Michael S. Collins, Glaswegian writer and pest, sometimes remembers to blog here.
Sunday, 3 January 2016
The Rise of the Supernatural
Previously published in 2009.
The Rise of the Supernatural
Michael S. Collins
I - A Welcome to the Supernatural
II - The Foreshadowing of Mr Dickens
II.2 - The Signalman
III - Le Fanu's Haunting
IV - Lost Hearts: Creeping Horror
IV.2 - Lost Hearts
IV.3 - A Warning to the Curious
V - Conclusions
A Welcome to the Supernatural
If you look at the history of the supernatural fiction, from recorded
beginning to the current day, it becomes clear that there was a peak of some
magnitude during the Victorian era. This stretches from A Christmas
Carol in the 1840s, until beyond the death of Edward VIII. In this
eighty-year time period, supernatural fiction sold like hot cakes. The people
lapped them up. Every writer known to the language tried their hand at one:
some, like Dickens, tried often, and some, like Le Fanu, were genre
specialists. And they sold, and they were highly regarded for their craft, and
the subject was frequently a best seller. All of the greatest writers of the
supernatural all come from within this time period of 1840-1920.
Some of these writers were legends in their own fields. Of M.R. James,
A.F. Schofield notes that “he was the first scholar in England to cultivate
[Apocrypha]; he brought it out of the category of literary lumber into being a
comprehensible documentation of human thought and life for the modern educated
Although it is only fair to point that even the most successful were not
universally loved. Again writing to James, Ronald Norman claimed: ““I hear you
have published a book of ghost stories which I must procure. They must be a
pleasant change from Apocryphal gospels, and both alike are children of your
So come the Age of Realism (circa 1914 onwards) and the lore died down.
The steady deluge of writers plying away at the supernatural faded away, the
books and stories no longer seemed to have the demand any more.
The point here is not to ask why supernatural fiction was so popular in
the time period, for asking why suggests there was something wrong with that.
The “why” is: why did the popularity peak end? Was it just another case, that
every peak has an ending, or was there a greater reason for the decline?
Victorian fascinating with the occult, and with spiritualism, may well
have provided a setting for this boom. Yet, looking at the writers, and the
stories, perhaps there was a greater malaise, that led to the decline still in
The Foreshadowing of Mr Dickens
“The present lively interest in Dickens has in it an element never
before prominent in all his hundred years of popularity – an interest in his
mastery of the macabre.”
“I want to make your flesh creep” replied the boy” Dickens, Pickwick Papers
Dickens and ghost stories are synonymous: A Christmas
Carol has become the Christmas tale. However, the Carol is
but the most famous of a greater Dickens sub-genre. When it comes to haunting
warnings, days of reckoning and unbridled terror, there is one Charles Dickens
story mentionable: The Signalman. The Signalman is
not the only Dickens story to feature the supernatural, indeed, it
may be easier to count all the stories of Dickens that do not have any
supernatural elements at all.
As House explains, “His understanding of and power of describing evil
and cruelty, fear and mania and guilt, of the ultimate loneliness of human
life....are now seen to be among the causes of his enigmatic hold on people's
Yet it is The Signalman to which we return, for not
only is it his greatest ghost story, but, through playing with
predetermination, the story acts as a poignant reminder of the upcoming death
of the author himself, and also as a haunting subtext to our own literary
journey into supernatural lore. As Joseph Gold writes, “Death becomes, for the
older Dickens, the inescapable condition regardless of the quality of the
From the very start there is little warning of the danger ahead. Our
narrator begins the story by describing his first view of the Signalman. Even
at this early stage, Dickens hints that things are not quite as they should
be. The reader becomes aware of “vague vibrations” and
a train passes: the narrator heads down to the signal box to meet the man. He
is taken aback by the appearance of the Signalman, this “dark, sallow man”, and
at this point the reader could be forgiven for not realising the impending
supernatural elements to come.
The men talk. We learn this is a “lonesome spot”, that the Signalman
rarely receives guests, but we also have foreshadowing. The friendly greeting
did not go down too well at the beginning, now the narrator finds out why.
"You look at me," I said,
forcing a smile, "as if you had a dread of me."
"I was doubtful," he
returned, "whether I had seen you before."”.”
They could not have met before, and
they had not met before, not even in the supernatural context. Dickens brings
back the seemingly innocuous beginning, ensuring it is left in the readers mind
for further development. It is difficult to ascertain Acts in a story ten pages
long, but Chekhov was right: if you put a gun on the
wall in Act One, it must be used in Act Three. Here, Dickens has given us our
friendly beginning, reminded us of it, and with the way The Signalman pans
out, it acts as his gun on the wall. And, like Chekhov assures us, Dickens does
use it in his final Act.
The Signalman's background is swiftly
“When young, a student of natural
philosophy, and had attended lectures; but run wild, misused
opportunities. He had no complaint to offer about
that. He had made his bed, and he lay upon it.”
Skilfully, Dickens uses brief snippets
of back-history to evoke sympathy in his character. That is one of the
fundamental reasons The Signalman has prevailed in its recognition. Few would
remember it well if the Signalman himself was unsympathetic. That he is one of
the nicer characters to be found within a Dickens story allows the reader to
take him under their wing more readily, and allows the story to pass on without
two many narrative questions asked.
