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Christmas Ghosts: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

Wednesday December 24, 2008 in m.r. james | ghost stories

I must be firm.

The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral by M.R. James is possibly my favourite ghost story. It was televised by the BBC in 1971 and starred Robert Hardy and the James regular Clive Swift. Unlike other BBC adaptations for television and radio over the decades, this version changed very little from the original, which takes an ostensibly dull premise – a man looking through a collection of documents to piece together the death of an archdeacon – and turns it into something rather chilling.

The best James stories share an array of interchangeable themes. One is theft and subsequent haunting. In both A Warning to the Curious and The Treasure of Abbott Thomas, greed or curiosity compels somebody to take something of either monetery or intellectual value. Fear of supernatural punishment leads them to attempt to return it. With usually disastrous results, especially in the BBC adaptations. The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral follows a similar thread, with a guilty victim increasingly troubled; although in this case he has orchestrated the death of another to further his own career. The supernatural has a hand in his own inevitable end.

My fertile imagination has left both the original James text and the BBC adaptation (truncated to The Stalls of Barchester) also interchangeable. They are complementary in providing the correct dose of ghostly satisfaction; the dark staircase, the black cat, the whispering voice:

The whispering in my house was more persistent tonight. I seemed not to be rid of it in my room. I have not noticed this before. A nervous man, which I am not, and hope I am not becoming, would have been much annoyed, if not alarmed, by it. The cat was on the stairs tonight. I think it sits there always. There is no kitchen cat.

The ghost stories of M.R.James are like a generous glass of mulled wine. Warming, but with an additional ingredient of spice to jolt you slightly. It’s important to remember that many of these stories were read aloud to students, and the subject matter of often over zealous antiquarians could be read as a warning not to take one’s studies too seriously. At least not at Christmas.

The Stalls of Barchester was first shown on Christmas Eve 1971. And so on the same day in 2008 I wish you all a very Merry Christmas…

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