Rescuing Ghosts from the Shadows: Montague Rhodes James and his Curiously Converging Imaginations

by Robert A. Kraft (March 2004, for RelSt Colloquium Presentation)

Setting the Scene

Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936)\1/ is best known to scholars of early and medieval Christianity for his many publications of relatively obscure texts and related details, and especially his influential anthology The Apocryphal New Testament (1924), portions of which are still widely available on the web.\2/ Earlier, in 1920, he published the less well-known but similarly valuable The Lost Apocrypha of the Old Testament: their Titles and Fragments Collected, Translated and Discussed.\3/ In these collections, the mature author accomplished somewhat of a compromise between his technical scholarly works and his more popular fictional endeavors for which he had a reputation then, and is especially famous today, particularly in internet circles.\4/

\1/The biographical information on MRJ (as he often styled himself) is taken primairly from Montague Rhodes James by Richard William Pfaff (London: Scolar 1980); and M.R.James - An Informal Portrait by Michael A. Cox (Oxford: Oxford University Press 1983). See also A Memoir of Montague Rhodes James, with a list of his writings by A.F.Scholfield, by S.G. Lubbock (Cambridge: University Press 1939).

\2/Oxford: Clarendon Press; supplemented edition in 1953. Many of the translations of individual works from the "NT Apocrypha" available on the web are taken from this volume. It has now been replaced in print by J. Keith Elliott, The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993). For internet use of James' ANT, see (and related sites).

\3/London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge / NY: Macmillan (an electronic version is in process of being updated). This volume seems to have drawn little attention from reviewers. An excellent assessment of its contents and impact can now be found in Pfaff's biography of MRJ. Pfaff also provides a bibliography of MRJ's scholarly publications, but does not include the writings of "the other" MRJ, well known even today as an author of ghost stories (see the following note). A more complete bibliography was published by Nicholas Rogers on pp. 239-267 of The Legacy of M. R. James: Papers from the 1995 Cambridge Symposium, edited by Lynda Dennison (Donington ENG: Shaun Tyas [Paul Watkins] 2001). An electronic synthesis of these materials is now available on my web site:

\4/As we will see (e.g. n.7 below) James enjoyed writing, and performing, stories for children and spoofs of academia, in addition to his production of tales of the supernatural -- of course, these interests are not necessarily unrelated. For internet interest in MRJ as a pioneer of writing ghost stories, see and its various links. Indeed, the magazine Ghosts and Scholars focused on his work -- see .

These scholarly productions were the results of a long gestation period, if we can trust the biographers of MRJ. Already in 1879, as a precocious 16 year old Eton schoolboy, MRJ recorded in his notebook "A Complete List of all Apocryphal Books (belonging to Both Testaments), Lost and Extant, with references added shewing in what Former volumes of notes [by MRJ] may be found either Notices, Fragments, Abstracts or Translations of each Book."\5/ In the same year he began his scholarly publishing career, with unrealistic ambitions regarding the "apocryphal" materials.\6/ Decades later, in 1913, he published a slim volume of translations for children entitled Old Testament Legends, Being Stories Out of Some of the Less-Known Apocryphal Books, dedicated "to Jane and my godchildren".\7/ And in 1917, he wrote to Claude Jenkins (Lambreth Palace Librarian) and mentioned that he was "trying to make a little English book containing the bits of the lost pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament" (Pfaff 371). As Pfaff incisively observes, the "success, or failure [of the Lost Apocrypha volume], results largely from a determined attempt to write non-technically on a highly technical subject. It could be said that what MRJ had done, in fact if not intention, was to provide a manual of concise information for those who already largely know what they are looking for" (Pfaff 371). Well, not entirely; Lost Apocrypha combines generalized and popularized information along with various new materials, sometimes in rather cryptic references, but also in sometimes extensive excerpts from the author's own forays among the MSS he had examined/explored as well as reflecting his special interests in Christian hagiography, art and architecture.\8/

\5/Cited by Cox 35, from an unpublished Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge) notebook entry dated to January 1879 (alluded to by Pfaff 36). See also the letter reproduced in Pfaff (32), written only three months later (4 April 1879), with its playful reference to MRJ's future intention to publish a "Corpus Apocryphum Omnium V. T. et N. T. collegit edidit compilandum typisque committendum curavit M. R. J." [Complete Corpus of OT and NT Apocrypha, collected, edited, etc. by MRJ] in about 6 or 8 volumes.

