Oct 23 2014 11:00am

M.R. James: The Haunted Boy

It has gone unnoticed by his biographers, but the Eton lodgings in which M.R. James set his scholarship in the 1870s was the location of a famous 17th Century ghost story. Roger Clarke, who attended the same school exactly one hundred years later, tells the story for the first time.

* * *

I have in front of me the original third-edition of Saducismus Triumphatus by Joseph Glanvill. It’s a very old book, from 1700, and it's full of ghosts and witches. It has the royal insignia on the front, which means it was owned and probably read by George III or “Mad King George.” His grandfather George II was a staunch believer in vampires, but I digress. I’m not allowed to photograph it, but I’m in the British Library in London.

Saducismus was a theological work designed to rebut the cynics and sceptics by trying to demonstrate that the supernatural world—and by extension, God—really existed. It influenced, famously, Cotton Mather and the witch trials held 1692-3 in Salem, Massachusetts. In those days, ghosts were thought not to be spirits but demons, and often associated with witches and witchcraft. Glanvill, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Chaplain to the King, managed to make a belief in ghosts and witchcraft respectable in England for about a decade. One of his early jobs was as a curate to Eton College.

Curiously, this book also includes a now-forgotten ghost story that’s relevant to one of the best English ghost story writers of them all, M.R. James (1862-1936). 

On page 116 of this edition of Saducismus, wrinkled and brown, its pages over 300 years old and speckled with foxing and morbidity, a reek of dust and the evaporated damps of many forgotten winters rising from its pages, there’s a ghost story called The Apparition of the Ghost of Major George Sydenham, to Captain William Dyke, taken out of a letter of Mr. James Douch of Mongton, to Mr. Jos. Glanvil”

It’s the 17th Century. Captain Dyke has an agreement with his cousin Major Sydenham. We don’t know anything about these two outside of Saducismus; they seem unremarkable members of the West Country gentry.

The agreement between the two went as follows: Sydenham would attempt to contact Dyke after death. He died and nothing happened. Six weeks after Sydenham had passed away , Dyke was, it seems, now resigned to not hearing from his dead family member, and life went on, including the business of taking his son to school. Dyke’s son had been accepted as a scholar at Eton College, and while he was in town, Dyke stayed at the St. Christopher Inn that for many years stood on the Eton high-street before finally being converted into private lodgings by the school in the 1980s when I was there. It was known, by the Eton schoolboys over many centuries, as “Tap.”

The morning after Dyke had delivered his son to the school, a doctor who had accompanied him on his journey was alarmed to find his friend in a terrible state, “his hair and eyes staring, and his whole body shaking and trembling.”

Dyke had been woken at first light by a figure who came to his bedside and drew back the curtains, saying, insistently, familiarly, “Cap! Cap!” Recognising the private name assigned him by his dead cousin, Sydenham, he cried out “what, my Major?”

“To which he returns,” writes Glanvill, “‘I could not come at the time appointed, but I am now come to tell you, that there is a God, and a very just and terrible one, and if you will not turn over a new leaf… you will find it so.'”

Sydenham's ghost then recognised a sword on the table in the room; he “took up the sword, drew it out, and finding it not clean and bright as it ought, observes ‘this sword did not use to be kept after this manner when it was mine.’” Upon which accusatory observation, the apparition vanished from sight.

Glanvill records that Dyke never really recovered from this spiritual encounter, and went into a decline. His previous hale-and-hearty manner reduced to something “strangely altered” and he was unable to eat much. He only lived another two years, and expired. I imagine him obsessively cleaning the sword until his death.

Two hundred years pass. Many people come and go in the St. Christopher Inn—schoolboys, parents, travellers.

In July 1875, there was a party of scholarship boys from Temple Grove, one of England’s best-known “prep” schools then sited in East Sheen. One of these boys was M.R James. They stayed at the Christopher Inn. This was Monty’s first real encounter with a landscape and a set of buildings which would be with him for the rest of his life, since from the inn he could see the South-facing buttresses of the College Chapel. He wrote at the time “the Chapel is awfully jolly from the outside, but I didn’t see the inside.”

