Saturday, 15 October 2016

M.R. James

What a year 2016 has been. Are we still here?

Jon Kaneko-James suggested that I do some Hallowe'en style writing, and, being out of practice due to ill health, I've reverted to the list. It been the October month, I was thinking about ghosts, as you do, and thinking about ghosts drags me, as usual, to M.R. James.


“I assume, of course, that the writer will have got his central idea before he undertakes the story at all. 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. It is not amiss sometimes to leave a loophole for a natural explanation; but, I would say, let the loophoole be so narrow as not to be quite practicable.”
M.R. James




James was the former Provost of Eton, and a fine academic in the tradition of Biblical scholars. He stood as one of the most noted historians of his generation. He was also, in his spare time, a writer of ghost stories. His Collected Ghost Stories have been in print, continually, since publication in 1930. I've read all of this collection several times.

So why not rank them?

He's not my favourite writer of the traditional British short ghost story, but he is by far the most famous of them, and the most accessible. He also wrote more than thirty ghost stories. In his introduction to the Collected Ghost Stories, he says he is unlikely to write any more stories, but he wrote three more in his life time, including the charming Vignette, which is about the child James' own ghostly experience. There are another two, The Experiment and the wonderfully named Malice of Inanimate Objects, both written in the 1930s, which I have not yet read, because the idea of living in a world where there is no M.R. James to read for the first time does not yet appeal.


There is also his unfinished stories, which Rosemary Pardoe and others have trawled the archives of many libraries, universities and so on for, and translated - Monty James's handwriting being notoriously awful. Of these pieces, several of which show up in Stories I Have Tried to Write, a wonderful writer's lament of the lost muse, Marcilly de-Hayer strikes as a piece with potential and interest, but ends after the first 1500 words. We have all of Speaker Lenthal's Tomb, except the moment when the ghost reveals itself - how typical! Of all the unfinished stories known so far, the finest is "John Humphreys", a tale about a young man who inherits a house in the country. In the space of 4000 words, we get the creepy elements by degrees, a scarecrow or pole (the narrator is uncertain) which seems to move by itself in the distance, the sighting of an old woman in the grounds which others can't see, and a parcel of nail clippings which the main character is warned not to bring into his house, but of course he does. And then...we trail off, as the writer got bored, or lost his manuscript, or anything might have happened to stop the words. James was later to reuse Humphreys as we'll see, but beyond the concept of the young man inheriting the country house, all the rest of the plot went by the wayside. And to date, that is the great tragedy of the lost James archives.


So the unfinished, unpublished stories are unranked. Even those which are "finished" as in fully drafted are unfinished in the sense that they lack much of the James turn of prose and atmosphere building which he would have added before publication, had he felt they merited it. Anxious readers can read what we have of them all, through Rosemary Pardoe's website.

The childrens novel The Five Jars is also not counted, because otherwise I would feel obliged to count his historical and travel non-fiction, or, at the very least, Letters to a Friend. I've been unable to track down a copy of Letters to a Friend for many years, the only copy I know of exists in the Glasgow University Library. The context is that James's friend, James McBryde, who illustrated some of his earlier tales, died suddenly and prematurely in June 1904 of appendicitis. M.R. James was friendly, and remained friendly for the rest of his life, with McBryde's widow, Gwendolyn, and her young daughter, Jane, and became a sort of surrogate grandfather to the young girl growing up. Published shortly by Gwendolyn shortly before her own death in the 1950s, Letters contains the missives written to young Jane by M.R. James from the time of her fathers death until his own last Christmas. It's such a wonderfully charming book, with the letters just beaming with adulation and love for the two women, his friends, that it works as a cheerful anecdote to some other theories about James being a cold and unloving figure.


So, with all those caveats listed, let's get to the actual thirty. Muriel Spark, when she were alive, once noted that she regretted reading M.R. James stories as a child, because now she would never again get to read them for the first time. There is an element of truth to that, but even so, I find stories appreciate with age and re-reading.


Well, most of them do...


30. Two Doctors


The trouble with reverse lists is that we start with the weakest stories first. The trouble with Two Doctors is that it is widely regarded as one of the weakest of James' stories, and even reading it in a reappraisal mode fails to bring much out of it.  There are two doctors, somebody dies, and its all written in a highly competent manner. In the 1995 Ghost and Scholars survey, not only did Two Doctors not gain a single vote in the "What is your favourite story?" (one of only three stories to achieve that), but when the follow up question, "What is your least favourite story?" was asked, the story won in a landslide!  Even the duo at the M.R. James podcast, who find wonder and awe in even the least of tales, struggled gamely to talk about this story. Even I, who can quote sections of James at will, had to go check which story this was again, and nearly fell asleep checking. There are a few bad James tales, but this is the only dull one, and I suppose when those of us who can parse tension from the slimmest morsels struggle with a tale...

"He was sitting by the fire — it was a cold evening — and stretched out his hand that way, and just then the fire-irons, or at least the poker, fell over towards him with a great clatter, and I did not hear what else he said. But I told him that I could not easily conceive of an arrangement, as he called it, of such a kind that would not include as one of its conditions a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make; to which he assented. ‘But,’ he said, ‘I have no doubt these bargains can be made very tempting, very persuasive. Still, you would not favour them, eh, Doctor? No, I suppose not.’


29. The Diary of Mr Poynter

Another weak story about an old diary being found, and ghostly hair being a thing. They do get better, I promise...

"Then he dozed, and then he woke, and bethought himself that his brown spaniel, which ordinarily slept in his room, had not come upstairs with him. Then he thought he was mistaken: for happening to move his hand which hung down over the arm of the chair within a few inches of the floor, he felt on the back of it just the slightest touch of a surface of hair, and stretching it out in that direction he stroked and patted a rounded something."




