The Jamesian Season

M.R. James read his ghost stories to friends in the Chit-Chat Club at Cambridge around Christmastime so December seems like a good season for some Jamesian housekeeping.

Castle Imprint, the publisher of my book Victoriana, has an annotated edition of James’s 1913 tale, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” available as a hardcover chapbook. The edition is illustrated with engravings of the Punch and Judy show by George Cruikshank throughout. “Disappearance” is the only one of James’s Christmas ghost stories specifically set at Christmas.

During the pandemic, with live theater scarce, I have been enjoying Robert Lloyd Parry’s regular dramatic readings on YouTube and DVD of weird tales, many by James. They remind me of a series that I wrote about in Victoriana:

Over the years, the BBC has adapted a number of the ghost stories of M.R. James for television. These adaptations culminated in a very fine series in 2000 featuring Sir Christopher Lee, titled Ghost Stories for Christmas. James had written his stories as seasonal entertainments during a long tenure as don and provost at King’s College, Cambridge. The BBC recreated James’s original readings for the series: a group of students gather in his book-lined rooms at King’s, which are decorated for Christmas, lit by candles, and a blazing fire in the hearth; they pour glasses of port, make themselves comfortable, and listen while James, played by Sir Christopher, tells a story. There are no special effects. In fact, there is very little to the production except for an intimate atmosphere; James’s words; a haunting and sublime arrangement of the Lyke-Wake Dirge, by the Anglican choral-composer Geoffrey Burgon, as theme music; and Sir Christopher’s inimitable baritone voice. The result is one of my three or four favorite series ever to air on television (the others being Sherlock Holmes with Jeremy Brett and Poirot with David Suchet, of course).

The Lee series is hard to find these days. All the episodes were once on YouTube, but not anymore. I have a box set of BBC ghost story adaptations on DVD. Three of the four episodes with Lee are included. However, “The Ash-Tree” is missing for some reason. The only format in which I can find all the episodes is an audiobook. The series is packaged as Ghost Stories with Christopher Lee on Audible, et al. Much of the charm is retained, including Burgon’s music. But if anyone knows where I can find “The Ash-Tree,” do tell.


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