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A Conversation on M.R. James

By Adam Scovell.

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John Reppion and Leah Moore have a long history of adapting classic horror works for the graphic novel form.  From H.P. Lovecraft to Bram Stoker, the pair of have produced a wide range of adaptations in the medium.  This year they have began to adapt the work of ghost story writer, M.R. James, starting with the first four short stories from his Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary (1904).  I caught up with them to discuss the problems of adapting James for new forms of media and what makes his stories still so unnerving over hundred years since they were first written.

3:AM: Could you talk about the initial process of beginning with M.R. James’ texts to the point of having a finished work as a graphic novel?

John: We’ve done quite a bit of adapting in the past.  We’ve adapted Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Alice in Wonderland, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.  So we have steps working together in how we adapt a text.  It’s basically about how much space we have to tell the stories, how much space we have on the page, and then taking James’ stories and breaking them down.

Leah: The one difference between comics and, say, cinema or prose, is that you’ve only got so many pages, and publishers will work to a set page count.  So you have to work out how many pages you actually have and how much to allow for each story.  The process with Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary was going through James’ stories again, making notes and gauging the size of each story in terms of scenes and other aspects.

JR: Because of the writer that James was, his prose come across as very conversational.  The criticism often suggested of him is that it’s rambling and dusty but I don’t think that myself.  When you have to start breaking that down, fitting his text into boxes, there’s actually no fat on his writing at all.  The aspects you might think of as extraneous are actually an important part of how these texts work; the everyday setting, the ordinary people venturing into extraordinary situations.  You’ve got to keep a lot of this, the sort of thing that would typically go if adapted into a modern version.  When we adapt, we’re as faithful as possible as we want to expose a new audience to James whilst also bringing it into a new format.

LM: The quiet bits, rather than just an emphasis on his ghosts and demons, are the bits we really wanted to retain too, the sort of bumbling along of characters which is then turned on its head when the horror arrives.  The original readers must have found that truly petrifying at the time.

JR: That’s the essence of James really.

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3:AM: I’m curious as, reminiscent of what Ramsey Campbell has said about these stories, the reason why James hasn’t been so much adapted in film, though heavily adapted in television, is because the horror of the language is embedded within the paragraphs so they come upon you as you’re reading.  I had this trouble recently when trying to surmise A Warning To The Curious in a short essay film.  I wondered how you managed to retain that?  The television adaptations seem to do this by emphasising the landscape to embolden that quietude which is what I resorted to as well.

JR: With the television adaptations, the soundtrack plays a huge part and that’s an area in which James’ work has had a huge influence on people, as those original shows have a sound design which has clearly influenced a lot of modern horror films.  Obviously we can’t do that with the comics.

LM: Comics have the page as their real estate so you’ve only got that space to tell the story on.  But the other thing only comics do is to have the words and pictures being simultaneous.  Your brain is flicking between them and you can put in some excellent narrative devices; you can off-set things and juxtapose things between word and image.  So we can preserve his voice in the captions through that juxtaposition.

JR: There’s a lot of narration in these stories but there’s also a lot of conversation which people don’t always equate with James.  They’re often in between big establishing shots so there’s lots of room generally to visualise stuff.  He’s an incredibly visual writer really.  What’s strange is that people love adapting Lovecraft and the essence of his work is the unnameable, the unknowable, etc.  But James is perceived as having a gentler tone so people assume he’ll be more difficult to adapt.  Every time James has a big reveal, he actually describes it in massive detail.  There were panel descriptions where we just use James’ description because he has basically said “If you were going to draw a picture of this…” – which happens literally in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook – “…this is what it would look like”.  If he hints at something, he’ll almost always reveal a full Technicolor version of it later on.

LM: I’m really looking forward to starting the second half of the book.  We’ve done the first four stories so far but not the second half.  And that includes Whistle and I’ll Come To You.  So I’m really looking forward to seeing how the “face of crumpled linen” comes across as that’s one of those things where the sound of the words is essentially the monster.

JR: The phrase itself has got some incredible power to it.

LM: We’re going to have to get an artist that’s good with drapery (laughs).  We’ll always aim to add an extra dimension to it.

JR: I don’t think it’s too difficult to preserve his voice though.  Once we got into it, it made sense to adapt it into a comic form.

LM: In Lost Hearts, he gives you so much direction such as the rooms, the corridors, the hallways; most stories have that detail so it’s pretty straightforward to stay true to his vision.

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3:AM:  He does build geographies in immense detail, especially in later stories such as A Warning To The Curious.  You can literally walk that story in Aldeburgh in Suffolk from one end to the other.  Is there a sense of the mapping of these spaces in your adaptations?

LM: Yes definitely.  Even though we had four different artists, there was a sense of the Jamesian world being retained between them all with that detail of place.

JR: Though it won’t be done until volume 2, Number 13 is probably the hardest to adapt because that’s all about a moving and sentient physical space.

LM: Yeah, how you visually show the changing dimensions of a room and how you portray not being actually able to see what’s happening in the next room is potentially really difficult.

3:AM: Ironically, Number 13 is probably the weakest in terms of audio-visual James adaptations.  The BBC version moves it from Viborg in Denmark to a sort of Home Counties location and it has that problem of failing to capture the sense of malevolent space even though it has the advantage over you of using sound.  It’s one of the very few weak adaptations of his work to be honest.

JR: It’s also the hardest for us so far because there is so much unseen and it’s quite repetitive but, because of the smallness of comics, I think it actually suits this form, so the containment also gives us more time.  We’ve started using the panel borders between the rooms in that story and we’ll shift the size of the panels in the room as the narrative progresses, so quite complicated but effective.  The Mezzotint was a difficult one too.