“Said I, "You almost make me think
that I have met with a contented man."
"I believe I used to be so,"
he rejoined, in the low voice in which he had first spoken; "but I am
troubled, sir, I am troubled."
We do however receive one more, crucial
piece of foreshadowing.
“What made you cry,
'Halloa! Below there!' to-night?"
"Heaven knows," said
I. "I cried something to that effect--"
"Not to that effect,
sir. Those were the very words. I know them well."
"Admit those were the very
words. I said them, no doubt, because I saw you below. What other
reason could I possibly have?"
"You had no feeling that they were
conveyed to you in any supernatural way?"
Chekhov is loading his gun. Dickens has
managed to give the reader every clue, without spelling it out. The only
ominous clue to impending loss is the three words, “Halloa! Below there!” The
reader knows something is seriously wrong, as does the Narrator himself, but
both are compelled to go further on in the tale, to find out what is wrong.
The Signalman explains that he had
mistaken the Narrator for someone else. He tells the narrator all he knows
about this other:
'"I never saw the
face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is
waved,--violently waved. This way." I followed his action with
my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion
and vehemence, "For God's sake, clear the way!"'
One night the Signalman was sitting in
his box, when the alarm went off, but for seemingly no reason. On
investigating, he saw that figure at the corner of the tunnel, but was unable
to determine what the spectre wanted. An imaginary cry, as the narrator calls
it, trying to pass it off as the wind and nothing more, but the Signalman's
response soon puts him in his place.
“Within six hours after the Appearance,
the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and
wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure
The reader knows that the Vision the
Signalman sees is a portent. It becomes clear that despite the warnings,
nothing has been avoided so far: we, the reader, know that the Vision will
return again before the end of the story, and it is looking harder and harder
to see the dreadful thing it warns of being avoided.
Then, just to sum up the full
supernatural power of the Vision, Dickens points out about the alarm bell, for
I caught at that. "Did
it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the
"Why, see," said I, "how
your imagination misleads you. My eyes were on the bell, and my ears
were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did NOT ring at those
times. No, nor at any other
time, except when it was rung in the
natural course of physical things by the station communicating with you."
He shook his head. "I have never
made a mistake as to that yet, sir. I have never confused the spectre's ring
with the man's. The ghost's ring is a strange vibration in the bell
that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs
to the eye. I don't wonder that you failed to hear
it. But I heard it."”
The Signalman is an expert, and he can
tell the difference between the real bell and a phantom one. This adds
credibility his tale of the Vision in its way, that the man it appears to is
capable of doing his job, of determining what is real and what is abnormal,
that it convinces the reader as well as the Narrator.
“What is its warning against? There is
danger overhanging somewhere...some dreadful calamity will happen, but surely
this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”
Nothing much, since the final haunting
is linked not merely with line itself, but with the man. Dickens' readers
realise that this must be the twist – we only have a page to go! - and the
Narrator does return. Then, he sees only a stretcher party. The Signalman is
dead, cut down by a train as he stood obliviously on the line. The authority
figures there express to the Narrator how this Signalman was one of the finest
around but somehow he had not cleared the line for the oncoming
train. The driver of the train was in some distraught over the
incident and explained to the rest how he had tried to warn the Signalman off
the line, but the man had stood there transfixed, watching something.
"I said, 'Below
there! Look out! Look out! For God's sake,
clear the way!' I never left off calling to him. I put this arm
before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to the last; but it was no
Chekhov gun has been used. The
innocuous greeting from the beginning of the story has been turned around and
what seemed pleasant is now like a ghastly epitaph for a sympathetic character.
The Narrator: “In closing,...
the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included, not only the
words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to me as haunting him, but
also the words which I myself--not he—had attached, and that only in my own
mind, to the gesticulation he had imitated.”
And the supernatural tale comes to an
Le Fanu's haunting
“Through the smallest appature, for a moment, I had a peep into
Sheridan Le Fanu, Uncle Silas
Fitting this piece together has been like playing with a jigsaw. Joseph
Sheridan Le Fanu links Dickens and James in this way: An avid admirer of
Dickens and the man who inspired M.R James (who ultimately saved both Le Fanu's
work and his legacy).
Le Fanu. A name to strike terror into the hearts of readers the world
over. His stories ranged from the fantastical to the macabre, from the twisting
to the horrific, and rarely left the readers wanting.
“Is it the blend of French and Irish in Le Fanu's descent and
surroundings that gives him the knack of infusing ominousness into his
atmosphere”, said M.R. James, “Upon mature consideration, I do not think that
there are better ghost stories anywhere than the best of Le Fanu.” 
Cox added that “Le Fanu had been a part of Monty's literary upbringing:
he had recommended Uncle Silas in the mid 1880s, had read Le Fanu as a child,
and recalled seeing a magazine illustration for Mr Justice Harbottle and in
1923 could still remember 'being alarmed by it'.”
But Le Fanu is a tragic case, only fifty-nine when he shuffled off his
mortal coil. He had nightmares his entire adult life, fears that his
life would be overrun by his night fears, and in the end: well, as his doctor
was heard to exclaim, maybe they got him in the end. But, being driven by fear,
by the very essence of barely self-contained emotional reprimand, gives his
stories a cutting edge few others possess. It may also be creepier, to assume
that the ghouls haunting Mr Justice Harbottle were not mere
functionaries of fiction on paper, but the same ghouls haunting the poor author
in his slumber.
