Tag Archives: A Ghost Story for Christmas

Lost Hearts by M.R. James

An essential volume for any lover of ghost stories.

It is, perhaps, not so serendipitous that the reading matter for the M.R. James Ghost Stories Discussion Group this Valentine’s Day should happen to be the second of James’s stories, Lost Hearts. However, the reader would be very much mistaken if they happened to take this for a romance of some sort, for it is anything but.

As with a number of James’s works, this tale unfolds within the atmospheric confines of an isolated country house of a ‘modest’ grandeur, with its cast of characters limited to its proprietor, the eccentric Mr Abney, his two servants, and a new arrival, his recently orphaned and much younger cousin, Stephen Elliott. At first, Mr Abney would appear to be a kindly gentleman of an esoteric scholarly bent, a confirmed bachelor who is now rather advanced in years, but as time passes, it becomes apparent that his concern for the welfare of his young cousin is not quite as disinterested as it might at first have appeared.

Strange and disquieting nocturnal visions and impressions are deftly conveyed by James’s pen, conjuring up a frisson of unease that does not dissipate until the final scene. The servants seem to know a little more than they let on, but it is when young Master Elliott listens to the recollections of Mrs Bunch concerning two other children who had taken up but a temporary residence at Aswarby Hall, that the significance of these spiritual visitations begins to become apparent. A reek of the sinister hangs about the place, in the form of the Gnostic beliefs, hermetic magic and ritual practised by Mr Abney. A glass of wine set aside for the vernal equinox is not, it would appear, a mere innocent libation in celebration of the turning of the seasons.

Lost Hearts was adapted for television by the BBC in 1973, with its version faithfully adhering to the text, although it deviates in one or two respects to make clear some elements of the story set at night that would not have otherwise been easy to convey on-screen. It is an atmospheric piece, enhanced by its use of music, including that of the hurdy-gurdy. Sadly, the actor who played young Master Elliott was to meet a tragic end at an early age, for Simon Gipps-Kent was found dead of morphine poisoning at the age of 28 in September 1987.

Lost Hearts is included in the Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, published in a Wordsworth edition for the bargain price of £2.99. It’s one of my favourite volumes.

The Ghosts of Christmas Present

The Twelve Apostles on Ilkley Moor

As we enter another festive season here in the UK, typically characterised by darkness, rain, drizzle and a general sogginess that extends beyond the obligatory serving of overcooked sprouts, our thoughts often turn to visions of a land mantled in crisp snow held in the grip of a harsh frost. Sprouts, for some reason, seldom feature in this wintry idyll, possibly because Dickens thought it too cruel to inflict the windy pleasures of this diminutive brassica upon even so poor a family as the Cratchets. It is therefore to fiction that we habitually turn to seek the ‘true’ atmosphere of Christmas that the British climate so obdurately denies us. More often than not, the sought-after shivers are thus supplied not by the weather, but by means of the ghost story which, unlike in America, is more closely associated with yuletide than with Halloween. It would seem to be Dickens himself who is to a considerable extent responsible for this association, for A Christmas Carol is by far the most well-known and popular Christmas story if we discount the Nativity itself, and perhaps manages to encapsulate the essence of the Christian message more effectively than the four Gospels combined.  

The BBC has over the years helped to popularise the association of the ghost story with Christmas, adapting a number of the masterful works of M.R. James for the small screen, as well as Dickens’s The Signalman which remains one of my favourite adaptations to this day. As for the James stories, the two screen versions that I find most satisfying would probably be A Warning to the Curious and The Stalls of Barchester. When I first saw these, at rather a tender age, they made quite an impression on me, and have remained lodged in the darkened recesses of my imagination ever since. There they lurked for the span of four decades, quietly fermenting and bubbling away, providing part of that creative mulch that would prompt me to try my hand at penning a few ghost stories of my own which, so it happened, have often clustered around this darkest time of the year.

Lionel Smallwood, the snobbish and dismissive theatre critic who encounters his nemesis in the Minster of Grimstone Peverell, would not have been out of place amongst the members of the Critics’ Circle who meet their cruel and bloody fates at the hands of a vengeful Edward Lionheart, played by Vincent Price in his magnificently over-the-top comedy horror Theatre of Blood released in 1973. That said, it is not some aggrieved actor who proves to be Smallwood’s nemesis, but a mysterious guide named Agnes, who seems to be something of a fixture whenever the Christmas market returns to her small Dorset town, and the scent of mulled wine wafts about the market square.

A pair of Gothic tales, that in part seek to channel the spirit of Wilkie Collins, also possess key scenes that unfold over the Christmas period. The first of these linked stories – At Fall of Night – happens to open at the close of 1843, the same year in which A Christmas Carol was published, but unlike Dickens’s tale fails to provide any message of hopeful redemption. It will have the ladies gasping for breath, unfastening their corsets, and reaching for the smelling salts. Its follow-up – Epona – possesses a climactic scene involving the wild riot of the chase in a Boxing Day hunt, at which the eponymous spirit makes a dramatic appearance in a moment of vengeful triumph.

The next brace of related stories – Old Crotchet and its sequel Old Crotchet’s Return – possesses as its supernatural setting a venerable and yet modest country pile in the county of Somerset during the 1920s. The focus of the events that unfold is the now largely forgotten highpoint of the Christmas season: Twelfth Night, or more specifically Old Twelfth Night. Although the tone here encountered is much lighter than that found in some of my other pieces, there are chills to be had courtesy of a couple of spirits, both residents of Hinton St Cuthbert Manor these last few centuries past. At least two female guests have found a certain bedchamber more rewarding than they could possibly have expected, whereas the other spirit, who views the house very much as her own, takes a distinct dislike to any young lady who might cross the threshold of her domain.

I shall now close by wishing you the most merry of Christmases, and a happy New Year. If you should be in the mood to read a tale or two from amongst those mentioned above, I hope that they should afford you a few shivers, as well as a few laughs along the way in many cases.

Cheers!

H.E. Bulstrode

Agnes of Grimstone Peverell and Old Crotchet are included in the collection Anthology: Wry Out West, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

At Fall of Night and Epona are included in the collection Uncanny Tales from the English Shires, available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.  

Old Crotchet’s Return is available from Amazon as a paperback or in Kindle.