28. There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard

An attempt by James to complete the ghost story in the Winter's Tale, this is more of a vignette than an attempt at an actual ghost story, and you can tell the moment M.R. got bored in his own story. That said, at a mere three pages, it is much shorter than the previous two.



27. An Evening's Entertainment


Sometimes I get the impression that there is a fine ghost story lurking away in a terrible presentation here. Told in script format, a grandmother gives her children the night time story of a local double murder with Satanic undertones. What might have been James's own addition to the Hammer pantheon - slightly early - struggles under his chosen layout. That said, the story, complete with LGBT undertones, is so different and adult to much of his work, that perhaps he used the mangled format to get that by the editors.

"An Evening's Entertainment" was first published as the final story in A Warning to the Curious (Arnold 1925), and was probably written to fill up that volume. It may be the tale referred to in MRJ's letter to Gwendolen McBryde of October 3rd, 1925 (Letters to a Friend, 1956, p.135): "The ghost story book is finished. I had to write another one instead of the one I was at, which would not come out." The whereabouts of the original manuscript are not known. The story is an oddity in that it is the closest MRJ ever came to straight-forward grand guignol. Although pagan magic is the dominant theme, and there is a hint of ghosts seen, the supernatural actually features only in the form of the strange, poisonous flies."
Rosemary Pardoe, Story Notes, Ghosts and Scholars 18



26. After Dark in the Playing Fields

I can't decide if I like this story or not. The chap's chat with - I wont spoil what - is a bit ridiculous, but this is a rare Jamesian foray into fantasy over horror.



25. The Haunted Dolls House


The Haunted Dolls House is a perfectly fine telling of a type of ghost story which has become a bit of cliche in the decades since James died. A second hand dolls house has strange figures which might almost seem alive, and tell the tale of a dreaded history. The main issue is, as James himself pointed out, it is the reuse of a plot from one of his earlier tales, and he used it better then. 



24. A Neighbours Landmark


One of those curious, underrated tales James wrote later in life.

"That which walks in Betton Woods, knows why it walks and why it cries."

It's one of those tales which benefits from having a narrator like Derek Jacobi read while you slowly follow his words in the book. The story itself lacks the cohesion of the plot which James had in his younger days, but makes up for it with buckets of atmosphere. 



23. Martins Close



James had a strange interest in the life of the hanging judge, Sir George Jeffreys of the 17th Century, who appears here as one of the heroes! This story, loosely based on the real life Red Barn Murder, concerns a young well to do man, George Martin, who is on trial for the suspected murder of his pregnant mistress, Ann. Only Ann, despite the drawback of being dead, is not going to let him get away with it. James writes this mostly in script, as though reproduce the court documents of the time, but it works better here than in An Evenings Entertainment. What it does show is James' own interest in "true crime" stories, and adapting them for his own stories.


The inn featured in this tale is an actual existing one you can find on Google Streetview incidentally! Many thanks to Will and Mike of A Podcast to the Curious fame there for bringing that one up. According to Rosemary Pardoe, the Good Cider Guide refers to it as "rambling and unspoilt"!


We also, for you history buffs, have one of James' rare historical errors, as someone mentioned in the text would have actually been dead by the time of writing, but I'll leave that as an easter egg for the eagle-eyed. Nice to see that even the experts slip sometimes!



22. Rats



I want to love Rats. I want to reappraise it to the heavens. It is underrated, and has a creepy ghost, and yet.. the ghost is probably the best written character in the story, and it does nothing, but exist! The main character is James academic by numbers, but the hotel owner and his wife have an unwritten backstory which speaks of promise, but doesn't deliver. Essentially, beyond some creeps, the way I think of Rats is as that first skeleton draft of a story which needed to be much longer, with more atmosphere and characterisation. What we have, instead, is pretty much solely the James with just the haunting and minimal build. What Rats goes to show then, is that the actual hauntings, while the calling cards of Monty's work, don't work nearly as well without the buildup.


 "And as noiselessly as possible he stole to the door and opened it. The shattering of the illusion! He almost laughed aloud. Propped, or you might say sitting, on the edge of the bed was — nothing in the round world but a scarecrow! A scarecrow out of the garden, of course, dumped into the deserted room...Yes; but here amusement ceased. Have scarecrows bare bony feet? Do their heads loll on to their shoulders? Have they iron collars and links of chain about their necks? Can they get up and move, if never so stiffly, across a floor, with wagging head and arms close at their sides? and shiver?"


21. The Rose Garden


A story I'm appreciating more as I get older, it also includes what many consider to be James's finest female character, Mrs Anstruther. (My own favourite appears in the next story.) Certainly Mrs A is the boss of her own household, a strong woman who knows her own mind, with shades of Hyacinthe Bucket about her. Naturally, she, like the academic men, has the shock of the ghost in the end, but then, we are in an M.R. James tale, and the earlier appearances of a ghostly sort, in a haunting dream, show her with some sympathy for her maligned husband. There is a lot to digest in Rose Garden, it is a story which may seem impenetrable or unrewarding to a first time reader, yet slow digestion brings its own rewards.



20. Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance



It's not John Humphreys, but it does have that same character. It also has a creepy maze (oxymoron, surely?) and one of the great female characters in all of British ghost stories.



