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.
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
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
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.
It seems that there is scarcely a patch of earth in rural England that does not bear some trace of the lives of its former occupants, and one cannot help, at times, but feel that something of them lingers, lending the landscape a sense of the uncanny. Dotted about here and there are the remains of the monuments of prehistory and distant antiquity, their original names and functions lost with the passing of the people who built and used them, but beneath the soil, unseen to the eye, lies so much more. Some of those things that lie below were put there for a reason, whereas others were lost by their owners and, for one reason or another, never retrieved.
In the finding of such artefacts, the finder kindles a physical and tangible bond with the past, although the original owners can never be known, at least directly. These crafted pieces of metal, stone, and pottery may speak to us through their form of their past function, significance, and role, but of the specific personalities of the men and women who held them in their hands, they say but little. It is into this void of the unknowable that supernatural fiction dares to tread, with M.R. James providing many fine examples, with two of my favourites being Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad, and A Warning to the Curious.
In both instances, an object is found and taken by the finder, who soon discovers that retribution is not long in coming. In the first tale, it is a bone whistle protruding from a former graveyard upon a crumbling cliff edge that summons up the guardian spirit, whereas in the second it is the theft of an ancient Saxon crown from a burial mound that does the same. However, the nature of the spirit in A Warning to the Curious is somewhat unusual, for it is not connected, directly, to the former wearer of the crown that lies buried in the mound, but rather to a now extinct family of guardians, entrusted to watch over and protect the place of burial. The message of these tales is clear: do not take that which was placed in the ground for a purpose.
For some reason, which I cannot explain, I find this inadvertent release of the forces of psychic chaos somehow satisfying, and it is a device that I have employed in my latest tale Epona, a blend of Victorian gothic ghost story and folk horror, the title of which derives from the Romano-Celtic goddess of that name. If the reader should be curious to see what enfolds, then please click here, or on the picture above. Eponais also available, alongside three other tales, as part of my anthology Uncanny Tales, either as a paperback, or on Kindle.
Having just finished savouring this volume of classic tales by the master of the ghost story, M.R. James, I am delighted to see that BBC4 will be treating us to a celebration of his work this coming Christmas Eve, starting at 9:00pm with Mark Gatiss presenting a documentary on the erstwhile Cambridge scholar. This will be followed by Gatiss’s own treatment of The Tractate Middoth, as well as an adaptation of No. 13 and an interpretation of A View from a Hill. The festive shudders do not end there, for the viewer may also relish Christoper Lee’s unparalleled reading of two of his classics – The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious – complete with port and flickering candlelight. Only Dickens is permitted to interrupt this schedule, with an excellent version of The Signalman starring Denholm Elliot, which I have not seen since I was a child when it was originally broadcast.
Returning to James, the Wordsworth volume gathers together all but a tiny handful of his shorter and more obscure tales, and is such a treasure house of the supernatural and the uncanny that it is difficult for me to single out my favourite half a dozen tales, let alone a story that I could possibly say ranked above the others. That said, I find that the earlier tales in the book – those originally published as Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904 – are of a consistently higher quality than some of his later efforts, although there are undeniably gems amongst his later pieces such as An Episode of Cathedral History, A View from a Hill, and A Warning to the Curious, that rank amongst the author’s best. Given the nature of his posthumous popularity, it would be interesting to know what James, being an accomplished mediaeval scholar, would have made of being remembered for a series of tales that he penned for personal amusement. For me, however, as well as for many others, his stories represent a high watermark in the English ghost story tradition. Understatement and restraint are key to their effectiveness; they are atmospheric works of suggestion that lure the reader into a suspension of disbelief, with their success being as dependent upon what they do not show, as what they do. Such a style may not be as popular today as it once was, but for my tastes, this more genteel approach to ‘horror’ is one that resonates more profoundly than the plethora of formulaic vampire and zombie tales, stripped of adverbs and adjectives, that casts its pall over the dulled imaginations of readers today.
So, this Christmas season, I ask you to join me in raising a glass of port in remembrance of James, whilst savouring the morbidly living vitality of his works. May they, like so many of the creeping creations that populate his tales, endure.