It would therefore be convenient to say a word or two on the subject of
that most haunted of supernatural writers, since his connections to the
bookmarks of the genre are so highly defined. Le Fanu lived like he wrote: full
of strange forebodings and hints of subtle terrors lurking.
Nelson Browne felt that “even in his own lifetime Le Fanu was not a
popular author. His skill in creating ghosts and exploiting the horrible and
the macabre is of such a delicate and unobtrusive kind that it has always
failed to attract the notice of those whose tastes, if they tend in this
direction at all, have no palate for subtle flavours.”
Which gives us this line of thought: the supernatural boom period did
not extend itself to all writers of the genre. Whilst influential, Le Fanu was
not popular. So, with that in mind, if the supernatural boom of 1840-1920 was
to do with outside factors that made everything popular in its place, then why
does it not extend itself to all writers, regardless? For Le Fanu was not an
obscure writer, he had a continual career of thirty plus years, writing
political essays and columns and the like alongside his supernatural.
Browne suggests that “The Victorian reading public preferred
something less pessimistic, less psychologically disturbing”,
and yet, that does not seem to make as much sense as it would have liked to.
For A Christmas Carol, certainly, has its optimistic ending,
but All The Year Roundsold
just as well, and was more so praised, and The Signalman is
never a tale that could be called optimistic. Jamesian tales had pessimistic
endings and yet sold well. There is enough evidence therein to discredit these
external factor: that the Victorians hated disturbing discourses, and that the
more scientifically-minded current day love it. For, surely if that was the
case, the boom period would have been 20thCentury and not 19th.
So what of Le Fanu, why did he fall to his nightmares: they, which ended
his life prematurely, though made many a fine tale in the passing.
Browne gives a clue early on: “With the approach of night Le Fanu's
creative powers were quickened. He wrote mostly in those chill silent hours
between midnight and the first light of dawn....his imagination stimulated by
the stillness of the great house...”
Considered the finest supernatural writer in Ireland, but one with heart
trouble and night fears, and nightmares, Le Fanu lived, alone, in a creaky
shadowy mansion house, next to a graveyard, who sits up late in the early hours
to write his supernaturally charged tales. The question may not be 'how did he
fall', but 'how did he last so long'? Writing such tales, that stem straight
from the writer's own nightmares, seems not the smartest activity in the world,
but such is the created lore of the horror writer.
And, Sheridan le Fanu came to his demise.
“The touch of horror was not lacking in his own final hours...in
[his dreams] he beheld one of those ill-omened houses he had often
described....a mansion so ruinous and tottering that it looked like at any
moment it may fall upon and bury the reader....[Le Fanu] had mentioned the
trouble to his doctor, who was treating him for a form of heart disease....when
the end came the doctor looked into the terror-stricken eyes of the dead man,
and said: “I feared this – that house fell at last!””
In his continual writing, and his continual fearing, Le Fanu, at his
last, became essentially a haunted character of his own making, of his own
dreamed writing. And, much like the haunted and doomed characters in his
stories, Le Fanu himself was doomed at the conclusion of the tale. That his end
so mirrored the ends of his stories makes Le Fanu fascinating, and yet
mysterious simultaneously. And, that in giving the reader his
stories, he robbed himself of his own life (and does not that sound like a plot
from Poe!), Le Fanu sets himself up as the martyr of the Supernatural Fiction
Boom Period. He inspires the others, who keep the period going for as long as
possible, and for that reason alone, he deserves to be mentioned herein.
Michael, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1983), Preface p viii
Joseph, Charles Dickens: Radical Moralist, (University of Minnesota
Press, 1972) p276
quotes from the text come from the Project Gutenberg on-line copy, which was
far easier to dissect than the dilapidated copy at home. So the page numbers
will refer not to the pages you may find them in any anthology, for they are
all different, but in the story taken at itself. Example here, page 1.
vibrations” and “dark sallow man” taken from Page 1.
quote itself varies, but Chekhov is alleged to have written to one of his
fellow writers that "If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall,
then it must fire in the last act". Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A
Life, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, p203. Chekhov's Gun is the name
of the writing trope giving to this foreshadowing.
quotes on this page originate from Page 3 of the text.
“The outside world chiefly thought of him as a man of immense learning,
and it is true that his learning was broad and massive – in some respects,
unequalled by any scholar in the world – with all his learning went a mastery
of the English language – a mastery seen in all his writing.”
M.R. James' legacy as the foremost ghost story writer in English history
lives on despite the mans death in 1936. Oliffe Richmond claimed
that James “had hoped to escape a musty biography and bibliography, knowing
that his monumental labours would live after him and needed no
antiquarian as some of his characters, and with an imagination for terror that
could startle the unnerving, Montague Rhodes James was, perhaps, not the most
expected outlet for supernatural tales.
“His academic interest ranged over Apocrypha, hagiology, classical
archaelogy and literature, biblical studies, medieval art and iconography and
Western manuscripts.” The
supernatural tales he penned in his spare time were a hobby. An event to scare
some of his most trusted pupils every Christmas. Arthur Benson wrote
that “MRJ read us one of his medieval ghost stories – this is a pleasant habit
of his – the local colouring is excellent, and the stories grim, but there is a
certain want of depth about them. The people are like elderly dons.”