"Lady Wardrop is a particular joy to me. In fact all the characters of "Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance" add immeasurably to the effectiveness of this tale - one of my great favourites. MRJ unbends to tell us perhaps a little more of her than is his usual wont: "stout, elderly... very full of talk of all sorts and particularly inclined to make herself agreeable to Humphreys..." She is also sensitive to atmosphere, particularly that of Wilsthorpe Maze, and shrewd enough to suggest to Humphreys how to solve the riddle of the message on the stone blocks moved from the maze to the summer-house. Her maze book would undoubtedly have made fascinating reading."
David G Rowlands, M.R. James's Women, Ghost and Scholars 15



 As the Obi-Wan of the story, to stretch a metaphor to the breaking point, Lady Wardrop is a delight. Smart, brave, witty and charming, and she escapes to the other side of the tale with all of those intact. But then, Mr Humphreys works because the characters work. John himself is sympathetically written, which gives add kudos to the horrors in garden maze of the house he has inherited. He wasn't expecting to inherit either, and has moved from poor working class to owner of a country house in a blur of emotions which allow the ghostly aspect to creep in while he's dazed with the culture shock. At over 10, 000 words it is one of the largest of James's tales, and if I ranked this fine tale lowly here, it is down to the strength of the writer, rather than any faults of the story itself.


I wouldn't have gone in the maze though. Nothing good ever comes of that.

"Those of us who consider the story to be one of MRJ's greatest have always had the niggling feeling that there is more going on in it than we know. "Mr Humphreys" is an oddity amongst MRJ's corpus in that it splits his enthusiasts right down the middle. Some love it, some hate it. It scored highly in the "Favourite Story" section of G&S 20's "MRJ Survey", and elsewhere howls of disagreement from certain quarters greeted S.T. Joshi's description of it as "incredibly tedious".(2) We can, perhaps, dismiss Joshi's opinion since he is notoriously out of sympathy with MRJ's intentions, but even a James buff like Samuel Russell says that the tale is "all at loose ends", with "a disappointingly feeble climax".(3) Still the story has special magic for many of us, and not merely because of the pastiche seventeenth century sermon, which is generally acknowledged to be perfect of its type. Perhaps we feel subconsciously that we haven't got to the bottom of James Wilson's secret. It's a secret which revolves around Wilson's theology. Martin Hughes, in a 1993 article entitled "A Maze of Secrets in a Story by M.R. James",(4) was the first person to identify the origins of the Latin inscriptions in "Mr Humphreys" and to offer some suggestions to explain the figures on the globe. In doing so he has completely transformed our reading of the tale."
James Wilson's Secret, Rosemary Pardoe and Jane Nichols, Ghosts and Scholars 24 (the citations in the quote are in the link)

"It was a yew maze, of circular form, and the hedges, long untrimmed, had grown out and upwards to a most unorthodox breadth and height. The walks, too, were next door to impassable. Only by entirely disregarding scratches, nettle-stings, and wet, could Humphreys force his way along them; but at any rate this condition of things, he reflected, would make it easier for him to find his way out again, for he left a very visible track. So far as he could remember, he had never been in a maze before, nor did it seem to him now that he had missed much. The dankness and darkness, and smell of crushed goosegrass and nettles were anything but cheerful."



19. The Story of an Disappearance and an Appearance



Apparently people find this story difficult to understand. We have a disappeared uncle, a murder of sorts, and retribution via a ghostly Punch and Judy show. The Punch and Judy puppet show was to a youthful James what Eugene Victor Tooms was to the 90s generation, and here, with a story written in middle age, we can see James finding enough visceral horror in the childhood fear to conjur up his atmosphere here.



As I wrote to a fellow Jamesian fan many moons ago (spoilers follow, sorry):



Story of a Disappearance... is rather strange, but I'm quite fond of it. I guess its a bit like M.R. James's Twin Peaks, lots of weird uneasy things happen in a strange little village (B---'d out in this case, so my mind assumes it is Barchester and the place is getting a bit uneasy about all these murderous ghosts which show up) during the investigation into a character often mentioned but dead. It's one of those dream stories. The uncle is murdered by the nefarious two who run a Punch and Judy show - why? No idea. The nephew comes to investigate, and something feeds into his mind when is nodding off, and he sees not only the Punch show in a macabre display, but also an image of the murder itself. Like Tractate Middoth, there is a hint of the ghost moving the players in such a way as to get his revenge. 


Then the dream hasn't done enough, so the Punch and Judy men show up in B---- and the ghost manages to scare off their dog and make the show act up, terrifying his two killers into death. (Well, it looks like they died trying to escape, but the murderer dying right in the pit the uncle is buried suggests he was found by the Uncles spirit.)


I quite like it, its one of the Jamesian stories I believe where the haunting is relatively harmless, except to his own murderers. Much better than Dr Poynter, which we listened to last night and I'm afraid still ranks near the bottom of his stories in my affections.
I apologise for spoiling the tale, but its mythical difficulty detracts from a fine ghost story, so hopefully any tension lost will be gained in the appreciation of the tale. 

"I believe someone once tried to re-write Punch as a serious tragedy; but whoever he may have been, this performance would have suited him exactly. There was something Satanic about the hero. He varied his methods of attack: for some of his victims he lay in wait, and to see his horrible face — it was yellowish white, I may remark — peering round the wings made me think of the Vampyre in Fuseli’s foul sketch. To others he was polite and carneying — particularly to the unfortunate alien who can only say Shallabalah — though what Punch said I never could catch. But with all of them I came to dread the moment of death. The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby — it sounds more ridiculous as I go on — the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality."


18. Number 13

 This was adapted by the BBC a decade ago, where much of the plot was changed and the writers went for jump scares for the hell of it. There are jump scares in the actual story, and its setting in Denmark gives it a different feel to many other stories. We also have a degree of humour as the characters find strange events amusing before the ghostly nature of them begin to be understood. That's not late night dancing!