This tale was originally published in 1911 as part of James’s More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and as in a number of the author’s stories features a single gentleman with scholarly tastes, who finds himself in the fortunate position of inheriting his single uncle’s considerable country estate. The latter was, so it seems, something of a valetudinarian, and, moreover, had never met his nephew, so the latter was particularly blessed to be released from his dull civil service job by the inevitable demise of his unknown relative.
Set during the closing decade of the nineteenth century, James presents the reader with a picture of country life in which society is clearly ordered, and everything, and everyone, in their allotted place. One cannot help but speculate whether one of his favourite hymns might have been All Things Bright and Beautiful which features the now often omitted verse:
‘The rich man in his castle,
the poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly,
and ordered their estate’
I digress somewhat. Returning to the story, Mr Humphreys finds that he is now the owner of a substantial country house dating, most likely, from the 1770s, which happens to possess a well-stocked library, as well as an intriguing maze, the gate of which has been locked for many decades. A locked gate seldom fails to arouse the curiosity of the onlooker, and Mr Humphreys proves to be no exception to this rule, asking Mr Cooper (the bailiff entrusted to sort out the affairs of the deceased uncle and hand all over to the nephew) why the maze should be sealed off in such a manner. He receives, of course, an answer, albeit a far from satisfactory one, as well as the information that a certain Lady Wardrop had once written requesting access to the maze, but had been denied it. From there, via an intriguing document entitled ‘A Parable of the Unhappy Condition’ found in the library amongst a collection of late seventeenth-century sermons, we begin our journey into the dark mystery of Wilsthorpe Hall. I shall say no more with respect to the plot, for to do so would spoil the enjoyment of the reader.
This proves to be an engaging enough read, although I would not place it in the first rank of James’s work. The locals are provided with suitably ‘rustic’ speech, and James’s customary understated approach to horror is well deployed, but there is little to unsettle the reader until the tale has nigh on run its course.
An entertaining collection of supernatural tales, some by authors that I have previously read, and others that I have not. What united them for me personally was the fact that I came to them all as a fresh reader, for I had not thumbed my way through any of the stories in this volume before. Although a number of the authors included will doubtless be familiar to horror aficionados, some of them were new to me, even a figure so apparently well known as August Derleth.
Personal tastes differ, so it is just as well that I persevered reading beyond the first story in the collection – Derleth’s ‘The Lonesome Place’ – which I found particularly grating, owing to the extreme repetition of the term ‘lonesome place’ which seemed to pop up in every other sentence throughout the text. I would suggest, therefore, that a more befitting title would be ‘The Tiresome Place.’ Perhaps it would be unfair to judge Derleth too harshly upon the basis of having read only one of his tales, but if this is stylistically in keeping with his oeuvre, then I shall be steering well clear of anything else that he penned. There was one other story in the collection that I thought to be dire, once again owing to its exceptional repetitiveness – far too many ‘whistlings’ and ‘hoonings’ for my taste – entitled ‘The Whistling Room,’ by William Hope Hodgson. It was thus with something of a sardonic chuckle, having compelled myself to read the story, that I learned that Derleth had been something of an admirer of Hodgson.
Having gone on, at some length, about what I did not enjoy in this collection, please do not let this deter you from picking up and enjoying this volume, for it contains much that will reward the reader with an interest in the supernatural with many hours of satisfactory reading. Some of the highlights, for me, included ‘Lot No. 249,’ (the original mummy story, set at Cambridge University during the 1880s) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; ‘The Open Door,’ by Margaret Oliphant; ‘The Ghostly Rental,’ by Henry James; ‘The Face,’ by E.F. Benson, and ‘The Grey Ones,’ by J.B. Priestley. The last of these contained a considerable amount of humour, which raised many a smile during its modest number of pages. I shall be looking out for more by Oliphant, Benson and Priestley, as well as by other familiar names in the traditional horror genre who contributed some enjoyable stories to this book, who include M.R. James, Robert Aickman, and H.P. Lovecraft. If I’d have been in Mazzeo’s seat as editor, I would have dispensed with the contributions by Derleth, Joseph Payne Brennan and Hodgson, substituting instead the ghostly tale shown below, although that may have been rather difficult in 1968, given that the author had yet to learn to speak, let alone write.