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.