17. The Mezzotint



An early James story, about a mezzotint. A mezzotint is a 17th century early form of painting by printing press. The many, many adaptations and reworks of this tale tend to make the thing in question a painting (The Road Virus Heads North, for example). However,  I find the use of the antiquated styling adds a level of unease to the proceedings. The feeling of the old inks telling the tale, rather than dried paints.


Forgive me, I'm pseuding again.


The Mezzotint, the story itself, is not one of the top echelon of James's stories. He was still developing his craft, but it has its own charms. None of our characters are harmed by the haunting, after all, although others (Mike and Will, for two) feel that an extra bit about the haunting coming for the characters would improve it no end. Indeed, when Night Gallery filmed this with a painting and Ossie Davies as the villain (!), this is what happens. However, I like the idea of a haunting determined not to see to someone in the present, but to reveal the truth of a historical cold case.

So did M.R. James, as he reused the plot for The Haunted Dolls House!



16. The Uncommon Prayerbook


An enjoyable tale about a found prayerbook which seems to pre-date the common book of prayer. How strange it is to find a prayerbook published in 1653, before the reformation and during the lifetime of Oliver Cromwell. How strange that the pages of the book always seem to open in the empty church, and always at an unknown psalm. How strange that these strange books are stolen by a book dealer wishing to make a profit. Our main character plans to get them back with his connections and the police.

Yet as James himself writes: "And yet all this planning proved unnecessary."




15. The Residence at Whitminster



"A withered heart makes an ugly, thin ghost."


A tale I didn't understand on first reading, nearly fifteen years ago, but which I have grown to appreciate with time. Especially thanks to the care and attention the Podcast to the Curious team gave it. It is a long tale split into two parts, and concerns two youths who meddle with things they ought not to have. As such, we don't see the creatures themselves, only their description through the tales of a dying child, which makes them more far away, and yet more terrifying. I felt that The Hounds of Tindalos was inspired by the creatures in this tale, and yet, Whitminster is the greater story for not properly describing them. It leaves far more to the imagination.


James takes his time in letting the tragedy unravel, and so we get a scary and yet poignant tale. And when you realise that James wrote this directly after World War One, when he lost so many of his younger friends, this anthem for doomed youth and pathetic lose, thin ghosts, has so many intertextual layers to it that bring a real sense of horror and loss to proceedings. A ghost can only do so much to you, its the haunting of history which brings true horror.


I never read Whitminster for my dissertation, I should have based the entire thing around it in retrospect. It is James's own Oval Portrait, he puts so much of himself into the tale. It is a great story, one of the finest in 20th Century literature, and the only reason it rank in the middle here, is because James's stories tend to give me a great thrill, and The Residence at Whitminster fills me with a dark melancholy.


"But what I seemed to see was a form, at first crouching low among trees or bushes that were being threshed by a violent wind, then running very swiftly, and constantly turning a pale face to look behind him, as if he feared a pursuer: and, indeed, pursuers were following hard after him. Their shapes were but dimly seen, their number — three or four, perhaps, only guessed. I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs than anything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not. Could I have closed my eyes to this horror, I would have done so at once, but I was helpless. The last I saw was the victim darting beneath an arch and clutching at some object to which he clung: and those that were pursuing him overtook him, and I seemed to hear the echo of a cry of despair."

"They are often elaborately framed, too. Indeed, in some of James's later works this framing actually seems to take precedence over the stories' supernatural elements. In The Residence at Whitminster, for example, the present-day narrator reconstructs the story of the death of two boys in 1730 and a subsequent haunting by way of notes written by the children's guardian, letters written a century later by a young woman, her beau's diary, and assorted other documents." 
Chris Power, A Brief History of the Short Story part 14: M.R. James, The Guardian 4 February 2009




14. The Ash-tree


When I first read this story, I was bored stiff. I was closer to ten than twenty, and the "old time" tale didn't appeal to me. The Lawrence Gordon Clark adaptation from the 1970s is the weakest of his TV versions too, which didn't help. Even the Podcast to the Curious's recommendations didn't help.


What did help was David Collings. Somewhere I have his readings of M.R. James tales, and what he really does is slow this story down, so that the listener takes it in.


What we have here, when actually read, is one of James's nastier tales. Of the victim whose retribution from beyond the grave is largely over-proportioned. Sure, she gets rid of the Lord whose lies saw her executed as a witch, but his own descendents, a century later, had little blame to do with that, and yet see to them she does.


We have vampiric overtures, the old superstition of drawing the Sortees (opening the Bible at a random page and reading the first line on the page) is giving a helping hand by a ghostly providence, and some really nasty supernatural murders.


"It came into my Thoughts, as at such moments of Helplessness we are prone to catch at any the least Glimmer that makes promise of Light, to make trial of that old and by many accounted Superstitious Practice of drawing the Sortes: of which a Principall Instance, in the case of his late Sacred Majesty the Blessed Martyr King Charles and my Lord Falkland, was now much talked of. I must needs admit that by my Trial not much Assistance was aflforded me: yet, as the Cause and Origin of these Dreadfull Events may hereafter be search'd out, I set down the Results, in the case it may be found that they pointed the true Quarter of the Mischief to a quicker Intelligence than my own. 'I made, then, three trials, opening the Book and placing my Finger upon certain Words: which gave in the first these words, from Luke xiii. 7, Cut it down; in the second, Isaiah xiii. 20, It shall never be inhabited; and upon the third Experiment, Job xxxix. 30, Her young ones also suck up blood.'"



