aka Night of the Demon). M.R. James' other works, however, provided a rich lode of source material for radio, starting in 1938 with Martin's Close. Casting the Runes was also adapted to radio as early as 1947, and Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad has received several such treatments across the decades. In 1951, the American television suspense series Lights Out! brought James' work to the small screen for the first time with The Lost Will of Dr. Rant, starring Leslie Nielsen, Russell Collins, and Pat Englund, and British television was still doing new adaptations of his stories in 2004.