Best MR James Adaption. Ever!

I’ll start this off with a bit of a catch-up for those of you who don’t know who MR James is.  Those of you do know his work and just want to know why you should fork out your hard-earned cash for the dvds I’m going to describe, skip on down to the section marked DVD Review.

Have they gone?  Right.  Newbies, listen up.

Who is MR James?

Simply put, he is one of the finest writers of ghost stories the world has known.  I won’t bore you with biographical detail, save to tell you that in life he was a Cambridge academic with a particular interest in medieval studies.  He made a ritual every Christmas of inviting a select audience to his rooms to regale them with his latest stories of the supernatural – and what stories!  These are the Real Thing.  Forget your schlock horror, your tawdry butchers tales and your technicolour nightmares, these are elegant stories meant to be told by flickering firelight; comforting at first, then gradually unsettling the listener more and more until the unthinkable becomes undeniable.  Spinechilling treasures from the olden days.

You may have seen the adaptation of ‘Oh Whistle And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’ starring John Hurt over Christmas.  It was an effective adaptation, brought up to date and altered somewhat, but managing to retain some of James’ quiet brooding menace.  If you are fortunate you may have heard Christopher Lee’s readings of some of James’ best stories on the radio at Christmas a number of years back, and if you have ever seen the classic televised adaptations by the BBC from the seventies starring among others, Sir Michael Hordern, then I don’t know why you’re reading this bit at all – you should have jumped straight down to the review in a fit of pique that I could dare claim any new adaptation was better.

Still here?

Right.  If you’ve a taste for classic literature with all it’s wonderfully rich language and long complicated sentences, you need to track down the stories and read them.  Now.  It won’t take you long.  The version I’ve got is published by Penguin and contains pretty much every ghost story he wrote.  I think I payed £1.99 for it, back in the day.  All of them are top quality, but the best of the bunch for my money are ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book’, ‘Lost Hearts’, ‘Oh Whistle An I’ll Come To You, My Lad’, ‘The Stalls Of Barchester Cathedral’ and ‘A Warning To The Curious.’

Draw the curtains, turn off the lights and read them under the duvet with a torch.  Just don’t expect to sleep well.

DVD Reviews

Last year I attended the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth and was privileged to see Robert Lloyd Parry perform A Warning To The Curious and Lost Hearts in an intimate little theatre.  I was absolutely blown away and immediately after getting home I researched to see what else he had done and whether anything was available on DVD.  I was very pleased to discover that both the show I had seen and another show (comprising of Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book and The Mezzotint) were indeed available to purchase direct from the theatre company’s website

Now I’ve said perform and perform I mean, but these are not dramatisations of the stories.  We do not see the action in the conventional manner of adaptations.  You will have perhaps observed that Robert Lloyd Parry bears more than a passing resemblance to MR James, and it is the part of the author that he plays, in a sense, for he tells the tales to the audience in much the same way that James told his devoted friends and pupils at his Christmas get-togethers.

Seated in a comfortable armchair, fireplace aglow, books, brandy and candlesticks beside him Parry tells us the tales like a terrible secret passed on in confidence, sweating and stammering as the tension builds.  He gives each character distinct voice and mannerisms, appears himself to be as swept up in memory as we become in the unfolding drama and – his absolute genius – catching himself, holding himself back, convincing us of the truth of the matter as much by what he doesn’t say as what he does.  It is truly enthralling to watch.

I will give only the briefest of overviews to the stories, because I have no wish to spoil things for those unfamiliar with them.

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-Book concerns a young man’s discovery of a very old book containing an all too realistic image of evil.

Lost Hearts tells the tale of a young orphan taken in by his ‘kindly’ old uncle, a man with hidden depths and dark designs.

A Warning To The Curious tells of the discovery of an ancient crown and the young archaeologists terrified need to put it back.

The Mezzotint is another tale of suspense where brutal history appears to unfold within a pictureframe.

It is impossible to judge them against each other in terms of the quality of performance or the cinematography, for they are naturally of a piece.  In the imaginations of all James enthusiasts these tales were meant to be read aloud, were meant for a particular setting and it is in these terms that I judge these adaptations to be the best adaptations ever.  The quintessential ghost story experience.

Buy them.  Watch them in the dark.

(You can thank me later.)


STOP PRESS – I’ve just had an e-mail from Robert Lloyd Parry confirming that a new DVD is due to be made this Summer, hopefully due for release around Christmas.  He also makes mention of an MR James audio-book in the works.  I’ll give you more details as I get them – STOP PRESS



GSReviewer: Dion Winton-Polak

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One comment

  1. Sok /

    I was lucky enough to see Mr. Perry at the Lovecraft Film Festival here in Oregon (a festival which might be defunct now; if so, it’s a pity). He was phenomenal, showing how effective simply telling a tale can be. See this man perform, buy his stuff.


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