13. The Treasure of Abbot Thomas



You've got to give it to the gall of M.R. James - who else would start a story with an entire page of Latin, before having his main character mutter "I shall have to translate this!" Not even an in-joke to the Cambridge pupils, as this was the story James wrote solely to fill up the pages of his first anthology, but as that sort of joke it always makes me laugh. I'm sure it also really adds to the story if you know your Latin, but my Latin geek sister has an aversion to horror tales. [See also "Whistle", where the latin enscribed has double meanings, and each brings a different meaning to the plot - like The Thing, where knowing fluent Norwegian spoils the plot ahead of time, James liked to reward the educated...]


This is a story you can tell that James didn't write to be read aloud, unlike most of his earlier stories. You can tell not only for the pages of latin, but in the way that James has constructed a puzzle of a plot about how to find the treasure of Abbot Thomas (involving travel, codes so fiendishly hidden in stained glass windows that Dan Brown would call it a reach) that he absolutely delights in revealing it to the reader, and the whole ghost bit is an add on.


I like how Mr Gregory is allowed to put back that which our main character found, without ghastly reprisals, as if the ghost keeps the view of "you are not the man I have beef with". Somerton gets away with his close escape, though Lawrence Clark Gordon saw fit to bump him off. I like the idea of spirits giving people a second chance, however.


"Well, I felt to the right, and my fingers touched something curved, that felt — yes — more or less like leather; dampish it was, and evidently part of a heavy, full thing. There was nothing, I must say, to alarm one. I grew bolder, and putting both hands in as well as I could, I pulled it to me, and it came. It was heavy, but moved more easily than I had expected. As I pulled it towards the entrance, my left elbow knocked over and extinguished the candle. I got the thing fairly in front of the mouth and began drawing it out. Just then Brown gave a sharp ejaculation and ran quickly up the steps with the lantern. He will tell you why in a moment. Startled as I was, I looked round after him, and saw him stand for a minute at the top and then walk away a few yards. Then I heard him call softly, “All right, sir,” and went on pulling out the great bag, in complete darkness. It hung for an instant on the edge of the hole, then slipped forward on to my chest, and put its arms round my neck."



12. A School Story



An apparently little thought of tale which was my first introduction to James, two decades ago, and which I am fairly fond of, even if the tale itself is short and slightly inconsequential. It is told through the eyes of schoolchildren, as they recall what happened to their Latin master, Sampson. He seems to have a tale or two untold, especially when he receives one more piece of classwork than there is children in the room, and the extra page merely says "if you don't come to me, I'll come to you". I am particularly fond of an unnamed character - blatantly M.R. James himself - laughing at the all supposed "true ghost stories" which were rife at the time too. It's short, it's nasty, and its charming - not the best James story, perhaps, but its one which kept me going.


"I was woken up by somebody shaking me. It was McLeod, and a nice state of mind he seemed to be in. 'Come,' he said,--'come there's a burglar getting in through Sampson's window.' As soon as I could speak, I said, 'Well, why not call out and wake everybody up? 'No, no,' he said, 'I'm not sure who it is: don't make a row: come and look.' Naturally I came and looked, and naturally there was no one there. I was cross enough, and should have called McLeod plenty of names: only--I couldn't tell why--it seemed to me that there was something wrong--something that made me very glad I wasn't alone to face it. We were still at the window looking out, and as soon as I could, I asked him what he had heard or seen. 'I didn't hear anything at all,' he said, 'but about five minutes before I woke you, I found myself looking out of this window here, and there was a man sitting or kneeling on Sampson's window-sill, and looking in, and I thought he was beckoning.' 'What sort of man?' McLeod wriggled. 'I don't know,' he said, 'but I can tell you one thing--he was beastly thin: and he looked as if he was wet all over: and,' he said, looking round and whispering as if he hardly liked to hear himself, 'I'm not at all sure that he was alive."



11. An Episode of Cathedral History



The M.R. James story about the satyr which escapes from a church tomb, uncovered in a restoration. James wasn't a fan of the Gothic revival - at this, we depart from common ground - nor those who added to the ancient churches with modern Victorian addendum, and so here he gleefully has a vampire pick them off. Wish fulfillment perhaps, but it is a nicely creepy story.


"Someone lighted up a bit of candle and they looked into the tomb. 'Nothing there,' says the Dean, 'what did I tell you? Stay! here's something. What's this? a bit of music paper, and a piece of torn stuff — part of a dress it looks like. Both quite modern — no interest whatever. Another time perhaps you'll take the advice of an educated man' — or something like that, and off he went, limping a bit, and out through the north door, only as he went he called back angry to Palmer for leaving the door standing open. Palmer called out 'Very sorry, Sir,' but he shrugged his shoulders, and Henslow says, 'I fancy Mr. Dean's mistaken. I closed the door behind me, but he's a little upset.' Then Palmer says, 'Why, where's Worby?' and they saw him sitting on the step and went up to him. He was recovering himself, it seemed, and wiping his forehead, and Palmer helped him up on to his legs, as I was glad to see."They were too far off for me to hear what they said, but my father pointed to the north door in the aisle, and Palmer and Henslow both of them looked very surprised and scared. After a bit, my father and Henslow went out of the church, and the others made what haste they could to put the slab back and plaster it in. And about as the clock struck twelve the Cathedral was opened again and us boys made the best of our way home. "I was in a great taking to know what it was had given my poor father such a turn, and when I got in and found him sitting in his chair taking a glass of spirits, and my mother standing looking anxious at him, I couldn't keep from bursting out and making confession where I'd been. But he didn't seem to take on, not in the way of losing his temper. 'You was there, was you? Well, did you see it?' 'I see everything, father,' I said, 'except when the noise came.' 'Did you see what it was knocked the Dean over?' he says, 'that what come out of the monument? You didn't? Well, that's a mercy.' 'Why, what was it, father?' I said. 'Come, you must have seen it,' he says. 'Didn't you see? A thing like a man, all over hair, and two great eyes to it?'



