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.

A sketch of St. Christopher’s Inn.
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.”

A younger Roger Clarke posed in his school uniform to create a
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.


  1. Alyson Widen

    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.

  2. Rebecca Brothers

    Always love a good story.

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    Very interesting article, nicely done!

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  18. Kathleen Smith

    Lovin me some ghost stories, thanks for the chance to win!

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  20. keith james

    Thanks as always.

  21. Jacqueline Gray

    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.

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  32. Rebecca Kesa

    I can see you.

  33. Andrew Gordon

    cool read

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    I would love to read this.

  35. Denise Sachs

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  36. runner

    Groovy The Haunted Boy!

  37. Anastasia

    I would love to give this a read 🙂 Perfect time a year for it 😀

  38. julie hedrick

    This looks interesting.

  39. MaryC

    I would love to read this – thanks for the chance.

  40. Vernon Luckert

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  44. Anita Yancey

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  45. Eva Moller

    Very interesting!

  46. Daniel Morrell

    always like reading about ghosts (and movies) but don’t think i’d wanna meet one

  47. Cindy Scheffler

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    You can’t get enough ghosts in my opinion….

  49. Nanze

    nicely sets the mood for the season

  50. Anna Mills

    I take this stuff seriously, People! Live in a haunted house!

  51. Andrew Beck

    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!


    Great read especially so close to Halloween.

  53. Richard Brandt

    What a remarkable tale! Sounds like Monty had some spectral shoes to fill.

  54. 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

  55. Andrew LaNeve

    Looks like a good one. Thanks for the chance!

  56. Gordon Bingham

    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…

  57. Robin Weatherington


  58. Karl Stenger

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  59. Joyce Mitchell

    Thanks for the chance to win.

  60. Joanne Mielczarski

    I’m always in the market for a good read.

  61. Laura McDonald

    Very timely article! I have never read M. R. James but now I will head to the library. I love a good ghost story.

  62. Jeanette Barney

    I would love to read this book. I have a huge collection of ghost stories and I am always adding to it.

  63. Towhit

    Eerie nice. Eerie nice.

  64. Peter W. Horton Jr.

    I love old ghosts! Yes!

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  66. Marylynn Hayes

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  69. Kelly Wolterman

    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.

  70. Michelle Brown

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  72. Patricia Braden

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  73. charles j hauser jr

    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

  74. susan beamon

    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.

  75. Chrystina Williams

    I would love to read this!

  76. Missy

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  77. Michael Carter

    This sounds really interesting.
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  78. Kristen Meston

    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.

  79. Lori P

    I’m both a cynic and a skeptic yet remain very entertained by a good ghost story (and their history, too, I’m guessing)!

  80. Rosemary Krejsa

    Ghosts stories are perfect reading material for this time of the year. It would be interesting to read a history of the phenomon.

  81. Margaret Sexton

    BOO! I love a ghost story!

  82. Lynn Jarrett

    ‘Tis the season!! Now is the time to read about ghosts. Bring it on!!

  83. Connie Saunders

    Perfect choice for an end of October Giveaway! Thanks!!

  84. Shannon K.

    I have been fascinated by the mysteries since I was a wee lassie. Would love to keep learning and enjoying stories!

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  86. Wanda B.

    I love to read about this kind of stuff.

  87. 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 🙂

  88. Sally

    If I win, think I’ll read this book in the day time.

  89. Andra Dalton

    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!!!:)

  90. Kelley Tackett

    This sounds like an amazing story. I can’t wait to learn more!

  91. Sharon Haas

    It seems to be fashionable, once more, to have a ghost in your home.

  92. Heather Burgess

    I would LOVE to get my hands on this one!

  93. Tarah

    I would absolutely love this!

  94. Yvonne Bressani

    Wonderful story and would like to be considered.

  95. Loren Palmer

    ghoul contest

  96. jennifer sullivan

    would love it

  97. g. penrod

    looks to be a great read

  98. Deb Fantom

    I would love to read this book. Thank you for the chance to win.