Monty James, author of such stories as “Casting the Runes” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” was a great influence when I was at Eton almost exactly 100 years after his own schooldays. In 1881, Monty edited the Eton Chronicle, as I did in 1981, with a boy who is now Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. Monty’s first term there was disrupted by illness, as was mine, but not, as in James' case, from a “tin of cold sausages” sent as part of a hamper.

The Temple Grove boys, according to the biography of James by Michael Cox (sadly out of print), were mobbed by the Lower Boys after the scholarship examinations with jeers and kicks. There was also a “dreadful explosion” when James' headmaster Ottiwell Charles Waterfield found out he had put “the subject of a sentence into the ablative absolute.”

“The Examiners are the Provosts of Eton and Kings,” Waterfield wrote to Monty’s father in a state of incredulity. “This sort of thing will make their hair stand on end.”

It’s both a strange prediction of Monty’s future fame and an unknowing description of Captain Dyke’s night of terror in the same building.

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Roger Clarke is best known as a film-writer for the Independent newspaper and more recently Sight & Sound. Inspired by a childhood spent in two haunted houses, Roger Clarke has spent much of his life trying to see a ghost. He was the youngest person ever to join the Society for Psychical Research in the 1980s and was getting his ghost stories published by The Pan & Fontana series of horror books at just 15, when Roald Dahl asked his agent to take him on as a client.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Alyson Widen
1. Sunnymay
Ghosts seem to be one of the buzzwords now that Halloween is upon us, but they don't always behave as expected. One of my friends is writing a memoir in which a ghost hovers.
Carl Ginger
3. cgin56
Very interesting article, nicely done!
4. Raymond Stone
In it to WIN it! Thank You!
julie hedrick
5. julie123
This sounds like an interesting book to read.
Mary Ann Brady
11. mirahana
This sounds fascinating. I'd love to win this. Thx.
Jeffrey Malis
14. bravejam
Terrific article! Sounds like a great read... Thanks for the chance!
15. Kyaw Sein
Thanks for the chance, I love reading Ghost stories,
Charles Volstad
17. ChuckCE
I think it sounds like a very good book
Kathleen Smith
18. lightlovebeing
Lovin me some ghost stories, thanks for the chance to win!
19. Hopeful1
Jacqueline Gray
23. Jacqueline
I have numerous volumes of Victorian and Edwardian ghost stories. I count M.R. James' stories as amongst the best and I highly recommend his work to my friends. His stories are extremely well crafted. How fortunate of you to have attended the same school.
27. Shannon Baas
I would like this.
alyce poalillo
28. alycep
Looks fascinating and I would love to read it.
32. Audrey L
Sounds absolutely fascinating!
34. Rebecca Kesa
I can see you.
36. Amanda Leigh
I would love to read this.
38. runner
Groovy The Haunted Boy!
Chi Shannon
39. anastasiafall
I would love to give this a read :) Perfect time a year for it :D
41. maryc
I would love to read this - thanks for the chance.
Barbara Lima
43. barblima
Just back from England, I love an English ghost story.
Anita Yancey
46. rosewood780
I always enjoy reading anything that has to do with ghosts. Thanks for this chance.
Daniel Morrell
48. godan
always like reading about ghosts (and movies) but don't think i'd wanna meet one
Cindy Scheffler
49. Cindydawn
Would love to win this. Thanks for the chance
50. ellhesmay
You can't get enough ghosts in my opinion....
51. Nanze
nicely sets the mood for the season
Anna Mills
52. Anna Mills
I take this stuff seriously, People! Live in a haunted house!
Andrew Beck
53. queerbec
It's Halloween week: what better time to enter a contest for a book about Ghosts! Don't know if I'd like to meet one like Captain Dyke did!
54. jpl123456
Great read especially so close to Halloween.
Richard Brandt
55. rsbrandt44
What a remarkable tale! Sounds like Monty had some spectral shoes to fill.
56. DebbieC
I love boos about Ghosts, every house I have lived has had at least one most time several more.
Would LOVE to win this
Andrew LaNeve
57. Andrew L.
