Essay by Ted Gioia

Let's take a glance a the curriculum vitae of Montague Rhodes James (1862-1936),
gentleman and scholar.

A noted medievalist, James was an expert in illuminated manuscripts, with a special
focus on those dealing with the Apocalypse. He translated the New Testament
Apocrypha and was a key contributor to the Encyclopaedia Biblica (1899), a massive
reference work (estimated at 20 million words!)
that addressed every place and name in the Bible.
As Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge,
he acquired a number of famous paintings, including
Titians that still rank among the most cherished works
in the collection.  James appeared in a successful
1883 production of Aristophanes's
The Birds, and
was lauded for his acting skills. He was also provost
of King's College, Cambridge, and of Eton during the
period between the two World Wars.

But M.R. James is remembered today for a very
different reason. As an amusing sideline to his more
serious pursuits, James wrote ghost stories, intended
as Christmas Eve diversions in the spirit of Charles
A Christmas Carol.  James would invite a
select group of friends to his home for the occasion,
with the promise of a scary tale along with the usual
holiday refreshments. Yet the author would still be
laboring over his text even while guests were arriving until, finally, as one participant
remembers, "Monty emerged from the bedroom, manuscript in hand, at last, and
blew out all the candles but one, by which he seated himself. He then began to read,
with more confidence than anyone else could have mustered, his well-nigh illegible
script in the dim light."

The stories collected in his most famous book,
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, may
have been intended for casual entertainment, but they do convey a philosophy of life
—or what, nowadays, we might call a message. And the message is the same in every
one of the tales. I could sum it up in three words: ignorance is bliss.

Yes, that’s an odd attitude for
a lifelong educator, but James
leaves us in little doubt about
his attitude toward academic
life. He frequently interrupts
the course of his ghost stories
to deliver a humorous jibe or
derisive put-down at the
expense of scholars. He makes
a running joke, which reappears
in several stories, about the
obsessive interest in golf among
college professors. He never
lapses into straight comedy, but
James’s dry British humor adds significantly to the appeal of these tales.

The protagonist in a M.R. James horror story always pays a stiff price for seeking after
knowledge. His
modus operandi is to take the essential ingredients of the Faust
legend—a scholar's thirst for knowledge has diabolical consequences—and translate
it into the form of a ghost story.  In "Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook," a Cambridge scholar
is thrilled to find a rare manuscript for sale, but after purchasing it he discovers that it
comes with its own demon. In "The Mezzotint" a curator purchases a work of art
which looks different depending on the time of day—and gradually realizes that it
possesses an evil enchantment left over a long ago murder. In "Count Magnus," an
Oxford fellow conducting research in Scandinavia for a travel book gets too curious
about an old sepulcher, and is chased back to England by a vengeful ghost.

We are familiar nowadays with the antiquarian as adventure hero. Books and films
have created a glamorous Hollywood-ized image of the swashbuckling scholar. We
can trace the roots of this type back to the late 19th century and early 20th
century genre fiction when figures such as Professor Challenger (from Arthur
Conan Doyle)  and Otto Lidenbrock (from
Jules Verne) set the pattern for this
peculiar character type, a mixture of career academic and action figure. In contrast,
when H. Rider Haggard needed a hero for his African adventure
King Solomon's
Mines (1885)
, he delivered Allen Quatermain, big game hunter. That wouldn't do
at all nowadays. Remember that
dentist who shot the lion? Hollywood isn't going
to make him into a movie hero. We need a different kind of role model for these
stories, and fortunately the scholar adventurer emerged to fill the gap. By the time
we arrive at Doyle's
The Lost World in 1912, the formula has changed, and now the
daring deeds are performed by Professor George Edward Challenger. But even
The Lost World, M.R. James had  established himself as the specialist in
this hybrid—indeed, this kind of academic protagonist appears in every one of
his famous ghost stories.

The reader will soon figure out the repeating pattern in James's tales, and may tire
of their predictability. But we need to remember that it was a fresh, new pattern
back when James wrote these works. Here is the recipe. A scholar is hunting for
some rare item that will help him win fame in an academic career, or at least tenure.
Almost without fail, a ghost or ghoul arrives on the scene after the midway point of
each tale, and the terrified scholar beats a hasty retreat back to the ivory tower.
Often the set-up, with its humorous asides and wry observations on antiquarian
pursuits, is written with more flair than the perfunctory 'scary parts'. When James
takes more care with the supernatural elements in his plots, as in "The Mezzotint,"
where the protagonist enlists the help of various academics in solving the mystery
of his ever-changing artwork, the story proves much more compelling.  I am not
surprised that the best work in
Ghost Stories of a Antiquary is the longest and
most intricate narrative in the collection. "The Treasure of Abbot Thomas" is almost
a novella, and presents in three chapters the adventures of a researcher who
believes that hidden clues in a stained glass window can guide him to a buried

Here the reader can detect the influence of
Edgar Allan Poe on James's work. Our
author supports the horrific aspects of his story with elements of mystery, where
clues must be found and interpreted, and even forces his protagonist to solve a  
cryptogram—much as we find in Poe’s "The Gold Bug" or Arthur Conan Doyle’s
"The Adventure of the Dancing Men." This work, written a decade after the
opening tale in the collection, shows how much James had matured as a storyteller
during the intervening period. His earlier ghost stories might be suitable for scaring
youngsters around a campfire, but by this later stage, James is ready to join the ranks
of the leading popular writers of his day, a competitor to his contemporaries H.
Rider Haggard, Arthur Conan Doyle, Anthony Hope, and other pioneers of the
genre tale.

But James had too many other options available to him, lucrative and prestigious.  
The year after he published
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, James took over as
Provost of King’s College, Cambridge.  This institution was a center of British
intellectual life—John Maynard Keynes, a King's College student, graduated that
same year, and a few months later poet Rupert Brooke would matriculate. Later he
take on the same role at Eton, the most elite secondary school in the world.  Given
these responsibilities, James could hardly consider his ghost stories as more than a
sideline occupation.

But they are his lasting legacy. H.P. Lovecraft, the most innovative horror writer of
the first half of the 20th century, included James on his short list of "modern
masters" of the genre (along with Algernon Blackwood, Lord Dunsany, and
Arthur Machen). Stephen King and Ramsey Campbell have also acknowledged
James's influence.  In subsequent years, James's stories have been adapted for
stage, movie and television presentation, and various authors have either imitated
or parodied his style to good effect.  It isn’t going too far to see bestselling works
such as
The Da Vinci Code or The Name of the Rose as deriving from the same
recipe, combining scholarship, mystery and harem-scarum thrills, that James
perfected more than a century ago.

In fact, this formula is even more popular in the cinema and video games. Indiana
Jones and Lara Croft stand on the foundation set by this pioneer of stories about
scholar adventurers. We encounter it in
The Mummy and Romancing the Stone and
a host of other contemporary adventure tales. Video game hero Nathan Drake is
cut from the same mold. What a strange turn of events! The intellectual
accomplishments of James’s day-to-day life now seem antiquarian, but his
antiquarian ghost tales are still very up-to-date.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books

Publication Date: April 10, 2016
How Did Antiquarians
Become Action Story Heroes?

Long Before Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, M.R. James set the
tone with
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904) a pioneering work
of genre fiction that influenced H.P. Lovecraft and Stephen King
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James
First edition of Ghost Stories
of an Antiquary
Montague Rhodes James
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.