  99. shawn manning

    sounds like a lot of fun

  100. elizabeth findlay

    What’s not to like about ghosts and the people who see them.

  101. Jeffrey Tretin

    Sounds like a fun read!

  102. 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.”

  103. Angela Barnes

    I love to read about Ghosts and the debate people have regarding their own beliefs about them. I would love to win this book.

  104. nickie

    Love to read this!!

  105. Donna Bruno

    Now there’s a history I can sink my teeth into! Or not…..

  106. Joe Hauser


  107. Jennifer Zidak

    I like ghost stories and would love to read this.

  108. Tim Lucas

    I’m in

  109. Lisa Pecora

    I’d love to read this!!

  110. Jeanette Jackson

    I would love to read this book!

  111. Ava Ann Chavez

    oooohhh…This looks like a wonderful read….Good luck all…

  112. Saundra K. Warren

    Want to read this!!

  113. MsCrystalLibrarian

    I love to read ghost stories!!!:}

  114. Yvette Figueroa

    This is awesome!

  115. erma

    It sounds really good

  116. Barbara Miller

    I can’t wait to read this book. Sounds awesome.

  117. Allison Moyer

    I’ve never seen a ghost, but I’ve never discounted the possibility. Besides, a good ghost story is hard to resist.

  118. Dawn K

    looks pretty good

  119. Ed Nemmers

    I would like to read the work of Charles Finch.

  120. 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 🙂

  121. Crystal Blackburn


  122. Tyneisha Fondren

    Love stories like this!

  123. mellyrox

    I find ghost stories so interesting & would love to go ghost hunting! Thanks for the chance to win this amazing book.

  124. Mildredmayo

    If I have the choice I would prefer to read about ghosts than participate. I find the genre intriguing.

  125. Chris Teel

    The only thing better than old ghosts would have to be old British ghosts. Would love to read this.

  126. Betsy Whitmarsh

    Great review – makes me want to read more!

  127. 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.

  128. Debra Kidle

    Ghosts are cool, I want to read this!

  129. Anita Triglia Mitchell

    Sounds like an awesome book to read.

  130. Karen Terry

    Very interesting and scary.

  131. Daniel Vice

    I would like this

  132. Stephen Saunders

    I’d like to win this. 🙂

  133. Karen Koziczkowski

    Some “Scary, Scary” needed here!

  134. trish mckee

    I can’t wait to read this!

  135. Timothy Anderson

    Would love to add this book to my collection.

  136. Buddy Garrett

    I love good ghost stories. This book sounds very interesting. Thanks.

  137. Sand Lopez

    Sounds good!

  138. Tim H. Moss

    Good deal, count me in!

  139. Leela

    Sounds like an interesting read.

  140. Laura DeLaRosa

    Yes please!

  141. Carrie Conley

    This is my reading time….sounds interesting…

  142. Heather Cowley

    Hmmm, appropriate! I’m planning a ghost tour for next summer. Perfect pre-reading for the trip!

  143. Melissa Keith

    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!

  144. Susan Smoaks

    thank you for the chance to win!

  145. Kathy Harmon

    can’t wait to read, thank you!

  146. Joshua Atkins

    I would love to read this. Thanks!

  147. aokmcd

    Looks great

  148. Caren Nichols

    Have always been intrigued by ghosts and hauntings. This looks to be like an excellant read.

  149. Julie N

    I feel lucky

  150. Lucinda L

    Great book for especially this time of year!

  151. Shauntea Crutcher

    I love to read anything relating to the paranormal. I hope that I win this prize.

  152. CherylMc


  153. Diana Portwood

    As a huge M R James fan, you’ve got my attention!

  154. Linda Peters

    great one for the hubby, thanks

  155. vicki wurgler

    this sounds like a great book to read

  156. 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!

  157. Catherine Myers

    If there are ghost anywhere England has to be the hot bed.

  158. elaine fisher

    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

  159. Denise Carlson

    Sounds interesting. Pls pick me! 🙂

  160. Joyce Benzing


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