Author and Cambridge scholar M. R. James wrote some of the most chilling ghost stories in existence. Originally intended as fireside entertainment for his college friends, James’ interest in architectural history and antiquities meant that his tales were full of cursed artefacts, ancient cathedrals and unexplainable horrors from the past. What separates him from his peers is his distinct ability to describe such ghostly encounters in the most unnerving ways imaginable, a talent that prompted fellow genre enthusiast H. P. Lovecraft to name him ‘one of the few really creative masters in his darksome province’. James’ exploration of the uncanny and the supernatural, combined with the East Anglian coastal settings where his protagonists usually holidayed, places his collection of stories at the very pinnacle of British horror.
Almost as infamous as the written tales themselves are the BBC’s television adaptations, repeats of which are shown on or around December 25th every year. Initially aired between 1971 and 1975, the five hour-long adaptations were part of the series ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’, which also included a retelling of Charles Dickens’ The Signalman, alongside original creations Stigma and The Ice House. Lawrence Gordon Clark, the director of all but one of the episodes, succeeds brilliantly in conveying both the atmosphere of the locations and the sheer terror of James’ tales. The images he uses are neither overstated nor overused, and stay in the mind for a long time after: a figure in black running across a beach; the wave of hand; a disembodied voice on the wind.
One of the most well-known of Gordon Clark’s adaptations is Lost Hearts (1973), which tells the story of eleven year old Stephen who travels to the country to stay with Mr Abney, a man obsessed with obtaining immortality through the ingestion of children’s hearts (‘you’re certain you are twelve next birthday?’). At night Stephen is plagued with visions of a young gypsy girl and an Italian boy who smile with pointed teeth and scratch at the windows with their overlong fingernails. Another classic of the series is A Warning to the Curious (1972), a story set on the bleak and expansive beaches of the North-Norfolk coast. Paxton, a scholar and amateur archaeologist (much like James himself), becomes intent on discovering the last of the three lost crowns of Anglia. When eventually he unearths the relic he is pursued by a supernatural guardian until the crown is returned to its place of burial. These episodes are both unrelentingly scary, yet appropriately subtle in their approach as they attempt to mimic the near delicate touch of James’ prose.
Every few years we are treated to a brand new adaptation as part of the series’ revival, and this Christmas Sherlock creator and actor Mark Gatiss directed a retelling of The Tractate Middoth. The story, originally published in 1911, follows a young librarian as he searches for an obscure Hebrew text, unaware of its horrible significance. Set in the period in which it was written (unlike 2010’s modern update of Whistle and I’ll Come to You starring John Hurt) the episode sadly failed to live up to the standards set in the 1970s; an ineffectual piece of melodrama that lacked the sort of immediacy and imagery that something like Lost Hearts managed to display so well.
M. R. James wrote upwards of thirty ghost stories in his time, however, and many of these have become true classics of the horror genre; with any luck if ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’ continues we’ll have plenty more to scream about in years to come.