LM: The Mezzotint was a bugger as we had to keep showing the mezzotint changing whilst keeping it interesting visually.  So we tried placing the image on the same space on the page like a flipbook, squeezing the rest of the action in between that.

3:AM: I was also interested that you chose to adapt this volume with it being the only volume of James’ work to actually have illustrations by the artist and friend of his, James McBryde.  I was wondering if there was anything in those illustrations taken either as a good or bad way to adapt these stories visually?

JR: I didn’t realise until recently but James McBryde actually produced an early graphic novel called The Story of a Troll Hunt which M. R. James not only wrote the introduction for, but was a character in.  So it’s interesting to note that M.R. James was reading and participating in comics in that sense.

LM: So if he hadn’t have died (McBryde died at a young age before being able to complete the illustrations for the rest of James’ stories), perhaps they would have been doing this sort of thing themselves.

JR: Those illustrations are examples of him responding to James’ descriptions again I think.  With our artists, we were not sure if they were even that familiar with James’ writing.  Because we wanted to do these faithfully, we realised that it was actually an interesting way to just have them respond to what we were doing and they ended up having a likeness to McByde’s work because they were essentially responding to really solid ideas and essentially the same strong text.

LM: There were lots of surprises with colour though and the artists added another dimension really, producing some really colourful work.  There are bright, rich colours that actually convey the tourism in Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook really well, for example, which was a surprise.  It helps to put you more in the footsteps of the main character.  The Mezzotint, on the other hand, has this tea and tobacco aesthetic, so lots of differences.

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3:AM: You mentioned Lovecraft earlier and some differences between his and James’ work already.  Were there any other differences you found in adapting the two writer’s work?

LM: I find James more pleasurable to read to be honest.  Lovecraft gives me the pip as he uses so much description that needs heavily condensing.  We were reading Lovecraft aloud when adapting him and I was frustrated with how shambling it was.

JR: I’m a big fan of his writing because of that though.  I think it’s because I get an audio-book when I read whereas Leah gets pictures when she’s reading.  James’ writing is very conversational and succinct in its own way.  It’s deceptively simple, painting these very defined pictures.  Lovecraft is all about the getting there, with this wall of purple prose.  It’s sometimes treated as a cliché but he really did that first.

3:AM: Is there much difference in terms of their creatures and how to visualise them?

JR: James’ are a lot more horrible than people give them credit for.  That moment of putting your hand under the pillow and feeling a mouth, one that Ramsey (Campbell) says is the perfect James moment, is horrific.

LM: The Treasure of Abbott Thomas is my worst personally as he describes the sound and feel of that oozing in such detail.

JR: Lovecraft’s creatures rarely touch anyone though.  Just seeing them sends you mad.  James’ are very tactile; they touch you, it’s too close for comfort.  In Whistle, he realises that the creature is blind and the horror is that it’s trying to touch and find him in the room, real space-invading creatures.  Lovecraft is about scale beyond perception.  The ultimate reveal of Lovecraft is also potentially a worldwide threat whereas James’ monsters target curious, lone individuals.

3:AM: That’s the difference I’ve found with James.  James’ ghosts largely leave their victims alive to be tortured mentally.  That’s also why, when his ghosts do eventually kill, it’s always such a shock.  Like Paxton in A Warning who has his mouth “smashed to pieces”.  Just shocking imagery.

LM: My mum is terrified of Whistle.  She told me it was because she went into her front room parlour once and there was an adaptation playing on the radio.  She caught a couple of minutes of it and was terrified.  She had no context for it and just had to switch it off.  She used to take us to the beaches of Southwold for holidays, so it was as if she had carried that type of place with her which James plays upon.   I think the familiar is very much a part of James but in a microcosm rather than globally.

3:AM: There is something about that coastline too, almost as if it is untouched.  I think James foreshadows that receding of modernity that failed to fully reach East Anglia.  It’s probably why they filmed so many adaptations in Norfolk; you don’t simply go through Norfolk, you go to Norfolk for something.

LM: There’s a whole zone of that right them Essex almost to Lincolnshire.  Long beaches, beautiful and desolate.

JR: I suppose, there are no accidents in James’ stories either.  They’ve chosen to do what gets them into trouble, there’s very little stumbling into trouble; they go to these places for super specific reasons and against warnings.

3:AM: So there’s a second volume of James’ stories on the way.  Where does it go from there?  Are there more plans for James or perhaps similar work by writers like Algernon Blackwood or Arthur Machen?

JR: I think we’d like to go through the James canon really, he’s just so perfect for it.  I think he’s still under-read too and comics are good way of getting him and his work out there to a wider audience.

LM: I imagine it would be amazing to have a series of different writers but I think we’ve got to know James really well with going back into the work.  It would be interesting to continue with that and just do all of them.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker currently based in London.  He is studying for a PhD in film music and transcendental aesthetics at Goldsmiths, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  He has produced film and art criticism for over 20 digital and print publications including The Times, BFI, Caught By The River and The Guardian.  He runs the Blog North Awards nominated website, Celluloid Wicker Man, and has had film work screened at FACT, The Everyman Playhouse, Hackney Picturehouse, The British Museum, Oxford University’s Romantic Society and Manchester Art Gallery.  In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on an adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway.  He has since worked on films with such diverse figures as Stanley Donwood, Iain Sinclair, Richard Skelton and Laura Cannell.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 18th, 2016.