And yet they have gone on to reach such wide appeal far beyond
that of his respected academia. Which makes it somewhat ironic that in
researching academia for commentary on the ghost stories, it is far more likely
to find them overlooked.
Cox says that “Critically, the stories have always been awarded a high
place, often the highest, in the English ghost story tradition, and this
estimation shows no sign of falling off. And yet, no completely satisfactory
has been written on the ghost stories, about which there is much to be said.”
So here is some to be said. For, M.R. James provides a
fascinating example for which we can display the entire end of the supernatural
boom period. Lost Hearts was written c1895, with
the Victorian era to place it in context. A Warning to the
Curious is an entirely different beast. Written c1920, the events of
the War and the age of realism shows a marked contrast between both the story,
the writer and the reader. This contrast displays openly the decline, when
supernaturally charged tales went from high demand to obscure.
Both are highly crafted, first rate stories, but the stories behind them
reveal a darker outlook. Did James believe in ghosts himself, when he came to
write his tales? We only have his word to take on the matter: “I am prepared to
consider evidence and accept it if it satisfies me.” Though,
what he needed in ghosts for his own fictions, he laid out far more clearly.
“The ghost should be malevolant or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are
all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in
a fictitious ghost story.”
It is amusing that we look to Lost Hearts, for James did
not. With the publication of Antiquaries: “As he went to tell McBryde, there
was six stories he thought would be suitable for publication – “[the six]...I
don't think I have any others that will do. There was one in Pall Mallmagazine
for 1895 - “Lost Hearts” - but I don't much care about it.””
However, Edward Arnold, the publisher was to reply: “Please let me know
as soon as you can if there were any more for we have greatly enjoyed the
stories and must manage to make a book of them somehow, but if they could eked
out by more material it would be easier.”And
so it was that Lost Hearts was saved merely to fill space. And
how great that it was! For it is not just Edith Cropper who had “shivered
over Lost Hearts.”
M.R. James starts his personal least favourite tale, as he did so many
others, with a flowery description of the setting. He writes of seeing:
“A tall, square, red-brick house, built in the reign of Anne; a
stone-pillared porch had been added in the purer classical style of 1790; the
windows of the house were many, tall and narrow, with small panes and thick
By setting out the image in the readers head of the place the tale takes
place in right at the outset, James leaves this picture in mind for later on,
when the horrors begin.
The boy arrives by carriage to the house, through snippets we learn it
is his uncles house and he is an orphan. Pivotal information stuck away in the
opening description. We, the reader, now know it and it can sit in the back of
the mind, known. The house is Aswarby Hall, and the uncle is Mr Abney, the man
who “ knew more of the religious beliefs of the later pagans” than
anyone. It becomes clear early on why James was not a fan of this earlier
piece: into page three, and not a hint of his threat, nor anything happening of
note yet. Although in the niceties themselves, James leaves a hint at things to
'And when is your birthday, my dear boy? Eleventh of September, eh?
That's well--that's very well. Nearly a year hence, isn't it? I like--ha,
ha!--I like to get these things down in my book. Sure it's twelve? Certain?' “
At first glance this is just a harmless ageing uncle trying to get his
nephews age correct. Of course, this is the first hint that the man is not
quite as he seems. Like all good thriller stories or crime novels, the good
supernatural tale places the pieces in front of the reader like a jigsaw, open
to be placed together, but seemingly oblique enough for the references to be
put out of mind by the reader until the terrible thing has happened.
Whilst not showing the expert slight of hand to which the writer would
later treat his readers with, Lost Hearts still has the
fundamentals of a good supernatural tale. Add to that the creatures yet to come
– some of his most interesting – and it remains worthwhile, even if low on the
author's own appeal.
And so we are introduced to the characters of Mr Parkes (the butler) and
Mrs Bunch (the cook), primarily, so they can exposition parts of the plot to
the young boy, and the reader as well.
“'Is Mr Abney a good man, and will he go to heaven?' he suddenly asked
'Good?--bless the child!' said Mrs Bunch. 'Master's as kind a soul as
ever I see! Didn't I never tell you of the little boy as he took in out of the
street, as you may say, this seven years back? and the little girl, two years
after I first come here?'”
That question by the boy seems to be there for no other reason than for
Mrs Bunch to remember about the children who were previously at the House, and
how well they were looked after, oh, and how mysteriously they left. A
particularly damning example of exposition. And Mrs Bunch fulfils her point in
“The little girl I know master brought her back with him and give
orders... she should be took care with. And the pore child hadn't no one
belonging to her...she lived with us three weeks then, one morning she out of
her bed and neither track nor yet trace of her have I set eyes on since. 'Ah,
that pore boy!' . 'He were a foreigner and master 'ad him in that minute, and
ast all about where he came from, and how old he was, and how he made his way,
and where was his relatives, and all as kind as heart could wish.
But he was off one fine morning just the same as the girl. Why he
went and what he done was our question for as much as a year after'”
Now, this is an M.R. James short story, and given what his reputation
now stands as, it may be forgiven for a cynical reader to expect some child
ghosts to appear within the next few pages. Read this way, Lost
Hearts reads like a parody of an M.R. James story, complete with 'and
then they mysteriously disappeared' plot moving dialogue. But, one has to place
the creature back in its original context. And, no, not the original Antiquaries anthology.
