In the annals of the spooky and the halls of the haunted, few names command as much respect as M.R. James. Considered one of the masters of the Ghost story – a different beast from the ‘horror story’ mind – James’ work has flittered and gibbered across the literary and cinematic landscape sine he first wrote his short stories in the early decades of the twentieth century. In the late 60s and 70s the BBC began adapting his work as part of a one-episode a year ‘series’ that came to be known as ‘A Ghost Story for Christmas’. While possessed (pardon the pun) of their share of flaws, these stories nevertheless remain among the most ambitious attempts at atmospheric television ever produced. Unnerving rather than shocking, ghoulish as opposed to ghastly, they have been recently released on DVD and are worthy of a visit.
James was an academic, a member of that dwindling race of bent and bespectacled men wrapped in tweed and woolly sweaters, stalking libraries and sunlit chambers twinkling with dust. His stories are vast landscapes speckled with lonely, overeducated bachelors who are perhaps too curious, and possessed of too much free time, for their own good. The title of ‘A warning to the curious’ the 1972 BBC adaptation, can stand as a plot summation of most of James’ work, but a certain predictability doesn’t detract from this story’s quality. An out of work middle-aged man comes to the desolate coast of East Anglia, searching for a long-lost pagan crown, only to find himself menaced by a spectral guardian. In between the expected story beats there is a pulsing heart of unease, due in no small part to the quality of performers, and of the production.
The cinematography is superb – a slow tableau of grey beaches encased beneath frigidly blue skies, their hollow vastness broken only by the occasional crumbling church steeple. The players of the story are often made tiny and fragile in the framing of these expanses, yet the reliable stable of British character actors ensure we sympathise with their fates.
The spooks, and this is true of all of these adaptations, work better as vague presences rather than explicit menaces. The BBC of the time was famous for the wobbly special effects of programs such as Doctor Who, and the producers of this series, aware of their limitations, chose to keep the ghosts offscreen as much as possible. Just as well – in many episodes (such as the otherwise nearly perfect ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ of 1968) the ultimate reveal of the spectre is the story’s most glaring shortcoming (Bedsheets? Really?).
As the 70s progressed, the episodes began to dig deeper into the James canon, picking out some of his lesser-known tales. James, despite being the almost archetypical ghost story writer, had a tendency for featuring some very untypical ghosts. Indeed, they are less pale, bloodless phantoms and more…somethings…that squirt and clamber through the narrative, their natures and limitations unnervingly unclear. The somethings of ‘The Ash Tree’ are particularly well realised, with their tell-tale cry, resembling a baby’s whine for milk, inspiring shivers long before they make their appearance. The something of ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ is also notable: sometimes flapping about like a bat, yet leaving a slimy trail like a vast slug, yet in appearance it may (or may not?) be no more than an unassuming hooded monk. This is a well-paced and well-performed episode, helping us forget that its plot is virtually identical to ‘A Warning to the Curious’.
The last three episodes of the series (76-79) abandoned James for one Dickens adaptation and two original stories. Yet the shadow of M.R. James dominated the memory of this very unusual series, inspiring several latter day ‘homages’ by the BBC in the 2000s.
James was placed at the very end of English rural era, when ghosts occupied isolated farmlands and wind-swept desolations. The ever expanding cities and the urban transformation of the country more or less spelled the death-knell for such stories, as fewer and fewer young folk grew up knowing the particular panic of hearing a branch crack while walking alone on a moonlit country road, or seeing a strange figure pursue you along the blustery coastline. Today our fears tend to be focused on the flesh and blood rather than the spectral, with recent horror cinema in particular focusing on knife-wielding madmen, or zombies (a popular stand-in for the average person’s not-unreasoned terror of the rush-hour crowd). The wilderness that the English ghost once inhabited has been physically reduced and has largely been abandoned by the popular imagination.
This abandonment might explain the bitterness and rage exhibited by James’ ghosts – they are excessively vindictive, for example, and even returning their treasure/seeking out religious protection/escaping their territory may not be enough to quell their wrath. They saw their time was nearly up, and decided to take as many of the bastards with them as possible. Still, whether as taken as ‘warnings to the curious’ or as relics of an age when a tale of terror was almost…genteel…these stories and their BBC interpretations are particular somethings indeed.
Well played, well shot and most importantly well told, they are proof that the old-fashioned spook story hasn’t quite yet given up the ghost.