THE HAUNTING OF M.R. JAMES Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal is spooked!
There are few masters of the uncanny better than the legendary British writer Montague Rhodes James, better known as M.R. James. Even for those who've never read James' stories in print, their influence and adaptations echo across the genre. Yet what inspired this Cambridge academic and antiquarian to pen such tales? Imaginatively answering that question in fiction was writer Neil Brand whose 2018 BBC Radio 4 drama The Haunting of M.R. James had a Radio 4 Extra airing over the Christmas holiday with a chance to stream it online until mid-January.

Brand's hour-long drama is an intriguing mix of fact and fiction. Set during four of the most eventful years in James' life, as his Cambridge academic career interacted alongside his annual ghost story readings at Christmas, it would be easy to dismiss this as the aural equivalent of a costume drama. Instead, Brand pens a script that serves to pastiche the writer's takes on the uncanny in an undeniably British style: the unlikely playing out alongside the mundane. While Monty (as he's known to his friends) deals with committees and students, all hallmarks of the academic world, the looming shadow of modernity makes itself known to this traditionalist. Imitating such well-known work is never easy, as the number of less than successful Sherlock Holmes pastiches will attest. Yet Brand finds the right imaginative mix of semi-biographical drama and Jamesian hauntings, creating something unsettling in how fantastic but utterly plausible it feels.

Brand's writing is also superbly brought to life. Mark Gatiss, no stranger to the world of M.R. James through his adaptations for BBC television's A Ghost Story for Christmas in recent years, plays the celebrated writer. As much as Brand's script, it is Gatiss' performance that draws an intriguing portrait of a man inspired yet fearful of the seemingly contradictory forces driving his life and storytelling. It's something that comes to the fore in the scenes with Fenella Woolgar as Gwendolyn, the widow of James' long-time friend and illustrator James McBryde. It's a fascinating performance and one that perfectly encapsulates the themes of not only the script but the works of M.R. James himself.

As a production, The Haunting of M.R. James offers plenty for listeners. The supporting cast behind Gatiss is solid, from Woolgar's Gwendolyn, who serves as both character and narrator in the Jamesian tradition, to Cameron Percival and Ryan Whittle as Cambridge students and Radio 4 stalwart Ewan Bailey as a figure from the past. The sound design and music, made all the more important in a medium without visuals, bring a strong sense of atmosphere to the piece, capturing not only the sounds of Cambridge but the necessary senses of tension and the unexpected that an aural ghost story requires.

As such, The Haunting of M.R. James is perfect listening for this time of year. From Brand's neat mix of the biographical with the pastiche to strong performances and atmospheric sound design, its sixty minutes are a treat for fans of James, both old and new. Christmas may be over, but, as the decades have shown, his ghost stories hold their power no matter the time of year, and Brand's tale is no exception to that rule.

Matthew lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.

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