\6/In 1879 he had his first scholarly note published ("A Latin Fragment of Plutarch's Sertorius," The Academy 16 [26 July 1879] 68), and planned to follow it with a series of "apocryphal" texts (Assumption of Moses, "3rd Baruch," Aseneth, Testament of Job; see the letter cited by Pfaff 33).

\7/Published by Longmans. Although Pfaff does not include this volume among MRJ's scholarly bibliography, he does mention it (371 n.84). He also explains there the reference to "Jane" -- the daughter of MRJ's close family friend Gwendolen McBryde with whom lifelong bachelor MRJ carried on a lifetime correspondence (see her edition Montague Rhodes James: Letters to a Friend [London: Edward Arnold1956]). MRJ's interest in children, and in storying them, is well illustrated not only by such publications, but also by his extant letters -- see, for example, his "Letters to a Child" (dated to 1903) cited on

\8/In Lost Apocrypha, James arranged the materials under the names of the biblical figures with whom they were associated, starting with Adam and working through the Jewish scriptural period to a somewhat unsure (and blatently Protestant) conclusion with Ezra (as a religious figure) on the one hand and Hezekiah (as a regal figure) on the other. Some afterthoughts and appendices dealing with materials less easy to classify (unidentified quotations in early fathers, Hystaspes, Ladder of Jacob, Lost Tribes, etc.) conclude this slim volume, which gives clear evidence of the breadth of the author's knowledge and his acquaintance with various texts and traditions scattered throughout Europe's collections, but also betrays a certain haphazardness and haste (or perhaps scholarly impatience) in presentation. "The lack of precise references is maddening, especially in a work which does provide a tremendous amount of information, albeit somewhat off-handedly. What MRJ should have written -- and could, with very little additional work -- is a proper manual for students about the 'Lost Apocrypha'" (Pfaff 372).

MRJ was the son of an evangelical Episcopal clergyman and while not exactly following in his father's path, neither did he break with that tradition.\9/ From early youth, MRJ was smitten with "Archaeology," by which he meant "all antique knowledge, ... exploring every accessible church in the holidays and writing copious notes on everything."\10/ His publications abound with descriptions and observations on church architecture and art, which also linked with his interests in "hagiology" -- the lives, deaths, and commemorations of the saints. Here he found a rich trove of little known texts and legendary materials, along with often mysterious symbols and artistic depictions. He also catalogued thousands of manuscripts during his very fruitful lifetime.

\9/In a lighthearted early publication, MRJ comments, perhaps mimicking a "Puritan" Anglican perspective, "We tolerate the Lessons from Wisdom, Ecclesiasticus [Sirach], and Baruch, which are read in October and November; but your Tobits and Judiths, your Bel and the Dragon, and Susanna, are so many unmasked imposters, and we are not quite sure, some of us, that they were not invented by the Pope" (from the Guardian of 2 Feb 1898, 163-164, cited by Pfaff 161). It is interesting that none of the latter group of names occurs in the index to Lost Apocrypha (and only Baruch of the former), although Susanna is mentioned in passing in MRJ's summary of the Apocalypse of Zephaniah, Tobit in the Prayer of Joseph discussion, and Bel & Dragon under Habakkuk. Of course, most of these names occur also in the ancient lists of books that he cites.

\10/From his autobiographical publication, Eton and King's: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875-1925 (London: Williams & Norgate 1926) 14.

