WEIRD SUFFOLK: The horrifying phantom of Livermere which inspired ghost story writer MR James to put pen to paper.
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
He was one of the greatest ghost story writers of all time – but did a horrifying face-to-face experience with a ghost in Suffolk create MR James’ fascination with horror?
Write what you know, the old adage goes, so it stands to reason that after seeing a terrifying spectre staring at him through a gate, author MR James was destined to become a writer of ghost stories. The author moved to Suffolk at the age of three when his father became rector of Great Livermere, close to the Norfolk border. The family made Livermere their home from 1865 to 1909 and the county was close to James' heart. Some of his most terrifying tales are set in the county: The Ash Tree, A Warning to the Curious and the chilling Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad.
It is said that Montague Rhodes James' A Vignette, written in 1935 and published after his death in 1936, was based on a real life experience he had at Livermere when he was a child. In a nightmare, the young James goes to his bedroom window at the rectory and sees a curious movement in the garden, something moving towards the house - just as he hears footsteps on the stairs and a hand on his door, he wakes. The dream keeps coming and he begins to wonder if there is an unpleasant story connected to the place where he lives and, when he goes to investigate in the garden, he sees a terrifying face looking at him through a hole in the gate. Pink, malevolent and with large open eyes, when James fled and looked back, he saw a draped figure shambling away among the trees. Never confirmed or denied as a factual sighting, scholars have long thought that the tale of the horrifying face at the gate moulded the young MR James into a writer of equally horrifying stories that harnessed this dreadful feeling of creeping unease.
This reed-covered corner of Suffolk with its rough pathways and fens was where James wrote some of his most chilling tales, the village graveyard still bears a gravestone with the name Mothersole, borrowed by the author for the ghost of a young woman who haunts the man who executed her for witchcraft. Local resident Beryl Dyson has complied a book about the ghosts of Great Livermere, A Parish With Ghosts, published in 2016, which she believes are attracted to the village due to its Mere. In her book there are stories of a ghostly figure of a woman near the churchyard wall, a phantom cyclist who haunts the village roads, a phantom woman in red who steps into the path of oncoming traffic before disappearing and a Shuck-like dog.
Dyson believes the ghost she has seen - the figure of a jester near the rectory gates - could have been the same one seen by MR James in the 19th century. In an article for the Ghost Club, Beryl wrote that dogs were frightened in certain areas in the village and seemed scared of a particular clump of trees which grew close to the place that James was said to have seen his ghost."By strange coincidence from letters and discussion with two of Rev. Dobree's daughters, who moved into the Rectory after the James family vacated it," wrote Beryl, "I learned that, after a room once used as a nursery in the Rectory was made into a guest bedroom, guests using that room experienced the most horrific dreams and nightmares and would not sleep in that room again.
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"The two ladies could not remember the exact details of the dreams, but, with great reserve, mentioned happenings appertaining to the slave trade. Consequently that room was not used."
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