Can you imagine the reaction to this story in Pall Mall magazine
in 1895? The name of M.R. James, if it was known to the contemporary public,
was of an academic scholar. Few had read his Canon Alberic's Scrapbook the
previous year. It is possible that what seems obvious now to the reader, with
hindsight and knowledge and collected works, would have shocked the readers of
1895. Nothing in the title nor the first few pages suggests supernatural occurrences,
if you have no foreknowledge of the writer. Muriel Spark once wished that M.R.
James was “the one writer she had never read, to have the joy of reading him
for the first time again.” That
is the problem with Lost Hearts, that our interpretations are too
intertwined with our knowledge of the man, and we will never be the readership
of Pall Mall magazine in 1895, and know the only undistilled
reaction to the piece.
At this point, we have a dream. A nice lovely supernatural tale trope.
And within it, we get our first glimpse of the supernatural creature itself!
“His description of what he saw reminds me of what I once beheld myself
in the vaults of St Michan's Church in Dublin, which possesses the horrid
property of preserving corpses from decay for centuries. A figure, the hands
pressed tightly over the region of the heart. ”
The use of “me” and “I” is prevalent in James tales, as he takes on the
role of Narrator himself. This lends an air of scholarly authority and
credibility to his tales (as do his asides such as his references to the vaults
above, bestowing his tales with enough of reality to make them stand part in fact
and part in fiction, but to which parts asks the reader!) , aiding them in
their efforts to scare. He mentions the region of the heart, not the heart
itself, and the discerning reader may look at the title, look at this
description, and put two and two together. Lost Heartsis a clue.
There was a most destructive and apparently wanton series of slits or
scorings in the garment, which would undoubtedly require a skilful needle to
make good. They were confined to the left side of the chest-- long, parallel
slits about six inches in length, some of them not quite piercing the texture
of the linen. Stephen could only express his entire ignorance of their origin:
he was sure they were not there the night before.
'Well,' she said, 'Master Stephen, it's a funny thing to me how them
marks and scratches can 'a' come there-- for all the world like finger-nails.'”
So the creatures exist in reality too. And we can ascertain that,
whatever they are (with our hindsight, we know that the spirits are the
children mentioned earlier), they seem to be capable of long scratch marks and
have a curious attention to hearts. These figures of the supernatural, awaiting
their purpose. And the reader at this point fears for the boy: what horrific
thing do they want with the boy?
At this point, James reintroduces Mr Abney to speed up the plot to its
“'Do you think you could manage to come to me tonight as late as eleven
o'clock in my study? I wish to show you something connected with your future
life which it is most important that you should know. You are not to mention
this matter to Mrs Bunch nor to anyone else in the house.'”
So the man wants his nephew to come secretly alone, and two children
have previously disappeared without trace, without telling anyone where they
were gone, within the same house, and while under the tutelage of the same man.
It would not be altogether unfair if the casual reader felt suspicious about
this request. The boy is happily ready to waltz into the slaughterhouse like
the innocent lamb, so it is to be thankful for happy endings that he had a pair
of grotesque, heartless, guardian angels protecting him from their unhappy
“He caught sight of two figures standing on the gravelled terrace - a
boy and girl, as it seemed; they stood side by side, looking up at the windows.
Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over
her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised
his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable hunger and
longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that
the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he
stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the
left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell
upon Stephen's brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those
hungry and desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of
Aswarby all that evening.”
The words above are important to the legacy of Lost Hearts,
for it is the description of the supernatural within that makes the tale so
well remembered. These guests are of the purely terrifying variety; James wants
nothing more than to terrify. So, just imagine what the reaction would have
been back in 1895! No hint from the first few pages prepares the reader for
this ghastly appearance of the damned.
But then, the children have not come for the boy, but the uncle himself.
It had been mentioned how the uncle was an expert in pagan religion. In this,
he had come across spells that allowed the participant to fly and turn
invisible: all he needed to do to receive this was the “absorption of the
hearts of not less than three human beings below the age of twenty-one
fits in within the 'historical text' which James seems to quote. Cox wrote that
“The most innovatory technique is the creation of spurious
documentation, which draws on the ability [James] had even as an Eton
schoolboy, to absorb the essence of period language and reproduce its timbre in
a totally convincing pastiche.”
Susan Stewart wrote, that “to get at the meaning of things is to get at
the end of the tale, where the pieces of signification finally fit together.” And
this is where it all fits into place. The kindly uncle murdered the two
children previously and has his intents on the boy as his third. The ghosts
have a gaping hole in their chests where the heart should be, because that was
the grisly fate they fell upon. And they have returned, not to take the boy
himself, but to protect him from the same fate. Mr Abney lay on the ground with
a hole in his chest. Without explicitly stating, James' makes it clear what has
happened to the man. The ghosts returned and done unto him what he did unto
That is what makes Lost Hearts particularly interesting
as a M.R. James tale. It is remembered as extremely terrifying. And yet, the
ghosts themselves have a noble purpose. They are not the ghosts of A
Warning to the Curious: their victim, far from innocent, is the reason of
their demise, and as such deserves little sympathy. The sympathetic character,
the boy, is protected by the creatures. However, their appearance evokes the
terror in the reader; the appearance of the boy and girl is pure nightmare
fodder. Cleverly, despite their protectiveness, James' makes us fear the
supernatural, not because of what it can do, but merely because it exists in
the first place.
