A Warning to the Curious


M. R. James

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A Warning to the Curious Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on M. R. James's A Warning to the Curious. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of M. R. James

M. R. James was born into a highly religious family in Kent, England. He was born in a clergy house in Goodnestone, where his father was an Anglican clergyman. James himself remained devoutly religious throughout his entire life. James was three years old when the family moved to a different clergy house in Suffolk, where he spent the majority of his childhood. At age 11, he went to a prestigious boarding school in London and later attended Eton College in Berkshire. James then spent much of his adult life at Kings College, Cambridge as a student, fellow, and provost. Though James is known for his fiction writing and critics have called his ghost stories some of the best in the horror genre, his main life’s work was as a medieval scholar. His stories incorporate aspects of his research, tending to be based on historical legends or items. James was friends with his contemporaries at Kings College, but he was never known to have had any romantic relationships throughout his life. He died at age 73 from unknown causes in Eton, Berkshire.
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Historical Context of A Warning to the Curious

“A Warning to the Curious” was published just a few years after World War I, and the story embodies the war-related anxiety that engulfed England at that time. Though the story doesn’t mention World War I specifically, the old man and the rector talk about keeping German invaders at bay. In fact, the story largely centers around the community’s loss of a sense of security, as it feels unprotected from foreign invaders. The women’s suffrage movement also coincided with the time of M. R. James’s writing, and James was strongly opposed to this development, keeping in line with his traditional and reactionary views. Indeed, his writing doesn’t include strong female characters, or hardly any female characters at all.

Other Books Related to A Warning to the Curious

M. R. James is known as having invented the “antiquarian” ghost story—most of his stories take place in historical European towns and center around ancient legends or objects. His literary impact in the horror genre is far reaching. Most notably, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King incorporated aspects of James’s style into their writing. James himself was a fan of traditional authors like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens. Dickens had a particularly noticeable influence on James’s stories, and “A Warning to the Curious” even mentions Great Expectations in its opening paragraphs. James often uses a Dickensian style to set the scene for his stories, describing gloomy and bleak backdrops in extreme detail. He also had notably traditional views on culture and literature. He openly disliked James Joyce and other authors who used profanity or sexual imagery, though critics have suggested that M. R. James subconsciously incorporated quasi-sexual imagery into his own writing. Although “A Warning to the Curious” is different in tone, it’s worth considering it alongside other famous tales about ghosts, such as Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.”
Key Facts about A Warning to the Curious
  • Full Title: A Warning to the Curious
  • When Written: 1925
  • Where Written: Eton, Berkshire, England
  • When Published: 1925
  • Literary Period: Modernism
  • Genre: Short Story, Horror
  • Setting: Seaburgh, England (a fictionalized version of the real town Aldeburgh, England)
  • Climax: William Ager’s ghost kills Paxton.
  • Antagonist: William Ager’s ghost
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for A Warning to the Curious

Child Prodigy. James was an extremely precocious child, and it is said that he could read and understand Ethiopic, an ancient Semitic language, before he was in high school.

Christmas Tradition. In Victorian England, reading ghost stories out loud was a Christmas tradition. James was known for the animated way he read his own stories to his friends around Christmastime.