Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 688
In his time, Montague Rhodes James was equally famous as a prolific antiquarian scholar and as a ghost-story writer whose sophisticated fictions maintain a continuing life in anthologies and on British radio and television. He was born on August 1, 1862, the youngest child of the rector of Livermere, Suffolk. He attended Temple Grove preparatory school, Eton College, and, as a scholarship student, King’s College, Cambridge, receiving his baccalaureate in 1885 and his master’s in 1889. His subsequent career was exclusively academic and administrative, though bicycling holidays took him to Ireland, France, Austria, Denmark, and Sweden, as well as to native sources of his research and some of his stories.
The quality, range, and originality of James’s scholarly work was recognized in a succession of positions and honors. He won a fellowship at King’s College, where he lectured until 1893, and was elected dean of the college in 1889, tutor in 1900, and provost in 1905. He became director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, in 1893, the year he began the annual tradition of reading his ghost stories at Christmas. He was awarded a doctorate in literature by the University of Cambridge in 1895 and later honorary doctorates from the University of Dublin, St. Andrews University, and the University of Oxford, as his immense and estimable productivity continued. From 1913 to 1915, James was vice chancellor of Cambridge; in 1918, he became provost of Eton, and, in 1925, he was made a trustee of the British Museum. Among other distinctions, he was a member of several royal commissions, the British Academy, and the Society of Antiquaries. He was given the Order of Merit in 1930. Never married, the popular and good-humored “Monty” James died in Eton on June 12, 1936.
In spite of all these activities, James is more familiar as a master of the ghost story than as an outstanding scholar. He was a tireless cataloger of libraries and medieval manuscripts, with interests in biblical apocrypha and translation, Christian iconography and architecture, and related antiquarian subjects. His professional specialties, however, are often evident in his stories, where academic personalities, research investigations, real and invented documents in several languages, learned allusions, and pedantic asides appear. Exact details of churches, houses, and landscapes were drawn from the experiences of his bicycling vacations.
James’s devices and situations are singularly effective in his best-known stories. These include a pursuing spirit that inhabits bed linen (“Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”); a fortune in a well that embraces its finder (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”); an engraving that changes sinisterly with each viewing (“The Mezzotint”); and a vindictive alchemist who can effect a demon’s destruction of his enemies (“Casting the Runes”). Others beings and forces are hardly less powerful: a hairy creature emanating from a wallpaper pattern (“The Diary of Mr. Poynter”); a deceased count and his familiar (“Count Magnus”); a legacy whose cobwebbed protector is activated by a book (“The Tractate Middoth”); a cathedral tomb with an unpleasant tenant (“An Episode of Cathedral History”); and an avenging corpse that carries off its killer (“A School Story”).
A genial and gentlemanly humor often accompanies James’s tales of grisly revenants and malevolent guardians. Traditional gothic literary techniques are both honored and parodied; lower-class characters are comical in behavior and idiom; ironic and gratuitous narrative interpolations are frequent. James had a gift for understatement in his stories, believing in the principles of reticence and crescendo: Blatant horror never lingers but is implied, so effective is his control of atmosphere and suggestion. He also believed that contemporary actuality was best for this type of story and that its spirits should be malevolent. His horrors, usually distressingly tangible and punitive, were often called up from their inert condition by inadvertent human meddling.
The urbane, polished, and sometimes familiar manner of James’s stories is offset by their distinctively frightening content. It is this style which was completely original with James; yet it was partly an inevitable echo of his academic life. His collected stories have never been out of print; despite the limited number of his stories, James is still generally regarded as the principal modern exponent of the English ghost story.
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