10. Lost Hearts


James's most notorious ghost story. He hated it, the public loved it, and the tale of the two ghost children with gaping holes in their chests and long, draping fingernails plays long in the subconscious. It is regarded as one of his most terrifying stories, a statement backed up by the memorable 1970s horror adaptation, and the sadly lost 1960s one.



I find the horror in the fact that it is chiefly about a child murderer, and the terrifying spectre of the child ghosts, I find rather comforting, as they arrive solely to protect our main character, a third child, from the demise which befell them. There is an element of the fact in this that we fear the ghosts not because of what they do, but because of their existence in the first place.



The victim deserves his comeuppance, and the ghosts deserve their vengeance. And from the hints in the text, young Stephen was to become a fairly learned gentleman in his adulthood, and even if he wasn't, he still deserved to live because he's a bloody child!



There is an element of modern day "we honestly never knew the chap could have done X, Y and Z, we turned a blind eye, honest" about the cook, too.



James hated the tale. He only acquiesced to it being published in his first book, because he couldn't think of anything else to take the place. With its adult themes, and visceral horror, and horror which comes from the early drafted nature of it (there are phrasing stretches which James's would have edited out in later tales), it is easy to see why James disliked it. He thought himself a better writer. And he was, but he never came up with creepier ghosts.


"He caught sight of two figures standing on the gravelled terrace that ran along the garden side of the Hall — the figures of a boy and girl, as it seemed: they stood side by side, looking up at the windows. Something in the form of the girl recalled irresistibly his dream of the figure in the bath. The boy inspired him with more acute fear. 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. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more."



9. Canon Alberic's Scrapbook



I'm quite fond of Canon Alberic's Scrapbook. Other writers find it dull. Tom Jordan, for example, once called the climatic scene a "failed peek-a-boo"! There is perhaps a middle ground.

Luckily, I asked Jon to write part of this years ago. 


Jon Arnold: As would become normal James goes out of his way to establish the settings as mundane - the church and sacristan's house are deliberately the sort of places that could be found in any town, hence the (eventual) occurrences could possibly happen 'next door' so to speak. Which I always find as the vital factor in how scary a ghost story may be (normality may be turned upside down). The sacristan is deliberately portrayed as a normal sort of chap. It's in the details that it's just that little bit deliciously off key for the potential reader of the time - the majority of said readership would probably never have been to France. Dennistoun is in familiar settings but unfamiliar territory so, in classic ghost story/horror fashion he's essentially alone with no friends in a strange place (untrodden corners of France as it's put). James might seem a tad cosy these days given the extremes to which modern horror/supernatural writers venture so it's quite a subtle thing that James' style hides. So James is pulling an opposite trick in the first paragraph, finding a way to make the familiar that little bit unsettling, but not unsettling enough that the effect of the supernatural later on will be lost.



M.J Steel-Collins (aka She Who Must Be Obeyed):  One of the earliest MR James tales I believe and probably the first I read at 14 when I found a bashed copy of Collected Ghost Stories in my school library (amazing they had the foresight to stock such a master!). When I first read it, I didn’t quite get what was happening, probably because I was slowly graduating up from R L Stine and Christopher Pike horror. I just thought it was strange. Fast forward a few years later, I’ve read it a few times and there’s something quite enjoyable about it, though it’s not my favourite. It makes me wonder just how many antiquarians over the years have nearly come a cropper because of the rare manuscripts they pick up for a song in out of the way villages in mainland Europe. The Bodleian Library must surely be crawling with all sorts of beasties of the dark side.




Michael: The French back of beyond setting is the first thing which jumps off the page in this debut. Perhaps inspired by Guy de Maupassant (a well regarded tragic writer of French curio tales from the second half of the 19th Century), who was still alive when the story was written. St Bertrand-de-Commignes, where the story is set, does exist in real life. I have looked over it on Google Maps, if not visited. The writer Helen Grant, however, was been to visit the place in the flesh, and wrote at length about its similarities to the place James describes, even down to the stuffed crocodile which hangs on the wall. M.R. James certainly visited the place in the 1880s, and it stayed in his mind – and writings, as he was a ceaseless noter of things – until it became the basis of a setting. Conjuring these settings up is often easier when one has experienced them!



Jon: James proceeds to gradually and subtly undermine this mundanity, firstly with the hints of metallic voices, then with the sacristan's nervy behaviour, then obviously with the other folk in the village whispering in corners of strange things. We know something's amiss but don't know what til Dennistoun opens the scrapbook. At this point we should note that those victimised by the supernatural in such stories need a type of sin. Dennistoun has laughed in church (a nod to sacrilege) but, more typically for James (and other horror writers) Dennistoun's big sin is a greed for knowledge (the contents of the scrapbook) when he'd perhaps be better off leaving well alone. But as we get from Dennjstoun's encounter with the creature it cannot be understood or reasoned with - we have no motivations, just images of it and it's 'hate' and 'desire to destroy all life', it being 'created for vengeance.' And like all good Victorian writers James finds safety in the symbol of the cross (if I was being pseudo-intellectual, I'd suggest it's essentially about safety in community, with the cross and Christianity being a big symbol of this at the time. Also, obviously faith being important - in that sense, and in warning of the danger of greed for knowledge James is quite conservative).”


