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A Geography of Horror: The Ghost Stories of M. R. James and The Suffolk Landscape

(Lavenham Press: 2021)

This is a book for enthusiasts: enthusiasts either for James’s ghost stories or for the Suffolk landscape, and, preferably, for both. Much conscientious research has gone into the project, and much lucidly presented information and comment has come out of it. Although the title concentrates on the link between the fiction and the landscape (with pictures galore), space is devoted also to exploring the stories themselves and their publishing history. James’s personality, which has, perhaps, something spectral about it, is given attention alongside.

James was a man who made ‘no serious attempt to form any sort of emotional connection or relationship with anyone’. That said, Loxley draws attention to a friendship James had with a younger Cambridge man, James McBryde, who illustrated the most well-known James ghost story – ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll come to You, My Lad’ - and who died young. Loxley speculates that James had repressed gay sexuality, while ‘happy to lead a literally cloistered life’. He is also described as having ‘a deep though troubled Christian faith’.

James wrote ghost stories for amusement in leisure hours. How he made his ghosts real for the reader was neatly explained in an introduction to a collection of his stories published in 1924. ‘Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head…’. In the process, landscape and settings were painted by James with dispassionate exactitude.

Although lots of us will have been beguiled by at least one or two of James’s stories, fewer of us will know much about the author. Born in 1862, he moved to Great Livermere in Suffolk with his parents three years later, when his father became rector of the church there.

Schooling at Eton was followed by long years at King’s College, Cambridge, where James became a Fellow in 1887, and Dean not long after. In 1918 he returned to Eton as Provost, dying there in 1936. A top-of-the class schoolboy who remained one throughout his journey? His was certainly a scholarly and led a privileged life in a world in which men were in charge and snobbery was present, and from which fear and horror leap out from memorable stories. At us, their readers.

Read more about A Geography of Horror at

Reviewed by John Ellison


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