His interest in religious stories and how they were told, whether in the "biblical apocrypha" as he broadly defined that category, or in hagiographical depictions, or church painting and art, obviously had an impact on his impressionable and fertile imagination. As a relatively young scholar, he defended studying "the popular beliefs of average Christians in ... earlier times" by means of the often "obscure and devious by-paths" attested by the "apocryphal literature," and wrote that "no one cares very much to investigate the apocryphal books: ... I cannot altogether sympathize with the contempt that is rather freely showered upon the literature as a whole. It is plain to be seen that most of the books are very badly written, some of them very savage and horrible, all of them most obviously unhistorical. But ought we not to be alive to the interest which they possess as being the products of human minds? To me there is real pathos in the crude attempts of these ignorant or perverted souls to tell their friends or their disciples what -- to be feared or hoped for -- lies in the unseen future, or on the other side of the grave. But if the pathos is obscured to many readers by the crude fancy or the barbarous language, not many will deny that these books possess considerable historical value. ... The apocryphal books stand in the relation of by-paths -- not always clean or pleasant -- to the broad and well-trodden high-roads of orthodox patristic literature"\12/ James saw the visual aspects of churches and manuscripts in a similar light.

\12/Apocrypha Anecdota 1 [Texts and Studies 2.3 (Cambridge: University Press 1893) vii-viii. Similar sentiments are included in the "Preface" to his 1924 Apocryphal NT, xiii.

Finding the Facts in the Fiction (and vice versa?)

Starting sometime in his twenties, MRJ not only told tall tales to his adoptive children and others but began to publish his imaginative narrations of the unusual and unexpected. He had already made a beginning of sorts in 1887, when under the pseudonym of "Prof. E. S. Merganser," he issued the pseudo-scholarly eclectic spoof "Athens in the Fourteenth Century: an Inedited Supplement to Sir John Maundeville's Travels, Published from the Rhodes MS. No. 17."\13/ During his career, he issued some other similar satires, including performed playlets with the Amateur Dramatic Club in Cambridge. He enjoyed performing, whether it involved reading stories to an audience, or acting in theatrical productions.\14/

\13/Five pages long; reprinted in the Cambridge Review of 1909. Pfaff 79 gives a summary and excerpt -- it included a muddle-worded forward by "Prof. Merganser" [a merganser is a duck-like bird] then an explanation by the alleged owner of the MS (George J. Barker), and finally the Middle English prose text about the intact Parthenon and its magnificent decorations (the "Elgin Marbles"). Whether "George J. Barker" represents a historical person is not clear.

\14/See the bibliography under "fiction spoofs/playlets." Some good examples of MRJ's use of English dialect may be found in the speech of the train workers in Runes, among others. Try reading it aloud.

In 1893, our earliest evidence emerges of MJR's penchant for "ghost stories" when he read two of his tales before the Cambridge "Chitchat Society"\15/ -- "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" (originally called "A Curious Book") and "Lost Hearts."

\15/Both were later published, and were included in various collections; recently a facsimile edition appeared as M.R. James Two Ghost Stories: A Centenary (the Ghost Story Press 1993). "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" appeared first in the National Review, March 1895 and was probably written in 1892 or 1893, for Halloween reading to friends; for notes on this story, see

Later, in retrospect, he tells us what he is doing with this genre, for which he has become a model author -- "Some Remarks on Ghost Stories" (1929). All told he published more than 30 such stories, most of which were published in the following collections:

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London: Edward Arnold 1904; various reprints)

More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (London: Edward Arnold 1911; various reprints)

A Thin Ghost and Others (London: Edward Arnold 1919; various reprints)

A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (London: Edward Arnold 1925)

The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James (London: Edward Arnold 1931; various reprints)

Also, after the collected collections, MRJ published three more stories:\16/

The biographers of MRJ sometimes recognize autobiographical details in the ghost stories. For example, several of the earliest stories are cast in locations recently visited by MRJ, and the central object in "Canon Alberic's Scrap book" is an obvious reflection of the sorts of things MRJ encountered (or would like to have encountered) on a regular basis in his rummaging through manuscript libraries. Cox observes that the stories are "rooted in Monty's Cambridge and Eton world," and are "self-consciously part of this nineteenth-century literary tradition" with which MRJ was so familiar (149). Indeed, most of them were written for oral presentation to his academic friends at Christmas time at Eton and Kings. The graphic details in his stories often derive, as would be expected, from scenes with which he was familiar -- gnarled trees, misty meres, spooky buildings and passageways. Whether the people he normally met were equally strange is another matter!

