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Haunted: Mark Gatiss goes in search of the ghost writer M.R. James
02:30 pm


Mark Gatiss
M. R. James

In October 1893, members of the Chit Chat Society gathered in rooms at the University of Cambridge to share and discuss academic papers. But this particular evening, towards Halloween, the society had gathered to hear fellow and Dean of King’s College, M.R. James present something very different from the traditional academic fare—the first reading of his ghost stories.

Montague Rhodes James was a respected academic whose reputation would now be forgotten if it were not for his ghost stories. James’s chilling tales set the template for the genre which other writers have since studiously followed. Inspired by the success of his reading, James organized a small gathering every Christmas Eve in order to read his latest ghostly tales to a small group of friends.

James was following a tradition of telling ghost stories at Christmas that harked back to pagan times when people believed the dead and the living communed during the long, dark nights of the winter in the lead up to the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year. It was a literary tradition set as far back as Shakespeare, and recently by Washington Irving (The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.) and Charles Dickens—whose A Christmas Carol contained many of the genre’s dearest tropes.
M. R. James and the classic volume of his supernatural tales.
However, unlike Dickens, M.R. James had no truck with benign spirits sent to do good—his ghost stories were filled with “malevolence and terror”:

...the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’....

His stories were set in realistic and seemingly ordinary worlds where central characters are suddenly thrust into the most extraordinary of situations—a seaside holiday brings forth an evil wraith; a rose garden hides a brutal past; a hotel is host to a grim haunting.

James believed his ghost stories should…

...put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’

Most of James’ tales follow a simple formula: reticent hero, usually a scholar, arrives at strange yet alluring location where he discovers some cursed ancient artifact that damages his life. His message—those who fail to learn from their history are doomed and will be punished for their ignorance. Such chilling warnings are wrapped in beautifully written tales of terror.

Mark Gatiss (League of Gentlemen, Sherlock, etc.) is a splendid host in this documentary M.R. James: Ghost Writer, in which he examines the clues in the life of the author of some of the greatest tales of terror. Beginning with James reading to the Chit Chat Society, he examines the influences that inspired the ghost stories, including one particular incident during his childhood when James saw a monstrous apparition—an event he later recorded in his tale “A Vignette.” If you enjoy supernatural tales and ghost stories, then this little documentary is for you.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Horror Europa’: an excellent trawl through the history of European horror cinema

The Hallowe’en season seemed pretty drawn out this year. That’s fine with me though, ‘cos I love it! What other chance to do we get to celebrate all those freaky and ghoulish things we normally hide under our beds and in our broom cupboards?

If you want to keep the chills running down the back of your spine, check out this excellent, BBC-produced documentary looking back over the last century of European horror cinema, taking in works by major directors from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, Austria, the UK and Belgium.

Presented by comedian Mark Gatiss (of The League Of Gentlemen and Nighty Night infamy, and thus no stranger to the dark side himself) it is a follow up to his series A History Of Horror, which was originally broadcast on BBC4 in 2010.

Although Horror Europa has been liberated from behind the BBC server wall and uploaded to YouTube for all to see, here is what the official website has to say about the show:

Actor and writer Mark Gatiss embarks on a chilling voyage through European horror cinema. From the silent nightmares of German Expressionism in the wake of World War I to lesbian vampires in 1970s Belgium, from the black-gloved killers of Italy’s bloody Giallo thrillers to the ghosts of the Spanish Civil War, Mark reveals how Europe’s turbulent 20th century forged its ground-breaking horror tradition. On a journey that spans the continent from Ostend to Slovakia, Mark explores classic filming locations and talks to the genre’s leading talents, including directors Dario Argento and Guillermo del Toro.

I have to say that there are A LOT of spoilers in this show, but if you can deal with the ending of some films you might not have seen being given away, then this is a real treat for horror hounds:


Posted by Niall O'Conghaile | Leave a comment
‘Quatermass and the Pit’: The original, classic TV series by Nigel Kneale

Workers at a building site in London excavate what appears to be human remains. On closer examination, these turn out to be something far more sinister, and when a space capsule is discovered, a series of disturbing events lead Professor Bernard Quatermass and his team to face a deadly martian threat and consider far darker origin to humanity.

This is the plot of Nigel Kneale‘s classic science-fiction series Quatermass and the Pit, which was originally shown on BBC Decemebr 22, 1958, to January 26, 1959.

Quatermass was an incredibly successful and influential series, which ran for 3 seasons from 1953-1959. Its success was in no way diminished by a change in lead actor - not once but 3 times.

Reginald Tate played the Professor in the opening series The Quatermass Experiment. and was about to film Quatermass II in 1955, when he dropped dead of a heart attack outside his London home. Tate was replaced by John Robinson, who proved quite successful, but due to other commitments he could not film Quatermass and the Pit in 1958. This allowed the man most associated with Quatermass, André Morell to take over.

All this proves is that a great character and a brilliant script can work with any number of different actors.

When the series moved to the big screen, it was believed an American star would guarantee box office success in the States, so Brian Donlevy was brought in to star in Hammer Film’s versions of The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass II. By 1967, it was all change again as Scottish actor Andrew Keir played the professor in the first color version of Quatermass and the Pit.

And it didn’t stop there: Kneale revived Quatermass for a new TV series in the 1970s, with John Mills this time as the maverick scientist. While the BBC tried their hand with a live performance of The Quatermass Experiment, which starred Jason Flemyng in 2005.

Though I have great liking for Keir’s performance, this original TV version of Quatermass and the Pitt starring André Morell is, in many ways, the best. Part of the reason for this is the three-and-half hours of air time, which allowed Kneale far greater opportunity to develop ideas that a 90 minute film could not hold.

Understandably, Quatermass has cast a long shadow over TV, film and fiction for more than 50 years, and has inspired Stephen (Tommyknockers) King, John Carpenter (who wanted Kneale to write Halloween III), and series such as Dr Who and The X Files.

This was because Nigel Kneale was such a brilliant writer, who was sadly often side-lined by the idiotic snobbery of critics, who saw him as a mere scriptwriter of speculative science-fiction and pulp thrillers. But as Mark Gatiss rightly pointed out at the time of Kneale’s death in 2006:

‘Kneale is amongst the greats—he is absolutely as important as Dennis Potter, as David Mercer, as Alan Bleasdale, as Alan Bennett…’

Now here’s your chance to watch a master writer at his height, producing one the greatest TV dramas ever made, Quatermass and the Pit.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment