Christmas has been a traditional time for the telling of tales of ghosts and the supernatural for many years, and the Edwardian author M.R. James’ short stories have become the most intimately associated with the season, as I’m sure needs no introduction to anyone reading this.
One of his most highly regarded stories is “A Warning to the Curious”, first published in 1925 and adapted by the BBC in 1972 for their Ghost Stories for Christmas strand.
Author Sarah K. Marr recently published an immensely detailed annotated guide to “A Warning to the Curious” on her website which thoroughly explores all aspects of the tale, accompanied by evocative photographs, illustrations, maps and much more.
You can download Sarah’s annotated “Warning to the Curious” here:
Sarah kindly agreed to speak to Folk Horror Revival about the project.
Folk Horror Revival: Hi Sarah, thanks for agreeing to talk to us at Folk Horror Revival. Can you introduce yourself please?
Sarah Marr: Hi, Folk Horror Revival. I’m Sarah K. Marr, and I’m a writer living near London. I published my debut novel earlier this year—pretty sure I’m contractually obliged to say, All the Perverse Angels, available through all good bookshops—and now I’m turning my thoughts to writing the next one. You can follow me on Twitter, @sarahkmarr, if that’s your thing. Anyway, you’re talking to me because of my guide to M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”.
FHR: What led to your fascination with the works of M.R. James and folk horror in general?
SM: I first read James when at I was at school, and then, some years later, I revisited his work whilst I was living alone in a small, old cottage in the Cotswolds: a perfect environment for those stories. For me, James provides the quintessential model for the English ghost story, the ‘urtext’ from which everything else is derived. Having said that, I do realize it’s a very ahistorical perspective—one can see the influence of earlier works in James’s writing—and that there’s a certain sensibility necessary for becoming immersed in James’s stories. Still, at a personal level, “Is this as good as James?” is a test for any uncanny tale I read.
I grew up in the seventies, so a lot of the ‘hauntological’ nostalgia—I use the term without negative connotations—which is around now harks back to my childhood: it’s still the Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water which keeps me away from disused quarries. Children of the Stones was shown when I was seven, and a year or two later my parents took me to Avebury, where we took it in turns to touch the stones and collapse with appropriate drama. I read Alan Garner, too, and was particularly fond of Red Shift and The Owl Service, both of which shift away from the more fantastical worlds of his Elidor or The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and carry elements of more earthly myth across time periods. I came to The Wicker Man—the ‘gateway drug’ of folk horror—quite a bit later, and I’ve had a stronger focus on folk horror in my reading over the past couple of years, partly as a way of exploring narrative and the construction of story for my own work. There’s also something about the way folk horror is so situated in the landscape which lends itself to photographic interpretation, and then, it seems to me, it’s a question of finding the balance between atmosphere and the avoidance of photographic cliché: I can’t claim that I’m always successful.
FHR: Despite many of the books, films and TV series being around for many years it is only recently that ‘folk horror’ has become a ‘thing’. Do you have any thoughts on why folk horror has become such a growing area of interest to so many people?
SM: It’s one of those things which has arisen from the coming together of many threads, and I’m certainly not the best person to assess them all. Partly, I suspect, it’s a reaction to a language of horror—particularly in films—based around the urban experience, and a desire to ‘reconnect’ with the wider environment. Then there’s the overlap with hauntology, in its broadest sense, and the revisiting of works from the 70s and 80s which itself was grounded in folklore. (Although that, of course, raises the same question about the reasons for folk horror’s prevalence in those years. Flight from the technological realities of the Cold War, perhaps?) There’s also the effect of key pieces and players which cross genres or spheres of influence: The League of Gentleman, for example, bridging horror through comedy, a span which Mark Gatiss so effortlessly crosses and recrosses, of course. Even having the term “folk horror” has helped creators and commentators to coalesce around a shared, if somewhat amorphous, centre of commonality. In a Twitter thread last year I managed to trace its use back to 1936 (in The English Journal, Volume 25, University of Chicago Press), but it’s only really become a mainstream term-of-art in the past few years.
FHR: What was the thing that kickstarted the trip? Were you already familiar with the area so knew where to begin?
SM: I mention in the introduction to the “Annotated Warning to the Curious” that my mother’s unwell, and it was her desire to visit the sea which took me to Aldeburgh. I’d been there a couple of times before, so I had a rough idea of the place. I was also vaguely aware of the connection to James, and it seemed a good way to give the visit a focus; something to take our minds away from illness and into the landscape. The existing guides—particularly those by Darroll Pardoe and Adam Scovell—were a great place to start. “A Podcast to the Curious” has two superb episodes on “A Warning…”, to which I listened on the journey to the coast. Those episodes include an interview with Tom Baynham about his own trip to Aldeburgh to find James’s inspirations. I owe them all my thanks.
FHR: The wide-open landscapes of East Anglia seem to be especially inspirational for many writers of ghost stories. What is about the area that has prompted this?