But perhaps we can also see MRJ's wistful image of himself (actually or ideally), before Kings and Eton swallowed him up for the duration of his life, in this sort of description --

"On an evening rather later in the same week, Mr Edward Dunning was returning from the British Museum, where he had been engaged in research, to the comfortable house in a suburb where he lived alone, tended by two excellent women who had been long with him" (Casting the Runes, 1911).

Perhaps we can become more closely acquainted with the prolific Cambridge don and his personal perspectives by paying closer attention to such vignettes? In any event, it is fun to try.

For convenient searching, I have created a single file containing the contents of the first two collections. If we look there for his use of "manuscript(s)," for example, we will get a taste of his use of his own experiences in constructing the stories. Similarly, words associated with "mystery/mysterious" or the occult ("magic," "alchemy" ) bring interesting results.

Try your own hunches -- church, museum, ancient, cambridge, friends (don't bother with "love" or "sex," since MRJ saw no place for such themes in his stories! Whether this tells us anything revealing about his own batchelor's life is also perhaps another matter).\17/

\17/In discussing his penchant for understatement, MRJ writes: "Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatency in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it" ("Some Remarks on Ghost Stories," 1929 [cited in Pfaff 414]).

One topic that occurred to me to trace is his treatment of "children" in the stories. After all, he is known to have written and performed stories for children. MRJ comments on their inquisitiveness in "Lost Hearts" when little 12 year old Stephen Elliot becomes "an inmate of Aswarby Hall":

Certainly there were plenty of things about the Hall and the Hall gardens which Stephen, who was of an an adventurous and enquiring turn, was anxious to have explained to him. Who built the temple at the end of the laurel walk? Who was the old man whose picture hung on the staircase, sitting at a table, with a skull under his hand? These and many similar points were cleared up by the resources of Mrs. Bunch's powerful intellect. There were others, however, of which the explanations furnished were less satisfactory.

One November evening Stephen was sitting by the fire in the housekeepers room reflecting on his surroundings. "Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?" he suddenly asked, with the peculiar confidence which children possess in the ability of their elders to settle these questions, the decision of which is believed to be reserved for other tribunals.

Children are sometimes more perceptive than adults think, as well as being inquisitive:

"What nonsense you do talk, Mr Parkes - not fit for children to listen to! Why, you'll be frightening Master Stephen there out of his wits."
"What! Master Stephen?"said Parkes, awaking to the consciousness of the boy's presence. "Master Stephen knows well enough when I'm a-playing a joke with you , Mrs . Bunch."
In fact, Stephen knew much too well to suppose that Mr. Parkes had in the first instance intended a joke. He was interested, not altogether pleasantly, in the situation; but all his questions were unsuccessful in inducing the butler to give any more detailed account of his experiences in the wine-cellar.

Children are, of course, very impressionable, and adults need to be aware of such situations. So in "The Messotint," the servant Robert Filcher (a "skip," with a quaint accent) warns:

"Well, sir, of course I don't set up my opinion again yours, but it ain't the pictur I should 'ang where my little girl could see it, sir."

"Wouldn't you, Robert? Why not?"

"No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not 'alf what that is, and we 'ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you'll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know 'ow it is with children; 'ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don't seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that's liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening sir? Thank you, sir."

"The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral" ends with the exchange:

'I suppose it is a charm or a spell: wouldn't you call it something of that kind?' said the curator.

'Yes,' I said, 'I suppose one might. What became of the figure in which it was concealed?'

'Oh, I forgot,' said he. 'The old man told me it was so ugly and frightened his children so much that he burnt it.'

