Imaging M R James

The days are drawing in, and here at Ty Isaf it’s the time for stacking the logs high on the fire, shuttering the windows against the early dusk and pulling a little reading matter from the shelves appropriate to this dank, blustery season. To celebrate Halloween, I offer Artloggers a brief canter through some of the artists who have created images for the ghost stories of the great M R James.

Hardcover edition by Tiger, 1991, with drawings by Rosalind Caldecott

While the M R James ghost stories are acknowledged the best of their genre, they haven’t always been served well by illustrators or by the artists who produced images for dust-wrappers and paperback covers.  James’ writing is so evocative that illustrations are not at all necessary, though as a lover of illustrated books I admit I’ve long wanted to meet the M R James-ian challenge of creating page decorations that might chill the eye as effectively as his prose icily clutches at the heart. One day, perhaps. (You can see an image I once made while thinking on MRJ, HERE)

A Pleasing Terror: the complete supernatural writings of M R James. Published by Ash Tree Press, 2001

Paul Lowe illustration for A Pleasing Terror. Ash Tree Press. 2001

I’m intrigued by Paul Lowe’s images for the Ash Tree Press ‘complete supernatural writings’ edition of 2001, though I like the cover rather less. (Badly designed… the lettering is terrible… and the image is too ‘pulpy’ for MRJ.) The drawing illustrated above has a quality of Mervyn Peake, who I think would have made a spectacularly good job of  James’ tales. (it’s a shame they never came his way.) Lowe works his images in different techniques. The crispness of the ink drawing above has a nightmarish clarity, while the softness of his drawing for the story Rats (see below) is wonderfully creepy precisely because of the lack of detail.  Despite its merits, I prefer a more consistent visual character than is managed in this edition.

Above and below: Charles Keeping made some evocative images for a 1973 Folio Society edition of The Ghost Stories of M R James

These vintage Pan editions have a period charm, but are far from the M R James-ian spirit.

Above: 1953 edition  of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary from Pan.

Above: 1955 edition of More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary from Pan.

Above: the ever reliable Penguin make an elegant job of atmospherically wrapping James’ ghost stories in a paperback. This edition is titled The Haunted Dolls’ House and other stories. The image is by photographer Simon Marsden, better known for his book Visions of Poe (Webb & Bower, 1988) in which he selected stories and poems by Edgar Allan Poe, and accompanied them with his photographs.

Finally, I come to James McBryde, illustrator for the first edition. In 1893 McBryde came up to study Natural Sciences at Cambridge, and while there become friends with the Dean of King’s and deputy director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, M R James. McBryde was ten years younger that MRJ, but the friendship flourished and continued beyond his time at Cambridge in annual summer vacations the two took together in Denmark and Sweden. (1899 -1901)



James McBryde’s illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad from M R James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, has in this version been cropped and tinted for a paperback edition.

McBryde would have known the ghost stories first hand from the readings MRJ had given to his circle of friends at Kings, and when the suggestion was made that he illustrate the first edition of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, he accepted the challenge.

In his excellent article on McBryde for The Spectator in 2010, Robert Lloyd Parry writes of Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad:

‘McBryde captures perfectly the bleak atmosphere of the tale and the stark terror of its finale. Told in James’s dry, unhurried style Oh, Whistle… is, nonetheless, a story full of frantic movement — of stumbling and flapping, scurrying and darting, leaping and running — and the same sense of agitation is brilliantly conveyed in the picture. Those uncanny, wriggling shadows seem to zoom in on Parkins, trapping him in that shaft of moonlight. The bedsheets roll on, like a wave about to break over him.’

‘In the story it is the apparition’s ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ that provides the focal point of terror. McBryde concentrates more on the grimace of the victim: Parkins is skeletal, his mouth a lunatic rictus, his cheeks hollowed out by a scream. The story has him lurching out of the window to escape his attacker; McBryde hems him in against a chest of drawers, his clawlike hands reaching out to fend off a being that he is too terrified to touch.’


On 6 May 1904, McBryde wrote to MRJ:

‘I have finished the Whistle ghost…I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…’

While working on the illustrations the young artist had been suffering from appendicitis, and he was convalescing from an operation to remove his appendix when his pregnant wife Gwendolyn wrote a letter to James assuring him that all was well. However McBryde had not completed his work when on 6 June 1904, he died from complications arising from his surgery. His widow returned the manuscript to MRJ, together with her husband’s last drawings. James’ publisher suggested that another artist resume where McBryde had left off. But the author was adamant that the edition would stand as a memorial to his friend, and it was subsequently published with just four completed McBryde illustrations.


McBryde illustration of the apparition from Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

McBryde  illustration for Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad

McBryde illustration from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

McBryde illustration from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

MRJ was named the legal guardian of McBryde’s daughter Jane, who was born six months after her father’s death, and he remained life-long friends with mother and daughter. James never married, and the two women became as close to him as he would ever come to having a family of his own.


John Coulthart on Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You, my Lad.

Robert Lloyd Parry on James McBryde in The Spectator.

13 thoughts on “Imaging M R James

  1. I am a huge fan of Charles Keeping’s work so it’s great to see him on the Artlog. I found all of this information fascinating Clive and have to confess that I’ve never read any M R James. I found the film of Deborah Kerr in The Turn of the Screw frightening enough as a child and have never wanted to revisit it. Now I’m of a mind to draw the curtains, give the woodburner a kickstart and pull up a chair….

    • Wasn’t it a Charles Keeping illustrated ‘circus’ book that I once saw on your blog, Lesley? It was beautiful.

      I love The Innocents, the Jack Clayton-directed film based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. I thought Deborah Kerr was incredibly impressive in it. The children, too, were wonderful, with Pamela Franklin chillingly unreadable as Flora, and Martin Stephens a disturbingly self-possessed Miles. The atmospheric score was by Georges Auric, who created haunting music for another favourite film of mine, Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête.

  2. Happy Halloween everyone! 🙂

    I’ve been preparing myself by reading ghost stories and poems every night for the whole of October, Its been really fun dipping into the gloom, but I am now a little wary of shadows in corners and trips to the bathroom late at night thanks to my over active imagination!

  3. Oh but you would make something wonderful from this material, it looks like a petition might be developing 🙂
    Love those Charles Keeping images too!

  4. Oh, that is such a touching story about the young illustrator and his family! And how strangely fitting for M. R. James that death would have prevented completion, and that he would insist on keeping the illustrations as they were, incomplete. Some of his most terrible stories get their power from things that are incomplete and unfinished in appearance.

    You’re right; Mervyn Peake would have been stellar!

    • What potency that edition must have possessed for MRJ, Gwendolyn and her daughter Jane. Hard to imagine what they must have felt when looking at it.

      • The first two of the McBryde images . . . made me think of Edward Gorey. The effect of the large detailed-in-hatching and yet simple planes combined with the subject matter, I suppose.

        Yes, and it’s lovely that M. R. James insisted on those illustrations. I’m sure it meant a great deal to him to do so.

        • Gorey, yes, you’re right. But the first reminds me too of the illustrations by Cruikshank, Leech and Tenniel for ‘The Ingoldsby Legends‘ of 1848.

          The ‘Oh Whistle’ image was the last McBryde completed, and one can only wonder at what else he may have achieved, as he knew it was good and was clearly getting into his stride.

          • Cruikshank, definitely! I hadn’t thought of Tenniel… And I don’t think I’ve paid any attention to John Leech. Shall have to look. Yes, those are clever–and that story is a real challenge to illustrate, as one doesn’t want to give too little or too much. So often a really firm image of something so inchoate reduces the spell.

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