SM: I’m pretty sure that a full answer to that question requires at least a PhD thesis. I will say, though, that topographically it’s a haunting landscape: flat, unpeopled, windswept. It has about it some element of the Romantic sublime: simultaneously awesome and enveloping, desolate and beautiful. Then, the history of the place adds layer upon layer of meaning and interpretation, each leaving its own traces, building foundations for the next. So, the liminality of the place—the sense that it’s a hinterland for sea, marsh, and downs—extends beyond topography, back through time. All of this, somehow, brings its own melancholy, often hidden just beneath the surface, but always sensed.
FHR: Did you sense any menacing presences over your shoulder or glimpse anything in the corner of your eye as you were wandering around the locations?
SM: I’m one of those people for whom the oh-so-delicious ‘scare’ of horror is partnered with an irreconcilable discontinuity between fiction and reality. A lack of belief in the reality of what one’s reading should remove the ability for it to disturb, but it doesn’t, even as each perspective tries to undermine the other: somehow, it works. So, I’m not one for ‘presences’, but I am one for letting my imagination run wild and facing the consequences. Friston church, early in the morning, was cold and silent and gave me the sense that it’s never truly unoccupied. But for sheer Jamesian disquiet, the award must go to the walk through the empty marshes from Sluice Cottage (supposed home of William Ager) to Paxton’s dig site. Then, I confess, I did look over my shoulder from time to time.
FHR: Such a huge amount of background detail is included in your guide that you must have spent many hours searching through dusty tomes in a manner reminiscent of James’ study of Medieval manuscripts. How many hours were you spent secluded in libraries? Equally how many days were spent traipsing up and down the lonely coastline seeking the locations?
SM: I wish I had been able to spend more time in old libraries: they, together with bookshops, are two of my favourite places in world. I have fond memories of the Bodleian and college libraries in Oxford, and, more recently, the Library of Congress. However, the research for this guide was all done at home, over the course of a month, mostly through Google Books coupled with census and newspaper searches made available through membership of my local library. (Libraries really are awesome.)
Half of my novel is set in 1887, and I used Google Books for a lot of contemporary texts for that, too, so I’ve had some practice. It’s a lot more effective for pre-c.1930 works, which are generally available as complete texts. Luckily, that covers the texts available to James, and much of his own output. The trick is to use the books one finds as one would if they were printed and taken from a library shelf: use their references to find other books, rather than relying solely on individual searches. Then the research grows more ‘organically’, and with more access to obscure details. It doesn’t help, of course, that searching for “M.R. James” turns up every “Mr James” ever printed: one has to go full “Montague Rhodes”.
I do, though, have two printed and well-thumbed copies of The Collected Ghost Stories, a battered first edition of James’s Suffolk and Norfolk, an e-book of the Ash-Tree Press’s A Pleasing Terror, and a fascimile of the 1925 O.S. map of Aldeburgh. I can’t make the trip back to Aldeburgh at the moment, but when I can, I want to use the library there to get tide tables and weather reports and, if possible, to track down a picture of the battery which used to sit by the martello tower.
As for traipsing, I had an afternoon and a morning in Aldeburgh. The afternoon covered the martello tower photographs and allowed me to scope out the rest of the in-town locations and the Sluice Cottage. The following day I got up at 6am and headed out whilst everyone else was asleep. That let me take the unpopulated photographs of the beach, the White Lion, and the churches at Aldeburgh and Froston. Then, after breakfast, there was time to visit Paxton’s dig site and Theberton church. I only identified some of the other locations, or potential locations—Thorpeness Halt station, Woolpit church, Walton Castle—when doing further research after the trip.
Anyway, it is possible to see everything in a fairly short amount of time, and my hope is that someone following in my, and James’s, and Paxton’s footsteps can visit Aldeburgh with all the information they need in one place, and situate themselves within the story itself.
FHR: Do you have any plans for further wanderings in the landscape of M.R. James?
SM: Perhaps: I love this kind of research, and James’s stories have just the right balance of fiction and real-world underpinnings for it to be effective. I was in Somerset recently and, entirely coincidentally, found myself driving past the New Inn in Sampford Courtenay, Devon, which appears in James’s “Martin’s Close”. I have a rather prosaic photograph of it. (I’ve also got a set of then-and-now photographs of Avebury, based on shots in Children of the Stones, and I ought to do something with them.) But undertaking something as detailed as the work on “A Warning to the Curious” is more of a challenge, so I’ll have to wait and see what opportunities present themselves.
Right now, my priorities are working on my own stories, and finishing a stage-/screen-play of “A Warning to the Curious”. I’d recommend the BBC’s 1972 adaption to anyone: although filmed in Norfolk, and although Paxton (played superbly by Peter Vaughan) is older than in James’s description, it does a phenomenal job of capturing the chilling essence of the story. Still, the layers in James’s tale mean there’s so much to bring out, and so many interpretations which can deliver real emotion without deviating from the text in any major way. I’m determined to explore them further. All I have to do now is find someone to stage/film it (and that’s always the toughest part).
FHR: Thank you Sarah for taking the time to speak to us about your Jamesian wanderings and best of luck with your future writings, looking forward to seeing what you come up with next.