Looks like a good one. Thanks for the chance!
Gordon Bingham
58. gordonbingham
Discovered M R James back in the late 60's/early 70's thanks to Lin Carter's Adullt Fantasy series. Would love to have this one...
Joanne Mielczarski
62. jtmswim
I'm always in the market for a good read.
Laura McDonald
63. bonnieclyde
Very timely article! I have never read M. R. James but now I will head to the library. I love a good ghost story.
Jeanette Barney
64. eyeluvbooks59
I would love to read this book. I have a huge collection of ghost stories and I am always adding to it.
65. Towhit
Eerie nice. Eerie nice.
Barbara Bibel
67. bbibel
Thios sounds great. Some of my patrons will really love it.
Marylynn Hayes
68. delimama66
I love ghost stories - fact or fiction. Thanks for the chance!
Max  Lakshtanov
69. supermax
This sounds like an interesting book to read.
Kelly Wolterman
71. kellu
I think it is interesting that, in the 17th century, they made the link between ghosts and heaven/God. I've often thought if you believed in God, then you must logically believe in ghosts.
Michelle Brown
72. michelle.brown
I love reads like this! Can't wait to read this spooky history! :D
73. DemonShane
Sounds like a great read, though I doubt sword polishing to the end of your days sounds like much fun. In it to win it! Good luck everyone.
Patricia Braden
74. azpatty
This sounds like an Awesome book...I'd love to win this....
charles j hauser jr
75. admiral
It seems the art of the ghost story is a lost one. Too much about Vampires today and the Undead. Some of the great writers of our time have written ghost stories- i.e. Marquez, Oates, Kipling. Even Conan Doyle was into the spirit life but sadly never incorporated a ghost story into one with the Great Detective. Of course the Great Detective may simply have refused to believe in them
susan beamon
76. susanbeamon
I like a good ghost story, so long as it doesn't have too many unneccesairy words. The current paranormal books don't have the scary I like.
78. Missy
This book looks amazing! Im actually excited to read this article, thanks for the chance of winning a book that sounds so great.
Michael Carter
79. rubydog
This sounds really interesting.
Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
Thanks --
Kristen Meston
80. webereading
Though I really don't believe in ghosts, I sure do end up reading a lot about them. James was truly one of the best at ghost stories.
Lori Provenzano
81. Mountainesque
I'm both a cynic and a skeptic yet remain very entertained by a good ghost story (and their history, too, I'm guessing)!
Rosemary Krejsa
82. grandpa5
Ghosts stories are perfect reading material for this time of the year. It would be interesting to read a history of the phenomon.
Lynn Jarrett
84. OkieReader
'Tis the season!! Now is the time to read about ghosts. Bring it on!!
Connie Saunders
85. cataloger
Perfect choice for an end of October Giveaway! Thanks!!
86. Shannon K.
I have been fascinated by the mysteries since I was a wee lassie. Would love to keep learning and enjoying stories!
Mallory Bailey
87. mallorybailey1
Would love to win this! Thanks for the chance :)
88. Wanda B.
I love to read about this kind of stuff.
89. Rumeur
I'm sure it's not a ghostly thing just in my area but around where I live, many restaurants in older buildings claim to have ghosts in them. I don't know if it's to get people to come to their restaurant but I enjoy listening to the stories anyway. One was of a woman who hung herself in the wine cellar of this restaurant. It wasn't a particularly busy evening yet, so being curious , I asked if I could see where this spot was. I was actually taken by the owner to the basement, that was creepy itself. He showed me where it happened. I asked what the ghost does. He told me benign things like turn lights off/on or close/open the door. I don't know if these things are true, but theyre fun to hear about :)
Sally Winkleblech
90. sallyw
If I win, think I'll read this book in the day time.
Andra Dalton
91. andra77
This has always been my absolute favorite time of year!!! Can't get enough of the ghosts, goblins,& ghouls!!! Thanks for the opportunity to win & good luck to all who enter!!!:)
Kelley Tackett
92. tackettfamilyky
This sounds like an amazing story. I can't wait to learn more!
