Mark Gatiss Is My Nemesis

The BBC have been pretty lax with their ghost stories in the past decade or two; after a boom of televisual rediscovery in the 1960s and ’70s, we’ve only had a handful of M.R. James adaptations since 2005’s ultrabland A View from a Hill, with each one proving just a bit lousier than the last.*

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the BBC, and Mark Gatiss is the sun.  BBC Two recently announced that Gatiss will be adapting the James story ‘The Tractate Middoth’ (it’s a good ’un) to be part of the channel’s Christmas programming. I have above-average hopes for this: while I think Gatiss, with his League of Gentlemen and Crooked House credentials, is well-placed for a decent and creepy but (one hopes) non-psychosexual retelling, BBC adaptations have always been problematic, even when made by self-confessed James fanatics. The creators stray too far from the original stories, attempting to make their own marks as writers and directors, ultimately going so far as neuter the stories of their only purpose for existing in the first place—to scare people. I also found Crooked House’s narrative a little bit clunky and confused, but this time Gatiss is starting off with excellent source material. And, you know, Sherlock.

Gatiss will also be conducting a documentary on James called Ghost Writer, in which he ‘will try to solve one of the great literary mysteries: how this donnish Victorian bachelor, conservative by nature and a devout Anglican, created tales that continue to chill readers a century on.’ Good luck with that, Mark. I did nine months of academic research on the life and work of James and I still have no real clue, just a few theories.

(Which is also why I’m pretty annoyed no one called me about this. I mean, we’re still friends BBC, but don’t expect a birthday message from me on your Facebook this year. Same goes for you, Gatiss. But I suppose I can’t stay mad at you, because, you know, Sherlock.)

I suspect Gatiss will find, as I did, that there’s no definitive answer to that question, and that ultimately it’s less an all-consuming mystery than a mild curiosity.

Of course, if you’re at all interested in M.R. James’s stories and the man himself, my Curious Library ebook will be out in Spring 2014. I’ll be sharing some of my own flights of fancy about James with you, although I expect much of it to be damned lies (the best kind).

* I fucking love footnotes! Find out a bit more on James and the BBC’s adaptations in my Electric Sheep magazine article, ‘M.R. James’s Christmas Ghosts’.


M.R. James Is a Bit of a Jerk

Many years ago when I was knee-high to a grasshopper (what does that even mean?), I used to scare myself to sleep with ghost stories. I would habitually stay awake reading until 2, 3 or even 4 in the morning, and then spend at least 15 minutes building up the courage to turn off the light for sleep. Depending on the quality of the stories I’d read that night, the light might stay on.

I found that when it came to scary stories, I favoured both short fiction and British authors from an era gone by. Something about the supernatural and inexplicable, combined with a healthy descriptive restraint, burrowed into my brain and lodged in its emotional core. I read some collections but mostly anthologies, and two of my very favourite texts were edited by Michael Cox (a book editor) and R.A. Gilbert (an antiquarian bookseller). I highly recommend them both:

The Oxford Book of Victorian Ghost Stories

The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories

The latter title included a story by M.R. James called ‘Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’. And I hated it. Hated it with a bizarre passion. It was stupid and boring, I told myself, and I felt let down that Cox and Gilbert, whom I trusted, would consider it a worthy read for connoisseurs or even novices of the genre. That night the light stayed off.

The next night, despite not having read any further stories, the light stayed on.

You see, this story that I thought I despised had got into my head. I kept thinking about it, and I couldn’t stop. Unlike most ghost stories that evoke thrilling fear only for their duration, the horror (mistaken for hate) I felt from ‘Oh Whistle’ actually grew after the story finished.

From that moment on I sought out every ghost story James had ever written and read them multiple times. I wanted to know who he was and how he did his job so well, how he wrote stories that often seemed tame but got under my skin in the worst way. James took a back seat to study and work as I got older, but when I decided to do a master’s degree in history in my late twenties, I did it on James and his stories (look, he died in 1936 – that makes him history so it’s totally not cheating).

It turns out James was a rather pleasant, old-fashioned, even-tempered man who just happened to have a knack for scaring the living crap out of multiple generations of readers.