A Pleasing Terror at Belfast Festival

Author John Connolly comes north to talk about the eerie works of MR James

At first glance, the authors Montague Rhodes James and John Connolly don’t seem to have much in common. James, best remembered for having originated the antiquarian ghost story, has more than a whiff of academic tweed about him. He was a highly-regarded medievalist who taught at Cambridge and Eton.

Fast talking, Dublin-born Connolly is best known for his Parker novels, detective stories with a supernatural bent, but has also won acclaim for his short story collection Nocturnes and, more recently, his comedy-horror novels for children, The Gates and Hell's Bells.

Yet for all their differences, it will be John Connolly who will host the Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's MR James night at the Queen's Film Theatre on October 21, with Dr Darryl Jones, Head of English at Trinity College, Dublin.

Their talk is entitled MR James – A Pleasing Terror, and includes a screening of Whistle and I'll Come to You, Jonathan Miller's 1968 adaptation of one of James' most famous stories. The event is followed by a screening of Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon, an adaptation of James's 1911 short story 'Casting the Runes'.

'Novels of the supernatural tend to have an inbuilt flaw,' said Connolly ahead of his Festival appearance, 'which is that the explanation is rarely as interesting as the events that precede it.

'I think that the short story form is ideally suited to the supernatural because it doesn't require the writer to provide an explanation for what occurs in the same way that a novel does.

'My favourite short stories are essentially snapshots, a moment captured, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. It always struck me that James had an instinctive understanding of this.'

James's stories were written with the intent that they would be read aloud. Connolly's own regular readings at the No Alibis crime bookstore on Belfast's Botanic Avenue always go down a storm, but does he write with the idea of reading to an audience in mind?

'Well, most of the stories in Nocturnes were written to be read aloud, as the spur for their creation came from the BBC, who were very keen when I mentioned that I'd like to write ghost stories for the radio. There is something about being told a story, and particularly a story of the supernatural, which appeals to something very atavistic in our natures.'

The Charlie Parker novels and MR James's stories seem a world away from each other, but Connolly points out the underlying similarities.

'James suggests that beneath the veneer of ordinary human existence lies something stranger and odder. I can see that world view being replicated in my own novels, which set the rational world of the mystery novel alongside the anti-rational world of the supernatural.

'James' short stories rarely bother to explain the reasons behind the supernatural intrusion, and in fact it's often more a case of the ordinary sticking its nose in where it has no business prying and suddenly coming face to face with something very strange indeed.'

Connolly obviously has an affection for and affinity with James, who he cites as a lasting influence on his own work. His own personal favourite James short stories provide the first-time James reader with a useful entry into his extensive cannon of works.

'I love 'Whistle And I'll Come to You', 'A Warning to the Curious', and 'Canon Alberic's Scrapbook' in particular, mainly because they're among the strangest of the stories, and involve creatures or entities that have no basis in logic or rationality. They really are monsters, but controlled monsters, if that makes sense.'

Connolly detects a 'quite peculiarly English' sensibility in James's work, far from the hysterics of HP Lovecraft, for instance. So is James's 'dusty academic' image actually a blessing, rather than a curse?

'I do love that image of James reading his stories to students and faculty members as part of the Christmas celebrations,' Connolly laughs. 'What's most wonderful about James is that the narrators and protagonists of his tales, quite often academics, tend to be quite understated about what they're forced to confront.'

The MR James night at the Belfast Festival will feature two screen versions of James' tales, and they come highly recommended by Connolly.

Whistle and I'll Come to You has a great central performance by Michael Hordern, and is a great example of what can be done on a limited budget with imagination and skill. Night of the Demon is wonderful too, certainly the best full-length adaptation of James, although I take issue with the decision to depict the demon: some things are better left suggested.

'In the end, both are great fun, particularly when being shown in the run-up to Halloween!’

Tickets for MR James – A Pleasing Terror and Night of the Demon, both in QFT on October 21, can be booked via the Belfast Festival website. Visit What's On for information on all other Belfast Festival events.