Sharon Haas
93. kazul
It seems to be fashionable, once more, to have a ghost in your home.
95. Tarah
I would absolutely love this!
Yvonne Bressani
96. glraines
Wonderful story and would like to be considered.
Deb Fantom
100. fantomd
I would love to read this book. Thank you for the chance to win.
elizabeth findlay
102. eafindlay
What's not to like about ghosts and the people who see them.
104. MichaelNethercott
I like the fact that James composed many of his ghost stories to be read aloud at Christmas Eve. You can almost hear the yule log crackling. James’ stories have a natural poetry to them, and his most anthologized tale has my favorite haunting, poetic title of all time: “'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad.”
Angela Barnes
105. jb1ab2
I love to read about Ghosts and the debate people have regarding their own beliefs about them. I would love to win this book.
106. nickie
Love to read this!!
Donna Bruno
107. dlbawiles
Now there's a history I can sink my teeth into! Or not.....
Jennifer Zidak
109. jenzidak
I like ghost stories and would love to read this.
113. Ava Ann Chavez
oooohhh...This looks like a wonderful read....Good luck all...
115. MsCrystalLibrarian
I love to read ghost stories!!!:}
117. erma
It sounds really good
Barbara Miller
118. barbara0101
I can't wait to read this book. Sounds awesome.
Allison Moyer
119. The Loopy Librarian
I've never seen a ghost, but I've never discounted the possibility. Besides, a good ghost story is hard to resist.
120. Dawn K
looks pretty good
122. Patricia
I am wayy excited for Halloween this year. Hadn't done a lot because of college but now I am out ready for spookyness :)
125. mellyrox
I find ghost stories so interesting & would love to go ghost hunting! Thanks for the chance to win this amazing book.
126. Mildredmayo
If I have the choice I would prefer to read about ghosts than participate. I find the genre intriguing.
Chris Teel
127. Teelioli
The only thing better than old ghosts would have to be old British ghosts. Would love to read this.
Betsy Whitmarsh
128. Yogamom67
Great review - makes me want to read more!
129. admiral
as some one who has seen a ghost three times-albeit the same one three times over a period of 4 weeks- I think a quality writer could make that experience interesting as it is woven into a mystery story- my particular ghost experience didn't lead to anything and it ended as quickly as it started with no resolution or reason as to why it made its appearance.
131. Anita Triglia Mitchell
Sounds like an awesome book to read.
Timothy Anderson
137. lycoan
Would love to add this book to my collection.
Buddy Garrett
138. garrettsambo
I love good ghost stories. This book sounds very interesting. Thanks.
140. Tim H. Moss
Good deal, count me in!
141. Leela
Sounds like an interesting read.
Carrie Conley
143. weeziestoy
This is my reading time....sounds interesting...
Heather Cowley
144. choochoo
Hmmm, appropriate! I'm planning a ghost tour for next summer. Perfect pre-reading for the trip!
Melissa Keith
145. melly801
Excellent post for Halloween! I love it. I'm a 'sensitive'. And I, as well as my entire family, have had experiences with the paranormal. I've helped many people with their 'visitors'. I haven't won any books from you in a long time. This would, as Michael Keaton says in BEETLEJUICE, 'make my millenium'!! BOO!
150. Caren Nichols
Have always been intrigued by ghosts and hauntings. This looks to be like an excellant read.
151. Julie N
I feel lucky
152. Lucinda L
Great book for especially this time of year!
Shauntea Crutcher
153. tiac32
I love to read anything relating to the paranormal. I hope that I win this prize.
Diana Portwood
155. kittenmonster
As a huge M R James fan, you've got my attention!
vicki wurgler
157. bison61
this sounds like a great book to read
Marcy Strahan
I WANT TO READ THIS AWESOME BOOK! I bought another at the Dollar store about Haunted America history of hauntings in the USA & this would pair nicely!
Catherine Myers
159. ktpotat
If there are ghost anywhere England has to be the hot bed.
elaine fisher
160. elfette
wishes for a scary but safe all hallows eve to one and all
no better way to enjoy Samhain then with a book of ghost stories
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