The Laws of Shadows

Dead by thirty, one of the finest horror illustrators leaves only a handful of images behind – honoured by his great friend and patron, M.R. James.

Robert Lloyd Parry

In May 1904 a young artist called James McBryde wrote excitedly to his great friend M.R. James. ‘I don’t think I have ever done anything I liked better than illustrating your stories. To begin with I sat down and learned advanced perspective and the laws of shadows…’

The illustration (right) is one of four that McBryde made for James’s first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it depicts one of the most chilling moments in supernatural literature: the climax of Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. Professor Parkins, of Cambridge University, holidaying alone one blustery Christmas vacation beside the sea in Suffolk, is attacked by a bed sheet in his hotel room in the middle of the night.

McBryde captures perfectly the bleak atmosphere of the tale and the stark terror of its finale. Told in James’s dry, unhurried style Oh, Whistle… is, nonetheless, a story full of frantic movement — of stumbling and flapping, scurrying and darting, leaping and running — and the same sense of agitation is brilliantly conveyed in the picture. Those uncanny, wriggling shadows seem to zoom in on Parkins, trapping him in that shaft of moonlight. The bedsheets roll on, like a wave about to break over him. But the picture is more than an entirely apt complement to the tale. Without it James might never have published his stories in the first place.

James McBryde had come up to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences in 1893. Monty James — or MRJ as he was universally known — was by that time some way advanced in a distinguished academic career; he was the Dean of King’s, the deputy director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, and he had just begun his life’s work of cataloguing all the medieval manuscripts in Cambridge collections. McBryde, ten years his junior, was not perhaps an obvious candidate to join MRJ’s circle of bookish, if intellectually staid, Old Etonian friends, but he made a swift and favourable impression. ‘Before long,’ recalled MRJ years later, ‘he formed the habit, which I always encouraged, of dropping in uninvited at a late hour of the evening, and joining a congregation which was usually to be found in the inner room.’

That inner room was probably the same in which the ghost stories had their first outings. MRJ’s fiction has not been out of print since 1904, but the tales were not originally written to be experienced on the page, by the silent, solitary reader. They were composed to be heard, to be performed, no doubt to be gently applauded. Each Christmas, from the mid-1890s, MRJ would deliver a new tale, by the light of a single candle, to a select group of friends. And MRJ dedicated Ghost Stories of an Antiquary ‘to all those who at various times have listened to them’.

McBryde’s famous illustration of the pivotal moment of James’  Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

McBryde’s famous illustration of the pivotal moment of James’ Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad.

McBryde was a member of this privileged audience. His friendship with MRJ survived his leaving Cambridge and the two regularly travelled together in the summer vacations. Between 1899 and 1901 they made annual trips to Denmark and Sweden, trips that inspired two of James’s best spine-chillers (No. 13 and Count Magnus), and a whimsical graphic novella by McBryde. The Story of a Troll Hunt is a charming, if slight, tale of three Cambridge men who tour Jutland, stalking monsters to take back to the Fitzwilliam Museum.

By 1904, MRJ had written enough ghost stories to make up a short volume. He was in no hurry to publish them himself — his academic work was of much greater importance to him — but when it was suggested that McBryde illustrate them, his enthusiasm was aroused. ‘It would be capital,’ he wrote to his friend, who had recently enrolled at the Slade. ‘They are at present in a very rough manuscript. Shall I have them typewritten or send them as they are? Or do you remember any of them well enough to sketch out any ideas?’

Illustration by James McBryde for Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad (1904).jpg

McBryde, recently married and convalescing after an attack of appendicitis, set about his first professional engagement with vigour. It could so easily be bathetic, that moment in Parkins’s bedroom. The sheeted ghost was already a cliché in MRJ’s day, the stock-in-trade of the music-hall conjuror. But in the tale, and in McBryde’s illustration, the moonlit confrontation between the lonesome scholar and his bed linen is anything but comic.

In the story it is the apparition’s ‘intensely horrible face of crumpled linen’ that provides the focal point of terror. McBryde concentrates more on the grimace of the victim: Parkins is skeletal, his mouth a lunatic rictus, his cheeks hollowed out by a scream. The story has him lurching out of the window to escape his attacker; McBryde hems him in against a chest of drawers, his clawlike hands reaching out to fend off a being that he is too terrified to touch.

Like the best book illustrations, McBryde’s nocturne not only complements MRJ’s prose, it also adds to the enjoyment of it. And the young artist himself sensed that he had created something special. On 6 May 1904 he wrote to MRJ: ‘I have finished the Whistle ghost…I covered yards of paper to put in the moon shadows correctly and it is certainly the best thing I have ever drawn…’

It was also the last. James McBryde died at 9.30 in the morning on 4 June 1904. A few days earlier he had undergone a routine operation to remove his appendix, and his pregnant wife, Gwendolen, had just written to MRJ to tell him that ‘the boy’ was recovering well. A week later she was returning his manuscripts and the unfinished sketches that her husband had left.

Only four pictures had been completed. MRJ’s publishers suggested another artist to finish off the job, but he would have none of it. The book was to stand as a memorial to its illustrator. ‘Those who knew the artist will understand how much I wished to give a permanent form even to a fragment of his work,’ he wrote in the preface. ‘Others will appreciate the fact that here a remembrance is made of one in whom many friendships centred.’

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary was published in December 1904. A few days later James McBryde’s daughter was born. 

Robert Lloyd Parry is a writer, theatre producer, and actor. As founder of award-winning theatre company Nunkie, Robert has brought the stories of M.R. James to life around the UK and become one of the great students of his life and work.