Medieval scholar and ghost writer, Montague Rhodes James was born at Goodnestone Parsonage on the 1 August 1862, the son of Herbert James, a clergyman and Mary Emily (née Horton). His time in Kent was short, and his family moved to Great Livermere, Suffolk when M.R. James was aged 3.
An eminent academic, James held the office of Provost of King's College, Cambridge (1905-1918), Provost of Eton College (1918-1936) and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge (1913-1915). He was also Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and a Fellow of the British Academy. His work The ancient libraries of Canterbury and Dover. The catalogues of the libraries of Christ church priory and St. Augustine's abbey at Canterbury and of St. Martin's priory at Dover was published in 1903.
As well as his academic work, James was a writer of ghost stories. James largely dismissed his tales. 'These stories are meant to please and amuse us,' he writes in his essay Ghosts -- Treat Them Gently (Evening News – 17th April 1931). 'If they do so, well; but, if not, let us relegate them to the top shelf and say no more about it.'
Despite this reticence, he is widely known and referred to as the 'master of the ghost story'.
A number of James's ghost stories have been adapted for television and film. Following the 1968 adaptation of Whistle and I'll Come to You (1968) directed by Jonathan Miller and starring Michael Hordern as Professor Parkin, the BBC broadcast the series A Ghost Story for Christmas between 1971 and 1978, dramatising five MR James stories The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral (1971), A Warning to the Curious (1972), Lost Hearts (1973), The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974) and The Ash Tree (1975). More recent BBC adaptations are A View From a Hill (2005), Number 13 (2006), Whistle and I'll Come to You (2010), The Tractate Middoth (2013) and Martin's Close (2019).
James's story Casting the Runes inspired the film Night of the Demon (1957). In the story, Karswell, an alchemist and occultist, takes the train to Dover en route to the Continent. As he arrives in Dover, the ghostly apparition of John Harrington, a book reviewer who died in a freak accident after he was cursed by Karswell, is spotted by a railway official. When the official calls out: 'You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show his ticket?' Karswell snarls angrily: 'What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?' The railway official puzzles about what he has seen and 'In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, the long line of the Dover lamps, the night breeze, and the moon.'
Notable works (Ghost stories)
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)
More Ghost Stories (1911)
A Thin Ghost and Others (1919)
A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925)