And it is not just any writer whose tales, supernaturally charged, can
bring about the following worried letter:
“Dear Sir...I live in Lincolnshire – not so very far from Aswarby Hall
[the setting of Lost Hearts] – are your stories real? Gathered from antiquarian
research, or are they your own manufacture and imagination on antiquarian
There are no records as to the Don's reply.
Gwendolen, ed., Letters to a Friend: M.R. James (Edward Arnold
Ltd, 1956) p26
quoted from thePreface to More Ghost Stories
p137. For those wishing to know what the six stories James felt were acceptable
were: “Scrapbook, Mezzotint, Ash tree, no. 13, Count Magnus, and the one about
p137. Quoted from Edward Arnold's acceptance letter to M.R. James. James was to
write two new stories for the anthology, but due to time constraints, only one
new story –The Treasure of Abbot Thomas–
was completed, thus savingLost Hearts.
Susan, The Epistemology of the Horror Story Author(s), The
Journal of American Folklore, Vol 95. No 375. January/March 1982 p37,
(University of Illinois Press, on behalf of the American Folklore Society)
“Let us then be introduced to the actors in a placid way: let us see
them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased
with their surroundings, and into this calm environment, let the ominous thing
put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it
holds the stage.”
By 1920, at the tail-end of M.R. James career, his structure, on first
glances, seems roughly the same: introduction to the characters and setting,
introduction to the MacGuffin,
then the ghastly thing rears up its head and we have a suitable nasty
conclusion that draws from elements in the tale. So reads Lost Hearts and
the same is true for A Warning to the Curious. And yet, look
at that very title. A Warning to the Curious. There we have a
window into the reality of the era. Whilst Lost Hearts is
proper Victorian Gothic mixed with Dickensian ghostly joy, this is all together
20th Century existential mourning.
“It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when
I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early
chapters of Great Expectations..”
From the first lines of Warning, it becomes clear that this
is a changed outlook. The narrator looks back, to fonder remembered days.
WhereasLost Hearts is set in the reader's past, but looks
forward, Warning is set in the near present and yet looks back
to the past. Now a case could be made for the post-war period being a boom time
in nostalgia, and certainly for James, who had lost many dear friends in
the twenty years of the century to this point, but it still marks a pointed
break from his earlier style.
“How well I remember their sound....They rang with a flat clacking sort
of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower
too... but why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? I should like
to be sure that I had allowed the right ones to get on to the paper. But I
forgot. I have not quite done with the word-painting business yet.”
There is a longing for the past intertwined with a statement of intent.
All of James' narrators are himself. That line is a statement of intent, that
the writer himself plans to keep going, despite his losses. So whilst the
remembrances of the past are recalled, James' states that he will go on, even
if he wishes things would return to what they were.
“As I have said, I began to know Seaburgh as a child; but a gap of a
good many years separates my early knowledge from that which is more recent.
Still it keeps its place in my affections, and any tales of it that I pick up
have an interest for me. One such tale is this...”
It was an unusual but worthy device that James' used for framing his
tales: by taking on the role of the narrator himself, and by invoking such
devices as the stories being told to him by fellow academics or research papers
and the like, that he manages to add a level of credibility to his tales not
found in the Le Fanu's he was inspired by.
Sibyl's letters to James highlighted this starting point:“I do like your
ghost stories. I think the best of them as one reads them, and the worst of
them, when one has blown out the candles, is that they begin with such triffling
little things. Anything might make a beginning: if the bed squeaks louder than
usual or the cistern outside my door, it may be an incident in a blood-curdling
Once the setting is introduced, the plot starts faster than his other
tales. The main characters (our narrator is now telling us the story of the man
he met) are in their hotel room idling away on holiday when a third man begs
permission to enter and after a long wait, admits he has “had a bit of a
in the quintessentially British way, they offer him a strong drink.
“ I thought our young man seemed very jumpy when the door opened, but
after a while he got back to his woes again. There was nobody he knew in the
place, and he did happen to know who we both were (it turned out there was some
common acquaintance in town), and really he did want a word of advice, if we
This is a break from the form-book: James is playing with his style. We
have our two main characters, bumping into the character who has already found
the MacGuffin, used it, and has the ghastly thing after it. The two main
characters themselves are academics who have accidentally stumbled across
someone else's terror in a M.R. James story! Even the arch-committed
Victorian that was James' still seems to have, accidentally or not,
dabbled in his own post modernity!
And yet, James himself would disagree with that summation. As he himself
said, “The stories themselves do not make any very exalted claim. If any of
them succeed in causing their readers to feel pleasantly uncomfortable when
walking along a solitary road at nightfall, or sitting over a dying fire in the
small hours, my purpose in writing them will have been attained.”
So, having broken his usual storytelling manner, the usual first seven
pages of the typical M.R. James story are casually expositioned away.
“Do you know, sir, what's the meanin' of that coat of arms there?"
'It was the one with the three crowns, and though. I'm not much of a
herald, I was able to say yes, I thought it was the old arms of the kingdom of
"'That's right, sir," he said, "and do you know the
meanin' of them three crowns that's on it?"
