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Friday 15 November 2002, 23:02 - 23:30

PROGRAMME 5: Muriel Gray on M R James

Picture of writer M R James.Montague Rhodes James was a great scholar in his day, but he is mainly remembered for his ghost stories - which are still in print. He was 'gifted with an almost diabolic power of calling horror by gentle steps from the midst of prosaic daily life'.

Born in 1862 Goodnestone Parsonage, Kent, where his father was curate, the James family moved soon afterwards to Livermere in Suffolk. It seems he had nightmares as a child - a possible connection with his choice of genre.

James' childhood seems to have been a happy, though excessively bookish, one, but he was always interested (if not obsessed) with the macabre. As a young man he liked to collect stories about the martyrdom of saints '..the more atrocious the better'.

James studied at Eton, which he loved, and was known as 'the learned boy'. He then moved on to King's College Cambridge, and after graduating he became an assistant in Classical archaeology at Fitzwilliam museum and later lectured in divinity.

He rose up the academic ladder at Kings to Provost and then Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University between 1913 and 1915. His research led him to travel and he used his experiences abroad in the settings of stories.

At Cambridge, Monty began a tradition of writing ghost stories to read on Christmas Eve, after the Kings Chapel carol service, spiced beer and dinner in Hall. After the First World War, which was obviously a miserable time at Cambridge, he moved to Eton as Provost.

Many of his ghost stories use the device of an extremely rational dusty old academic faced with a completely irrational supernatural presence which he is unable to explain.

'..the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.'

M R James died in post as Provost at Eton in 1936. He never made any great claims for his stories 'If any of them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.'

Picture of broadcaster Muriel Gray.Muriel Gray is perhaps best known as a TV and radio presenter, starting out on Channel 4's The Tube in early 80s. She is also the author of three horror novels, one of which takes the plot of an M R James story and sets it among in the present day. Muriel has also written a book on climbing the Munros. Her TV production company Ideal World is one of the biggest in the UK.

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