Perhaps the most important role that a group of children play for MRJ is in "Casting the Runes," where the villianous Karswell is at first credited with providing "a treat" for the school children, but this action turns out very badly, consistent with Karswell's malicious character:

The first winter he was at Lufford this delightful neighbour of ours wrote to the clergyman of his parish ... and offered to show the school children some magic-lantern slides. He said he had some new kinds, which he thought would interest them. Well, the clergyman was rather surprised, because Mr. Karswell had shown himself inclined to be unpleasant to the children -- complaining of their trespassing, or something of the sort -- but of course he accepted, and the evening was fixed, and our friend went himself to see that everything went right. He said he never had been so thankful for anything as that his own children were all prevented from being there: they were at a children's party at our house, as a matter of fact. Because this Mr. Karswell had evidently set out with the intention of frightening these poor village children out of their wits, and I do believe, if he had been allowed to go on, he would actually have done so. He began with some comparatively mild things. Red Riding Hood was one, and even then, Mr. Farrer said, the wolf was so dreadful that several of the smaller children had to be taken out: And he said Mr. Karswell began the story by producing a noise like a wolf howling in the distance, which was the most gruesome thing he had ever heard. All the slides he showed, Mr. Farrer said, were most clever; they were absolutely realistic, and where he had got them or how he worked them he could not imagine. Well, the show went on, and the stories kept on becoming a little more terrifying each time, and the children were mesmerized into complete silence. At last he produced a series which represented a little boy passing through his own park -- Lufford, I mean -- in the evening. Every child in the room could recognize the place from the pictures. And this poor boy was followed, and at last pursued and overtaken, and either torn in pieces or somehow made away with, by a horrible hopping creature in white, which you saw first dodging about among the trees, and gradually it appeared more and more plainly. Mr Farrer said it gave him one of the worst nightmares he ever remembered, and what it must have meant to the children doesn't bear thinking of. Of course this was too much, and he spoke very sharply indeed to Mr. Karswell, and said it couldn't go on. All he said was: 'Oh, you think it's time to bring our little show to an end and send them home to their beds? Very well!' And then, if you please, he switched on another slide, which showed a great mass of snakes, centipedes, and disgusting creatures with wings, and somehow or other made it seem as if they were climbing out of the picture and getting in amongst the audience; and this was accompanied by a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad, and of course they stampeded. A good many of them were rather hurt in getting out of the room, and I don't suppose one of them closed an eye that night. There was the most dreadful trouble in the village afterwards. Of course the mothers threw a good part of the blame on poor Mr. Farrer, and, if they could have got past the gates, I believe the fathers would have broken every window in the Abbey.

I don't mean to suggest that in his relationships to children, MRJ tried to play the role of a Karswell, but I would think that MRJ would have had to face the problem of just how far to push the scare factor in his own narrations to children, and, of course, how to handle the vigilant parents! MRJ's use of "reticence" -- of underplaying violence and potentially terror producing "blatant" language -- probably served him well in such contexts (see above, n.17). In the sample (Alice in Wonderlandish) animal fantasies included in his "Letters to Children" (around 1903), there is little danger of provoking any terror in the hopefully amused recipients. For example:

So that if on about Friday fortnight, a small and very muddy brown owl should present itself at Ellergreen and mention my name and try to effect an entrance and join you at tea you must not place too much reliance upon any statements it may make about me. It would be kind too, to warn the authorities of the Temperance Association that little benefit is to be expected from any meeting that it may express a wish to hold. The bird, I may add, has a shifty red eye, and will probably go to sleep more than once while you are talking to it. I must say that I never expected to meet with so striking a confirmation of the old saying, "As drunk as an owl".

The whole story seems to show how carefully one ought to be. I could not avoid telling you of it and I hope you will forgive me if the alarm turn out to be a false one.

Now then, take a few minutes to read a complete ghost story or two. My recommendations would be the very first in the list, "Canon Alberic's Scrap-book" (1893), with its focus on the hero acquiring fragments of old manuscripts including a depiction of Solomon's relationship to demonic influences, and for something later, "Casting the Runes" (1911), with someone named Dunning as a main character who frequents the British Museum reading room (but with a somewhat anticlimactic ending). Enjoy!