Michael: Alberic is a strange tale. Tom calls its “James-by-numbers” and in a way it is, though it invents most of the motifs he would later run with in his stories. It is one of the first of many in which the beast invoked has qualities that remind one of a spider, suggesting a latent phobia of the writer there, and one which many folk might sympathise with! We have our spirit who tempts with answers, and doesn’t lie, but doesn’t tell the whole truth. It’s like the chain smoking cop in the Clyde Brockman X-Files episode who worriedly asks the seer if he is going to die of cancer, and on being told not, sighs in relief, only to be bumped off by the serial killer within that very scene. So Canon Alberic, as noted in his scrapbook, asked the demon if he would get riches and die in his bed. The answer was yes, and the truth was yes, but the reality the Canon might have expected from this, and the reality of what is hinted to have actually happened are two entirely different things. When dealing with anyone you suspect might be a bit corrupt or dodgy, it is imperative to look at the fine print and exact wording of any clause. It is fitting that the same could be said of James’ demons.

So Canon Alberic? In flashes, great, and in others, underwhelming. However, all writers must start somewhere.



8. Count Magnus


Be careful what you wish for. You might wish to see a tyrant from history passed while working on his tomb, only to find that he is not quite as dead as you wished. Set in Sweden, in a place which actually exists - I have visited it via Google, if not in person - this is the tale of the unstoppable haunting. Run to another country, if you will, and those who dealt with the devil in life may find your path still. Our man is doomed from the off, and all for a bit of curiosity.

"‘You may have been a bit of a rascal in your time, Magnus,’ he was saying, ‘but for all that I should like to see you, or, rather —’ ‘Just at that instant,’ he says, ‘I felt a blow on my foot. Hastily enough I drew it back, and something fell on the pavement with a clash. It was the third, the last of the three padlocks which had fastened the sarcophagus. I stooped to pick it up, and — Heaven is my witness that I am writing only the bare truth — before I had raised myself there was a sound of metal hinges creaking, and I distinctly saw the lid shifting upwards. I may have behaved like a coward, but I could not for my life stay for one moment. I was outside that dreadful building in less time than I can write — almost as quickly as I could have said — the words; and what frightens me yet more, I could not turn the key in the lock"




7. Oh Whistle and I'll Come to you, My Lad



James's most famous tale. Arguably his greatest tale. Naturally, contrarian me has it in 7th place, but there is much to love about the old grey whistle test. Our main character is not a man of great humour or imagination, he misses an obvious quotation from Dickens, for one, and thinks the person is talking about a real person. We get many insights into his rather dull and matter of fact life (which Jonathan Miller extended in his famed adaptation) so that, when, by degrees, the ghostly thing starts to appear, it makes more of a dent into the poor man than it would on any believer. It's rare to say anything new about Whistle, it has been dissected ad nauseum by greater writers, so I'll mention that I really like the Colonel Wilson. A decent fellow all round, from what we see of him, obsessed with golf, caring about his other, and nearly entirely unflappable about the haunting itself, it reminding him of a thing he saw in India while in service! He grounds the drama, and saves it from becoming an irreversible catastrophe for Parkins.


 (McBryde's Whistle - finished a month before his death in 1904 - public domain)


6. Wailing Well



Not well thought of, but this was the story that James wrote for the scouts, and the one which Dad brought up as one he thought well of: "there's a field with three creatures in it, someone goes in, they get him, and the next day there's four creatures there." He told it as a child saw it from a class window, mixing in memory this and A School Story, I'm guessing, but I went hunting for this tale. I particularly like the callous nature of the teachers, with casual references to fatalities in overzealous swimming lessons. Of course the shepherd's warning about the ghosts is not listened to, and there is the added horror of the boy walking to his doomed, and everyone else realising he is doomed long before he dies, and yet any attempt to save him is seen off at the pass by other elements. The landscape, it seems, haunts just as much as any ghouls.


And as M.R. James wrote it to read aloud to a bunch of schoolkids in the middle of nowhere, there is a deliberate malicious intent to the tale which amuses.


"Wilfred was left alone with Algernon, and did his best to calm him, but indeed he was not much happier himself. From time to time he glanced down the hill and into the held. He saw Mr. Hope Jones drawing nearer at a swift pace, and then, to his great surprise, he saw him stop, look up and round about him, and turn quickly off at an angle! What could be the reason? He looked at the field, and there he saw a terrible figure — something in ragged black — with whitish patches breaking out of it: the head, perched on a long thin neck, half hidden by a shapeless sort of blackened sun-bonnet. The creature was waving thin arms in the direction of the rescuer who was approaching, as if to ward him off: and between the two figures the air seemed to shake and shimmer as he had never seen it: and as he looked, he began himself to feel something of a waviness and confusion in his brain, which made him guess what might be the effect on someone within closer range of the influence. He looked away hastily, to see Stanley Judkins making his way pretty quickly towards the clump, and in proper Scout fashion; evidently picking his steps with care to avoid treading on snapping sticks or being caught by arms of brambles. Evidently, though he saw nothing, he suspected some sort of ambush, and was trying to go noiselessly. Wilfred saw all that, and he saw more, too. With a sudden and dreadful sinking at the heart, he caught sight of someone among the trees, waiting: and again of someone — another of the hideous black figures — working slowly along the track from another side of the held, looking from side to side, as the shepherd had described it. Worst of all, he saw a fourth — unmistakably a man this time — rising out of the bushes a few yards behind the wretched Stanley, and painfully, as it seemed, crawling into the track. On all sides the miserable victim was cut off."



5. The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral


Clergyman wins Archdeacon's post through death of his predecessor. Only once he touches the carved objects on the stalls of Barchester Cathedral, he seems to get the impression something is after him. After the late Archdeacon...



