Actor Robert Lloyd Parry as writer — and medieval scholar — M.R. James, who wrote some of the best ghost stories ever put to paper. Many of them have been adapted for television, and they’re guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

Actor Robert Lloyd Parry as writer — and medieval scholar — M.R. James, who wrote some of the best ghost stories ever put to paper. Many of them have been adapted for television, and they’re guaranteed to give you goosebumps.

The Editor’s Desk: Pleasant terrors

Just in time for Halloween, some supremely spooky ghost stories to watch.

Halloween is just around the corner, so this seems a particularly good time to point any readers so inclined towards a few excellent TV adaptations of some classic English ghost stories. They lean heavily on suggestion, but they’re no less terrifying for that. All are available on YouTube.

Stalls of Barchester (BBC, 1971): A wonderful ghost story by M.R. James (1862–1936), the greatest writer of ghost stories who ever lived (I am far from alone in this judgement). An ambitious clergyman gets what he wants, when he succeeds to the position of archdeacon after the man who held the position dies suddenly. He soon realizes, however, that his predecessor might still be there, and is not very happy. Memorable line/image: “There is no kitchen cat.”

A Warning to the Curious (BBC, 1972): My favourite ghost story by M.R. James, hauntingly done. A treasure hunter makes the find of a lifetime, only to realize that some things are best left hidden. Memorable line/image: “Sorry, sir; thought I saw somebody.”

Lost Hearts (BBC, 1973): Another James story, about a reclusive man who takes a sudden interest in his orphaned cousin. The boy goes to stay with him; but a mysterious young boy and girl who keep appearing (and disappearing) indicate that there might be more to the man’s sudden interest than meets the eye. Memorable line/image: The two children slowly waving.

The Signalman (BBC, 1976): Charles Dickens’s second most famous ghost story. A man walking the English countryside comes across a railway signalman who tells an increasingly disturbing story about strange events along the rail line. Yes, that’s Academy Award nominee Denholm Elliott as the signalman. Memorable line/image: “Hello! Below there!”

Schalcken the Painter (BBC, 1979): Based on an 1839 story by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irish writer who is—after M.R. James—the greatest of ghost story writers. The story tells of a young woman who is sold into marriage with a much older man; but what world does he come from, and where does he take the increasingly frightened young woman? Memorable line/image: “The dead and the living can never be one.”

Wailing Well (Channel 4, 1986): James again. Robert Powell (more or less playing M.R. James, who used to read his latest ghost story to friends at Christmas time) performs this blackly humorous story about a Boy Scout who is determined to find out why they have been warned to stay out of the ominously named Wailing Well Field. Memorable line/image: “I have heard that the present population of the Wailing Well Field consists of three women, a man … and a boy.” Part one: Part two:

The Tractate Middoth (BBC, 2013): The 1970s James and Dickens entries listed were part of the BBC’s “Ghost Stories for Christmas” series, and this 2013 adaptation is a (very) late addition. The Tractate Middoth of the title is a rare book which contains details about an inheritance. The first of two heirs to find it gets the inheritance; but one of them does not play fair, and the dead man who left the inheritance decides to play a part. Memorable line/image: Spiders.

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