ONE writer dominates the modem English ghost story: M. R. James, without whom no anthology of supernatural fiction would be complete. Few authors in this small but fertile corner of English fiction have had James's ability to please both critics and enthusiasts. He continues to be packaged for popular consumption, mythologized as one of those 'masters of the macabre' like Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker, his stories having been adapted, usually unsatisfactorily, for television and the cinema and popularized, more successfully, through radio readings and recordings. All this would have amused—and probably surprised—him; for, somewhat like the fantasies of Lewis Carroll, Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, James's stories were written in the interstices of a busy academic life, and for James himself were incidental to more important work.
Montague Rhodes James was the youngest child and third son of Herbert James, a scholarly and genial Evangelical clergyman, and his wife Mary Emily (nee Horton), the daughter of a distinguished naval officer. In 1865, when Montague was 3, the family moved from his birthplace at Goodnestone next Wingham in Kent to the Suffolk village of Great Livermere, near Bury St Edmunds. The white-walled, slate-roofed rectory on the edge of Livermere Park appears in James's posthumously published ghost story 'A Vignette', whilst East Anglia in general provided settings for some of his most memorable tales—for instance, Burnstow (based on Felixstowe) in '“Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad”', or the fond evocation of Aldeburgh (called Seaburgh), where his grandmother had lived, in 'A Warning to the Curious'. The four children—Sydney, Herbert ('Ber'), Grace, and Montague—were brought up in what Sydney James called a 'devotional' atmosphere, which meant morning and evening prayers, a daily psalm and hymns, Bible study, and