" I think I was at the top of the last flight when I had a sudden impression of a sharp whisper in my ear ‘Take care .’ I clutched the balusters and naturally looked round at once. Of course, there was nothing. After a moment I went on — it was no good turning back — but I had as nearly as possible fallen: a cat — a large one by the feel of it — slipped between my feet, but again, of course, I saw nothing. It may have been the kitchen cat, but I do not think it was."



4. The Tractate Middoth



Recently and nearly faithfully adapted for the screen by Mark Gatiss, one of James's most underrated tales. A librarian helps a shady customer find a book, only to come face to face with a hideous creature, once a man. He recovers and looks into the book, only to find himself being pushed along a path by outside forces who wants a revenge of sorts: Dr Rant might have been a cruel master, but he wants his fortune to fall the right way, as it were.


He also takes time out to set up a marriage! Now that's a multitasking ghost!


"Well, yesterday, as I say, I went again. This time, if you please — ten o’clock in the morning, remember, and as much light as ever you get in those classes, and there was my parson again, back to me, looking at the books on the shelf I wanted. His hat was on the table, and he had a bald head. I waited a second or two looking at him rather particularly. I tell you, he had a very nasty bald head. It looked to me dry, and it looked dusty, and the streaks of hair across it were much less like hair than cobwebs. Well, I made a bit of a noise on purpose, coughed and moved my feet. He turned round and let me see his face — which I hadn’t seen before. I tell you again, I’m not mistaken. Though, for one reason or another I didn’t take in the lower part of his face, I did see the upper part; and it was perfectly dry, and the eyes were very deep-sunk; and over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bone, there were cobwebs — thick."




3. Casting the Runes



Or "Night of the Demon", for those who love the film.


Considered one of the Big Three of James, alongside Whistle and a story yet to be mentioned,  Casting the Runes is a giant of the British horror scene, with adaptations galore, and readings by more famous faces than a weekend at the Royal Shakespeare Company.


The plot is well known: Mr Karswell is not a man to displease, as he tricks people into accepting cards enscribed with runes on them, which conjur a hideous demon to do away with them. The person is aware they have three months to get the card back to Mr Karswell, or else. If you think about it, this story is basically Ringu. James prefers to leave the girl crawling out of the TV to our imaginations, however.


Edward Dunning is shown to be a mild mannered chap who is quite sympathetic, the more so as the increasing tension of the countdown gets to him and the reader. If he were a git, this might evaporate a bit, so it's important that the git bit stays with Karswell, that Harrington gets to be the pragmatist, and that Dunning, even in the act of saving his own life, has that Christian guilt about wherever he was the right to essentially condemn a killer to save himself.

That he even tries to warn Karswell, to give him a chance to save himself, either speaks to his own inner good, or suggests he callously is ok with someone he's never met suffering, is up to the reader to decide!

It's also got the moment which people seem to see as a staple of James:

"Suddenly the official called after him, ‘You, sir, beg pardon, did the other gentleman show 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."




2. A View from a Hill


Certainly James's most underrated tale, it frequently ranks in the popular middle ground, when it is one of his greatest. The ghosts have seen to their main victim long before the tale starts, and yet their malevolent intent nearly sees to our main character, possessed with no grave robbing intent, but mere curiosity. The (awful) TV adaptation in 2005 made him to be the chief villain, and made no doubts he was to be seen to shortly after the credits ended, and I disliked this, as it seemed to miss the entire point of the story. The idea of the binoculars which see into the past is a fine one, as is the creepy literal notion that you are looking "through the eyes of a dead man".


"But George Williams, as lived in the next house, and do now, he was woke up that same night with a stumbling and tumbling about in Mr. Baxter’s premises, and he got out o’ bed, and went to the front window on the street to see if there was any rough customers about. And ft being a very light night, he could make sure as there was not. Then he stood and listened, and he hear Mr. Baxter coming down his front stair one step after another very slow, and he got the idear as it was like someone bein’ pushed or pulled down and holdin’ on to everythin’ he could. Next thing he hear the street door come open, and out come Mr. Baxter into the street in his day-clothes, ‘at and all, with his arms straight down by his sides, and talking to hisself, and shakin’ his head from one side to the other, and walking in that peculiar way that he appeared to be going as it were against his own will. George Williams put up the window, and hear him say: “O mercy, gentlemen!” and then he shut up sudden as if, he said, someone clapped his hand over his mouth, and Mr. Baxter threw his head back, and his hat fell off. And Williams see his face looking something pitiful, so as he couldn’t keep from calling out to him: “Why, Mr. Baxter, ain’t you well?” and he was goin’ to offer to fetch Dr. Lawrence to him, only he heard the answer: “ ‘Tis best you mind your own business. Put in your head.” But whether it were Mr. Baxter said it so hoarse-like and faint, he never could be sure. Still there weren’t no one but him in the street."


The concept of the man possessed being frog marched to his own execution chills. Even if he was a creep.


1. A Warning to the Curious




 (The sea to the left, river to the right, and the Martello tower in the distance)



The only one of The Big Three yet to be mentioned, so in that regard I am a bit of a cliche, but there is no denying the might of James's last great story. Written in 1925 for the London Mercury, this is the story I based my entire dissertation around, and the fact that I failed was more down to me than James.


It is, you could argue, James's shot at post-modernism...



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.



From the first lines of Warning, we become aware of our changed outlook. The narrator looks back, to fonder remembered days. Whereas Lost 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, but it still marks a pointed break from his earlier style.



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. 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 shock". So, 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 didn't mind.”



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 him. 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 James 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.”

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 inquired 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 hold 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 happened.”



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 years.



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.