ChillerCon is just around the corner, and my favourite storyteller will be there, so I thought it apt to reshare, expand and update my thoughts on Robert Lloyd Parry’s performed readings of M.R. James’ classic ghost stories.
We’ll kick off with a primer for those who don’t know about M.R. James, so if you’re familiar his work and just want to know why you should fork out your hard-earned cash for the Nunkie films and/or live performances I’m recommending, skip on down to the section marked Nunkie’s Theatrical Productions.
Have they gone? Okay newbies, listen up.
Who was M.R. James?
Simply put, he was one of the finest writers of ghost stories in the English language. I shan’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 of inviting a select group to his rooms each Christmas for convivial chit-chat and to regale them with his latest tales of the supernatural. Forget your schlock horror, your tawdry butchers’ tales and your psycho-social nightmares; these are spine-chilling treasures from the olden days. Elegant narratives designed to be told by flickering firelight – first comforting, then unsettling his audience by degrees until unthinkable possibilities begin to feel undeniable.
His stories are scholarly in tone, rich in historical, architectural, linguistic and folkloric texture, but they are also conversational in a way you rarely find written down. And there is a wrathful and implacable quality to his ghosts that raise them far above the conventional poltergeists and mournful mumblers. They are creatures best left undisturbed, because to do so is to call down a swift and savage demise.
You might have seen the classic Omnibus episode, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, starring Michael Hordern some sleepy Sunday afternoon; you may have caught Christopher Lee reading of some of James’ best stories on the radio; if you’ve encountered James at all though, it’s most likely via the celebrated *A Ghost Story for Christmas which has cropped up irregularly since the seventies, featuring such luminaries as Robert Hardy, Peter Vaughan, John Hurt and in its most recent incarnation Sacha Dhawan, Simon Callow, Peter Capaldi, and Rory Kinnear,] That last one ring a bell? If so, why are you even here? You should have jumped straight down to the review, furious that I’d dare claim the existence of better adaptations.
Still here? Still bemused?
Well, if you’ve a taste for classic literature with all its wonderfully rich language and long complicated sentences, you need to track down the stories and read them. Now. You can get the Complete Ghost Stories Collection from Macmillan on Kindle for a couple of quid. They’re all great, but for my money the best of the bunch are The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Canon Alberic’s Scrap Book, Lost Hearts, Oh Whistle and 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 too well afterwards.
Nunkie’s Theatrical Productions
A few years back I attended the Abertoir Horror Festival in Aberystwyth, and was privileged to see Robert Lloyd Parry perform both A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts live in an intimate little theatre. I was absolutely blown away and immediately googled around to see whether any of his performances were available on DVD. It was wonderful 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. Even better, he’s recorded a whole slew of them since **as well as curating and editing a collection of stories by other Chit-Chat authors.
It is impossible to separate the films in terms of performance or cinematography, for they are naturally of a piece. If you love one, you will love them all. It’s peculiar, but these are not dramatisations, per se; we don’t see the action in the conventional manner of adaptations like the BBC series. In the image above you can see that Robert Lloyd Parry bears a passing resemblance to M.R. James. Well, it is the part of the author that he plays, effectively, because he relates the tales to his theatrical audience in much the same way that James did in the Chit-Chat club—seated in a comfortable armchair, fireplace aglow, books, brandy and candlesticks beside him.
Parry tells us his tales as though unburdening himself of a terrible secret, sweating and stammering as the tension builds. He gives each character distinct voice and mannerism, appears to be swept up in the details of dreadful memory (just as we become swept up in the unfolding drama) and – his absolute genius – catches himself mid-sentence, holding back from the horror, convincing us of the reality of his experience by what he cannot, dare not say.
It is truly enthralling to watch.
As I say, I’m delighted that those of you who are joining us at ChillerCon in a fortnight will have the opportunity to be right there in the room, watching him bring these stories to life. For me, this is the quintessential ghost story experience. These tales were meant to be read aloud, meant for a particular kind of setting—and given these terms, I judge Parry’s to be the very best of adaptations. You’ll never feel closer to true Jamesian dread.
If you can’t make it to the show, or if you want to relive the Nunkie goodness at home, then I strongly recommend that you buy their DVDs. Watch them in the dark on your own. You can thank me later.
* The Mezzotint (2021) is still available for free on the BBC iPlayer. The full series of A Ghost Story For Christmas is available to purchase (in ever-expanding box-sets).
** In addition to these Nunkie productions he hosted two documentaries (Dim Presences and Wits in Felixstowe), played M.R. James in a third, presented by Mark Gatiss (M.R. James: Ghost Writer). He has also recorded various audio productions and has begun performing some other authors live as well.
The Abertoir horror festival returns to Aberystwyth in November, showcasing classic, new, and independent movies. Come and join us.
I recorded my own audio performance of Lost Hearts for fun on my old podcast at Geek Syndicate. Pardon the poor sound quality.
I also took a stab at writing my own Jamesian tale: From Tappet Woods. The anthology it was printed in is called Beneath the Leaves, available now from Burdizzo Books. You can hear my performed reading of From Tappet Woods right here on my website.