Background Information and Keynote Speakers

M. R. James and the Suffolk Landscape

M.R. James stands as a giant of supernatural fiction. He took the ghostly tale, ‘weird fiction’, out of a gothic setting and placed it firmly in the here and now, happening to the kind of people you might pass in the street any day: balanced, educated, sane. The horrors don’t take place in the shadowy corridors of a crumbling fortress, or a cobweb-festooned catacomb. They happen in your hotel, in your house, in your bed. The stories have a simplicity and directness that make them not just highly effective on the page, but also as ideas and images to be transferred to the screen. They have never been out of print since they first appeared in 1904. His influence on the genre has been monumental, and his moments of terror, once read or seen, stay in your mind forever.

But James is also a major Suffolk writer, whose work was often at its strongest when he drew upon the county and the landscape that he loved and knew so well. This is something I explore in my recent work, A Geography of Horror: the Ghost Stories of M.R. James and the Suffolk Landscape (2021), where I consider whether there is something about Suffolk that makes it particularly conducive to imagining – or seeing – ghosts. In this talk, I want to analyse the enduring success of James’ work and its relationship with the county. Some of James’ best ghost stories are Suffolk ghost stories, and no-one has used that factor in their fiction to greater effect.

Simon Loxley

 In the space of a few weeks as a teenager, Simon Loxley read the fifth and sixth books in the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories series and then stayed up alone on Christmas Eve to watch the BBC’s first showing of their adaptation of M.R. James’ ‘A Warning to the Curious’. He was hooked forever. In 2021, he fulfilled an ambition to write about his love of weird fiction when he published A Geography of Horror: the Ghost Stories of M.R. James and the Suffolk Landscape.

Simon has lived in Suffolk since 2000. As a graphic designer, he has worked extensively in the heritage sector, including for the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the Fitzwilliam Museum, the Museum of London, Dulwich Picture Gallery, Britten Pears Arts, and Emery Walker’s House. He founded, edited, and designed Ultrabold, the typography and graphics journal for St Bride Library, and has long experience of designing books and magazines, including hundreds of covers for Suffolk-based publishers Boydell & Brewer. He has published books and articles on graphic design and typography, has lectured in the UK, Spain, and the United States, and taught on the Graphic Design courses in Cambridge and Norwich.

Modernising and Re-Versioning M.R. James: Fandom in/and Professional Transformative Works

Although there is no franchised ‘Montague-Rhodes-verse’, M.R. James’ work has acted as the source for TV and audio ‘transcoding,’ especially the Ghost Stories for Christmas in their 1970s incarnation and 21st century revival (Wheatley, 2006; Johnston, 2015). As Mark Gatiss has remarked, ‘there is a sense of brand recognition to his work’ (2023). In this talk, I want to consider the role of fandom within some of these adaptations and re-imaginings, considering how professional genre creatives draw on fan identities and experiences in their ‘transformative’ re-versioning of M.R. James’ short stories.

Alongside Mark Gatiss’s television adaptations, I will consider the 2019 audible release, The Conception of Terror: Tales Inspired by M.R. James. This includes work from British horror writers Stephen Gallagher and Mark Morris, respectively modernising ‘Casting the Runes’ and ‘A View from a Hill.’ I will also look further back, between the 70s and noughties TV adaptations of M.R. James, to the fiction of another British horror author, Christopher Fowler, and his 1990 novel, Rune which begins with the author’s note ‘I owe a great debt of gratitude to M. R. James […] and to Jacques Tourneur’ (Fowler, 1990, v). 

Putting adaptation and fan studies into dialogue, I will follow Laurence Raw’s recognition that affect is vital to the creative impulses of adaptation and that this can serve to deconstruct producer/fan distinctions (2017, p. 22). This is not to say that creatives such as Gatiss, Gallagher, or Morris are making ‘professional M.R. James fanfiction’, since fanfic is created and consumed in very different contexts (De Kosnik, 2016; McClellan, 2018). But it is to suggest that the aesthetic ‘gaps’ in James’s ‘shadow-worlds’ (Kneale, 1973, ix), may have provoked forms of professional transformative work that seek to re-visit and re-create the ‘less easily definable qualities of tone’ (Jones, 2018, p. 135) of both M.R. James’ stories and, crucially, readers’/audiences’ ritualistic fan experiences of them.               

Matt Hills

Dr Matt Hills is currently teaching at Manchester Metropolitan University and is an Honorary Professor at the University of Bristol. Until 2023, he was a Professor of Fandom Studies at the University of Huddersfield. Matt is the author of books such as Fan Cultures (Routledge, 2002) and The Pleasures of Horror (Continuum, 2005) as well as the co-editor of Transatlantic Television Drama (Oxford University Press, 2019) and most recently, Adventures Across Space and Time: A Doctor Who Reader (Bloomsbury Academic, 2023). He has published widely on media fandom and Doctor Who, editing or writing four other books on this to date. His most recent sole-authored journal article is a piece in Participations in honour of the late Martin Barker.