Screenshot from the ITV Playhouse series, “Casting the Runes” (1979)

“Casting the Runes” is a horror story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in his More Ghost StoriesCollection of seven short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1911. (1911).[1]

Told as a third-person narrative, the story begins with an exchange of correspondence between the Secretary of an academic journal and the author of a paper titled “The Truth of Alchemy”, which has been rejected for publication because the reviewer considers it to be “perfectly hopeless”.[1]


Mr. Karswell, author of The Truth of Alchemy, demands to know the identity of the reviewer who has criticised his paper, Edward Dunning – “almost the only man in England who knows about these things” – but the Secretary refuses to disclose it to him.[1] Later, while lunching with friends, the Secretary learns that Karswell, known locally as the Abbot of Lufford owing to his purchase some years earlier of Lufford Abbey in Warwickshire, has invented a new religion, is very easily offended and never forgives anyone. The Secretary also learns that about ten years earlier, following a critical review of Karswell’s book History of Witchcraft, the reviewer, John Harrington, a sedentary academic, was found dead after having broken his neck falling from a tree.

The academic study of alchemy being somewhat esoteric, Karswell has no difficulty in tracking down Dunning in the British Library, where he manages to disturb some of Dunning’s notes and insert a piece of paper containing some indecipherable runes before handing the notes back.

Harrington’s brother helps Dunning to discover that Karswell had cursed both men by slipping them a piece of paper containing runes. They deduce that the curse, once cast, will cause the bearer to die in three months. They track down Karswell a day before the curse is set to kill Dunning, and succeed in returning the runes to him on the boat train from London to France; the runes have to be accepted, not just secreted, so they hide the paper in Karswell’s ticket-case when he drops it, and they offer it back to him.

Harrington’s brother and Dunning leave the train at Dover, but as Karswell boards the ferry to France he is asked whether the gentleman behind him has shown his ticket.

“What the devil do you mean by the other gentleman?” Karswell’s snarling voice called back from the deck. The man bent over and looked at him. “The devil? Well, I don’t know, I’m sure,” Harrington heard him say to himself, and then aloud, “My mistake, sir; must have been your rugs! ask your pardon.” And then, to a subordinate near him, “‘Ad he got a dog with him, or what? Funny thing: I could ‘a’ swore ‘e wasn’t alone. Well, whatever it was, they’ll ‘ave to see to it aboard. She’s off now.

Karswell dies the next day, killed by a stone that falls from scaffolding around St. Wulfram’s Church in Abbeville.


“Casting the Runes” has been adapted twice for British television, first in 1968 as an episode of the anthology series Mystery and Imagination (Season 3, episode 1), with John Fraser as Dunning and Robert Eddison as Karswell. It was adapted again in 1979, as an episode of ITV Playhouse (Season 11, episode 9), in which the central protagonist is a woman, Prudence Dunning (played by Jan Francis), the producer of an investigative television program which is critical of an occultist named Karswell (played by Iain Cuthbertson).[2]

The story has also been adapted several times for radio, most recently as an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series The Haunting of MR JamesRadio series of five dramatised ghost stories by M. R. James, first broadcast in 2018., first broadcast in 2018.[3] A 1947 version by CBS for their radio series Escape was followed in 1974 by a second version for their CBS Radio Mystery Theater show.

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