'I said I'd no doubt it was known, but I couldn't recollect to have
heard it myself.
'"Well, then," he said, "for all you're a scholard, I can
tell you something you don't know. Them's the three 'oly crowns what was buried
in the ground near by the coast to keep the Germans from landing - ah, I can
see you don't believe that." 
And there we have the MacGuffin: The crowns. We have what they
symbolise: protection of East Anglia from harm. And the reader can suspect what
has happened, that curiosity has gotten the better of this third man, and he
has found one of the crowns. And the rector, another sign of credible authority
to the Jamesian audience, collaborates the story.
"There has always been a belief in these parts in the three holy
crowns. They say they were buried in different places near the coast to keep
off [invasions]...one of the three was dug up a long time ago, and another has
disappeared by the encroaching of the sea, and one's still left doing its work,
keeping off invaders...if you have read the guides and histories of this
county, you will remember that in 1687 a crown, which was said to be
the crown of Redwald, King of the East Angles, was dug up at Rendlesham, and
melted down before it was even properly described or drawn. Well, Rendlesham
isn't on the coast, but it isn't so very far inland, and it's on a very
important line of access. And I believe that is the crown which the people mean
when they say that one has been dug up. Then on the south you don't want me to
tell you where there was a Saxon royal palace which is now under the sea, eh?
Well, there was the second crown, I take it. And up beyond these two, they say,
lies the third." 
The rector not only collaborates the story, but adds in historical
detail to give credibility to his tale. And the reader can guess what has
happened to the third crown by this point: Paxton (the visitor) has enquired
after the last lived member of the Ager family, thought to protect the third
crown, has gone to the place where William Ager was thought to frequent, and he
has gotten ahold of the crown. A worthy historical find, but then there lies
the expected twist.
“ I for one had long known about the finding of the crown at Rendlesham
and had often lamented its fate. No one has ever seen an Anglo-Saxon crown - at
least no one had. But our man gazed at us with a rueful eye. 'Yes,' he said,
'and the worst of it is I don't know how to put it back.'”
In lifting the crown, Paxton has unleashed the supernatural force
protecting the area, and it wants the crown back, and it wants to get Paxton
too. It becomes rather clear what the title is about. And while the others see
the crown and marvel and help further collaborate with the credibility of the
story, Paxton brings them down to earth by explaining why he was troubled.
“There was always somebody - a man - standing. This was in daylight, you
know. I would make sure there was no one, and then there he was. You see, he's
light and weak, but all the same I daren't face him...It was like someone
scraping at my back all the time: I thought it was only soil dropping on me,
but as I got nearer the - the crown, it was unmistakable. And when I actually
laid it bare and got my fingers into the ring of it and pulled it out, there
came a sort of cry behind me - oh, I can't tell you how desolate it was!
Sometimes, you know, you see him, and sometimes you don't, just as he pleases,
I think: he's there, but he has some power over your eyes.'And even if I do get
it put back, he won't forgive me: I can tell that.”
A Warning to the curious: if you chance upon the whereabouts of some old
treasure, do not go looking to dig it up, or else its long dead protector may
get rather angry and extract revenge. Whilst the audience may not find
themselves in any supernaturally driven plot during their lifetime, they can
still remember well the warning at the heart of the piece.
And the three set about putting the crown back where it belongs, and
they succeed, and everything feels a little better. “All the same, the snares
of death overtook him. Whether it could have been prevented, I don't know. I
think he would have been got at somehow, do what we might. Anyhow, this is what
Regardless of fixing what was originally undone, Paxton still dies. And
quite horribly too. There has been a spate of horror tales in the 21stCentury
where the main character unleashes some horrible fate, tries to fix everything
as best as they can, it seems like they have done so, and yet the horrible fate
still comes for them, due to some unforeseen small print in the get out clause. Here,
James creates the horror standard that follows for the next eighty
Paxton had disappeared, the main characters were worried, but along came
a servant to exposition what had happened:
“ 'Why, I thought you gentlemen was gone out already, and so did the
other gentleman. He heard you a-calling from the path there, and run out in a
hurry, 'Owever, he run off down the beach that way.'”
They take after the man.
“He saw Paxton some distance ahead, running and waving his stick, as if
he wanted to signal to people who were on ahead of him. I couldn't be sure: one
of these sea-mists was coming up very quickly. There was someone. And there
were tracks on the sand as of someone running who wore shoes; and there were
other tracks made before those of someone not in shoes. Oh, of course, it's
only my word you've got to take for all this: there they were and we had no
doubt whatever that what we saw was the track of a bare foot, and one that
showed more bones than flesh.”
Here is James' at his most horrid. Paxton is running to his demise,
whilst the friends he believes he is catching up can only scamper after him in
horror. The creature, which had “some power over your eyes” lured its victim
along: with this and A View from a Hill,
James' certainly seemed to have an eye fixation! The characters keep up after
Paxton, but then they find him, out on the shingles, too late for any help.
“You don't need to be told that he was dead. His tracks showed that he
had run along the side of the battery, had turned sharp round the corner of it,
and, small doubt of it, must have dashed straight into the open arms of someone
who was waiting there. His mouth was full of sand and stones, and his teeth and
jaws were broken to bits. I only glanced once at his face.”
