Author Andrew Screen interviews with Jane Mainley-Piddock about her forthcoming book, Casting the Runes: The Letters of M. R. James...
Currently in the process of being funded courtesy Unbound.com is a brand new book which compiles the letters and communications of the horror writer M.R. James held in the archives of Cambridge University. Horrified’s Andrew Screen spoke to the writer of the book, Jane Mainley-Piddock, about how she has meticulously researched the project which seeks to plug a gap in the life, times and history of a much-loved author who is still shrouded in mystery.
On leaving school Jane took jobs as a clerk in the local Wrexham Valuation office for the civil service, and as a freight forwarding rep for a Nordic freight company for a few years, before finding herself on unemployment benefit. Following a recommendation from her job coach, she applied to Wolverhampton University. Jane takes up her story: “After an interview which was straight out of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ where Spud tries to get a job I was admitted on an undergraduate programme, American Studies with Woman Studies. After three years at Wolves which included an exchange programme at Akron University in the USA I earned a BA (Hons).”
Clutching her award and dispensing with her mortarboard, Jane went on to run her own employment agency before marrying and moving to Oswestry in Shropshire. Here she worked as a trainer in the construction industry, but growing restless, she signed up to study on a part-time Masters course at her local university back in Wrexham. After three years she earned a MA in Victorian Literature as well as qualifying as a college tutor. She then continued her studies and in 2020 she earned a PhD from Aberystwyth University reading A Jungian and Historical Reading of the Ghost Stories of M.R. James.
Andrew: I first asked Jane what led her to become interested in the work M. R. James?
Jane: At my MA evening classes we had a very brilliant charismatic lecturer Dr. Richard Dover who managed to make the job of sitting through a three-hour class after a days work interesting. He taught a class on the literature of the Fin De Siecle and James’s ghost stories rather fit into that area. I’m ashamed to say that I had never heard of James, but when Richard started his lecture I was captivated. The rest really is history.
A: Given the popularity of his work were you surprised that so little of his archive, and his letters, have been researched or explored?
J: I rather knew something was problematic in the Jamesian archive, when I tried to write my very first piece on James, for my module that Dr. Dover had taught. He advised me to pick another topic as “there’s so little on James”. That rather set the tone for my master’s dissertation and the PhD. However it was a “Golden Ticket” (as my PhD supervisor Tasha Alden termed it) for a PhD topic as so little has been done on James, and the very definition of a PhD is “An Original Contribution to Knowledge”.
A: How have you been able to access the archive and format is it in? Has the issue of Covid caused any problems with research?
J: When my proposal to Unbounders for the book was approved, the lockdown had not yet occurred, but then bang, we went into lockdown just as I had to get into my editor at Unbounders a copy of a letter by James. That was a copy of a letter that had already been published, as due to lockdown even the librarians and archivists at weren’t allowed into their buildings as the restrictions were so severe in March.
The lockdown stayed that way until October when I was first allowed into the archives. The James letters (in The Cambridge University Library) for one example his letters are held in their Rare Manuscripts room, in boxes, with distinctive maroon folders tied with string. Of course, there are many other James letters held in different locations. The biography by Richard Pfaff gives a good description of many of them.
A: When did the idea for the book arise?
J: During one of my many forays trying to find primary documents for my PhD, I realised that there was no book apart from the charmingly batty “Letters to A Friend” by Gwen McBryde which every James biographer has labelled as badly edited.
A: Are you a fan of horror / British horror? Apart from James are there any particular favourites?
J: I love all sorts of horror genre, but I was influenced growing up by the Spellbound and Misty comics, and Joan Aiken’s books. Then, of course, I love Stephen King’s books, Clive Barker’s novels, particularly his short stories ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ and ‘The Forbidden’ and his novella ‘The Hellbound Heart’, and its sequels particularly ‘The Scarlet Gospels’. Growing up I watched the Hammer House of Horror series usually when I was looking after my kid sister while my parents worked, and I loved all of the Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, etc., films. Elvira was also a big fave, as well as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (which I went to see in Manchester and that was brill).
At the moment I do love the series of What we do in the Shadows, Charmed both original and reboot, The Craft, Buffy, Angel, Supernatural, The Dresden Files, and everything similar. I’m a complete sucker for particularly all of the True Blood series and the books by Charlaine Harris.”
A: You are transcribing the original documents and from some of the images you have shared on Twitter this looks like a formidable task. How easy or hard is it?
J: It is excruciatingly hard, sometimes one letter can take days, especially as James liked to use all sorts of languages including Latin, French, Spanish and Greek, so you may be looking at one part and then he will veer off into another language. At first, it used to worry me, as I thought that the task of transcribing his letters was beyond me! Then I would look again (after taking a break) and realise that the word I had been trying to decipher was not in fact in English. That was why I started making jokes on Twitter about how transcribing James’s letters was like Daniel Jackson in the Stargate franchise trying to decipher the ancient language when he was engaging with ascended beings in the series.
A: Have you found any details that are particularly surprising or shocking?
J: Ah ha! …now you will have to wait and see. I’m not spoiling anything for the people who have pledged and preordered the book.”
A: Have the letters reshaped your opinion of James or of his work?
J: Oh definitely, James in his letters is a real human being, we see him go from a small boy of seven to a junior schoolboy, to Eton and then Kings College Cambridge and all of his life in between and after it is wonderful and very humbling, to be privy to this. Also handling his letters which are so fragile, and in some cases over 100 years old is such a weird sensory experience.
A: What are your favourite M.R. James tales and why?
J: ‘Rats’ is my absolute favourite, as we get to see James at his most playful, he did have a great sense of humour, and he does rather play with the form of the short ghost or mystery tale here.
A: Can you tell readers how they can support the publication of the book?
J: They can first pledge for the book which supports the publication of it, and also bear in mind that this is not a novel, but a painstaking archival exercise, where I visit original archives (sometimes having to wait seven months for them to open during the worldwide pandemic). I have to gain permission to be able to photograph the individual letters, then transcribe each letter with great care, and then type up and notate each with context for the readers for the book. Therefore it is a long process. So I ask the readers to be patient, as the book will also have to be edited and then wait its turn in a publishing schedule. However, I promise then that it will be worth it.
A: After the book do you have any other plans in the pipeline?
J: I plan to try and get my PhD thesis published with Unbound; it is the first complete reading of M R James’s ghost stories, through a Jungian and Historical lens.
Our thanks to Jane for making space in her research schedule to talk to us. To read an excerpt from the book, follow this link.
For more information or to get involved in funding the Casting the Runes: The Letters of M.R. James, click the image below. There are a number of funding options and rewards available for this unique and wonderful project.