Montague Rhodes James, who published under the name M. R. James, was an English medieval scholar and college provost. He is best remembered for his ghost stories, which are regarded as among the best in the genre. The stories were published in a series of collections, the first - Ghost Stories of an Antiquary - published in 1904.


Main article: M. R. James Allusions

In James's work, as well as that of Bellairs, the supernatural discovery is usually accidental, with the characters certainly never seeking out the weirdness or the horror. As with Bellairs, this is perhaps the furthest thing from their minds when they find themselves suddenly embroiled in a supernatural mystery that drips with weirdness and horror. Bellairs agreed with his "favorite ghost story writer, M.R. James" by noting "spooky tales are most effective when the ghastly things happen to people who are going about their business in an ordinary, matter-of-fact world."[1]

Some of Bellairs favorite things were tales of haunted houses, ghosts, secret rituals performed by the light of the waning moon, and other enchanted objects. The characters in James's stories share a similar fascination with these types of objects and situations:

The characters are antiquaries, not merely because the past enthralls them, but because the present is a near vacuum. They surround themselves with rarefied paraphernalia from the past-engravings, rare books, altars, tombs, coins , and even such things as doll's houses and ancient whistles-seemingly because they cannot connect with anything in the present. The endless process of collecting and arranging gives the characters an illusory sense of order and stability, illusory because it is precisely this process which evokes the demon or the vampire…their adventures represent a sophisticate version of the old warning that idleness is the devil's workshop[2].
James achieved his method by underplaying the importance of everything:
He never went out of his way to shock, merely unnerve. His spirits had to be evil in intent, but never would he break the spell by describing them in detail. Only a few hints are necessary, and the reader's imagination does the rest. James used three basic rules. First and foremost was that the spirits had to be malevolent. There was no point in having a pitiful ghost since he believed the purpose of a ghost story was to frighten. Amiable ghosts were for legends, he maintained. His second rule was that the events had to be convincing, and this could be achieved not just by the writing but also by the setting: the more commonplace the surroundings the better. Finally the story had to be easily understood and not overloaded with occult jargon as if it were a thesis rather than fiction[3].
From The Face in the Frost (1969) onward, Bellairs's stories (save one) take on an ominous, Gothic tone that is grounded in the supernatural. Bellairs follows the three guidelines outlined by Ashley in his work: spirits that visit his worlds are always up to no good, either wanting to take revenge on a character or eager to kill so that they can live again. Adding to their already malicious tendencies was that some specters would befriend the protagonists, before revealing their true intent and pulling the unsuspected into an evil void. Incidents in Bellairs's stories were also believable and straightforward, and most featured glorified treasure hunts, a desire by his young alter egos to triumph by finding a long lost document or special trinket.

Sullivan also notes another stylistic point that James uses, citing that "humor and horror...are often to sides of the same coin. The humor does not defuse horror so much as intensify it by making it manageable and accessible."  These extremes run rampart through The Face in the Frost, where scenes change from laugh-aloud funny to nail-biting terrifying over the course of a few sentences. While these are both balanced in Bellairs's further output, most notable The House with a Clock in its Walls and The Figure in the Shadows, some of his later novels are not on the same level.

James also gave the ghost story a new theme, where his ghosts materialize not so much from inner darkness or outer conspiracies as from a kind of antiquarian malaise.

Remaining modestly within the confines of popular entertainment, his fiction nevertheless shows how nostalgia has a habit of turning into horror….In James, the antiquaries are stolidly normal, and their ghosts are real. Above all, James's collectors clearly enjoy what they are doing: those who survive these stories would not dream of giving up their arcane pursuits simply because they were almost swallowed up by unearthly presences[4].
Bellairs's entire "young adult" output takes place in the early 1950s, when the author was young, and center around a childhood he seems to recall - indeed, indeed, Bellairs went as far to say "[t]he center of my books is always the childhood of which I seem to have a nearly total recall"[1]. Like the young Lewis Barnavelt and Johnny Dixon, Bellairs was quiet, overweight, and enjoyed staying in his own world to read and explore rather than deal with the triviality of everyday life.

Bellairs, and later Brad Strickland, paid homage to James by incorporating plot elements borrowed from James's ghost stories into several of their novels.

Bellairs Corpus


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Obituary: Bellairs, John", Locus, v26:5 No.364 (May 1991).
  2. Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan (1978); page 75.
  3. "Shadows of the Master", Mike Ashley (1979).
  4. Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood, Jack Sullivan (1978); page 90.

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