The whole idea of the person whose fate could be averted but
who runs to their own demise believing they are running for their life towards
sanctuary: that is more terrifying an idea than little children with lost
hearts ever could be. Gone was the innocence of the past. Prior to this story,
the reputation of M.R. James was unfair. His characters deserved their fates
through some unspoken deed or foolish action, and those who could repent or
undo the error saved themselves. Here,
there is no such luck. James' storytelling has taken a darker twist. No longer
are you safe if your fate is undeserving: Paxton does not deserve his. Now, the
curiosity will almost certainly be the end of you.
Or perhaps, as his tutor James Eton pointed out, about a younger James:
“He dredges the deeps of literature for refuse.” And
how glad we are that he did.
The decline was sharp enough: the time between Lost Hearts and A
Warning to the Curious spells that out. The writers seem to lose
interest, much in the same way readers are forever alleged to by the
But why? Was this a case of the Victorian bubble bursting? I disagree.
For that to be accepted, for this idea that there was great interest in the
occult and the spiritualists and the supernatural during the 1800s, and that it
all died out in the 'realistic' 20th Century, then there would
have to be the evidence that the trends bore out. And yet, come the World Wars,
and the spiritualists exploded in popularity (Helen Duncan for
example). Indeed, the one writer it was suggested that I should look at, thanks
to his lengthy epic on Spiritualism was Conan Doyle himself, and he helped
disprove the theory that external factors such as these were responsible for
the boom period.
“Many people had never heard of Spiritualism until the period that began
in 1914, when into so many homes the Angel of Death entered suddenly. The
opponents of Spiritualism have found it convenient to regard this world
upheaval as being the chief cause of the widening interest in psychical
So, if the boom of interest in Spiritualism arrived towards the end of
the Supernatural boom period, then that as an external factor for its success
is not possible.
The spectre of the late Elliot O'Donnell has
refused to let the interest in the occult ever properly die down. And the
fiction itself, still sells. It is just nowhere near as popular. So the
elements there still exist, the famous stories of the boom time (A Christmas
Carol) are still popular.
This begs the answer: why did it happen then, this decline? I have done
years of research into this, through this library and resource and the next,
and the simple answer has to be spoken. Nobody knows why the decline happened.
Historically, we had just escaped the First World War. The Liberal Reforms
tackled illiteracy. More people were reading than ever before. The supernatural
in general interest remained.
Browne said that “It is always hard to say why an author is or is not
popular. Public taste, apart from its fickleness, is apt to single out authors
and make favourites of them for all kinds of reasons except the sound literary
But through conjecture, I have my own answer. It may not be the correct
answer, nor even the most interesting one, but, from all the correlated evidence
available, it seems to be as good an answer as any other.
This peak exploded into being from the 1840s onwards. A
Christmas Carol was published in 1843. Charles Dickens was already the
most famous and one of the most popular writers in England, and his forays into
the supernatural where as popular as his tracts on social causes. Now, if the
external forces that could shape a supernatural fiction boom where in the
1840-1920 period just as much as they were in 1920-onwards period, then the
investigator has to look at the writers themselves. And what makes a popularity
surge for any particular genre is often not the genre itself or external
contemporary factors, but merely who is writing in the genre. Dickens wrote in
the genre, and therefore it became popular.
And he kept writing in the genre, and its popularity grew. And the
readers latched onto other writers of the same field, like Le Fanu, like M.R.
James, and when Dickens died there was still that strong force of quality to
keep the momentum of the genre afloat.
Then, come 1920, most of the celebrated writers, the contemporaries,
publishing new story at the time, well, most of them had died. The ones still
celebrated, Algernon Blackwood and M.R James, were growing old and disillusioned,
and their famous stories were already history. The talented writers of the
genre left, E.F Benson and A.M. Burrage and a few others, were toiling away.
But, the genre no longer had its figure head. The popular writer who dabbles in
the genre. By celebrating it, Dickens helped create the great supernatural
fiction boom. By dying without any worthy heirs, his death helped sow the seeds
of its own destruction.
But, if that is true, then there remains hope. For the genre itself is
not dead – no genre ever is – it remains sleeping. And one day, the next great
will come along, and they will have the popularity of Dickens, and they will
write supernatural fiction, and there will come the next big surge in the
supernatural fiction genre. This writer will come one day, and so will the
All literary genres have peaks and falls. The supernatural fiction had
its largest peak, by far, in the time period of 1840-1920. It may well have a
higher peak in future, but to claim that the reasons for the rise and fall have
to do with external factors, and not completely to do with who is writing
during the time period, seems inherently a foolish one.
p146. Quoted from JamesIntroduction to Ghosts and Marvels
use the term popularised by Alfred Hitchcock for the plot element that brings
who died in prior James' tales were either to blame for the deaths of the
spirit which sought revenge, or ones who kept on going past all warning
signings. Here, the event of, say,Whistle,has
happened and that is the death warrant signed from that moment.
Jacqueline, “The Rules of Folklore” in the Ghost Stories of M.R.
James, Folklore Vol 198, p10 (Taylor and Francis Ltd, on behalf of Folklore
Enterprises Ltd, 1997)
jailed during the Second World War for giving away official secrets during
seances. Where she got her information from is still disputed.
Doyle, Arthur, The History of Spiritualism, (Cassell and Company
Ltd, 1926) p224