“Monty” James & The Ghost Story—There’s Nothing More Frightening Than Reading “the Master”…

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I watched a BBC documentary today on YouTube (link below), narrated by the brilliant Mark Gatiss (Sherlock), about 19th-century ghost story writer Montague Rhodes James, aka. M. R. James—or, if you knew him well: just plain ol’ “Monty” James. I’m not sure whether “knowing him well” would have been a plus or a minus after having watched the documentary, entitled M. R. James: Ghost Writer, which focused on James’ keen ability to write terrifying ghost stories.

It was uncanny. What the heck went on in that antiquarian head of his? Do we even want to know? I mean—the man could scare the trousers off a college boy.

(A little inside joke— no offense, Monty.) 😏

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Robert Lloyd Parry as M. R. James in the 2013 BBC documentary “M. R. James: Ghost Writer” (YouTube below).


James is known the world over as the undisputed master of the “English” ghost story—although, why we need to qualify these stories as “English” is beyond me…slow your roll, Liz—your fanny may be on the throne, but that doesn’t mean you have the power to run the rest of us! 👑🤚

We are all collectively “human” in the end, aren’t we?

Monty James was, and still is, the master of the “human” ghost story.

If you haven’t read the ghost stories of M. R. James, you should.

You can own the complete stories in a book that fits in the palm of your hand (see my photo below)—or a larger, illustrated edition; or a collectible first edition—whatever suits your ghostly fancy.

Just be warned. These stories aren’t for the night time—well, I mean they are—but they aren’t—it’s all about the resolve of your nerve. (I was going to say “it’s all about the size of your balls”…but Liz is listening.🍒)

The story that caught my attention—“Lost Hearts”—is one I’ve not yet had the pleasure of reading. In the documentary today, Monty—brilliantly acted by Robert Lloyd Parry, a man who not only resembles M. R. James, but has a little snarl to his smile that sorta makes you wonder—is reading “Lost Hearts” to a group of 19th-century Oxford boys, at night, with nothing but the golden glow of a candle…quivering.

He reaches the point in the tale where the spectre of a young boy appears to Stephen Elliott—anoher young boy, this one very much alive—and Stephen notices the spectre’s clawlike fingernails—which have left scratch marks on the bedroom door, and tears in Stephen’s nightshirts—over the chest area…

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The Tractate Middoth–A Short Creepy BBC Teleplay Based on the Ghost Story by M. R. James…Keep a Light On!

The Complete Ghost Stories of an Antiquary—Two Complete Collections by Montague Rhodes (M. R.) James

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Art by “velinov” @deviantart.com.

Ghost Stories of an Antiquary &  More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

M. R. James

* * * * *

These stories are dedicated to all those who at various times have listened to them.

* * * * *

CONTENTS

PART 1: GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY

Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book
Lost Hearts
The Mezzotint
The Ash-tree
Number 13
Count Magnus
‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

PART 2: MORE GHOST STORIES

A School Story
The Rose Garden
The Tractate Middoth
Casting the Runes
The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral
Martin’s Close
Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance
* * * * *

PART 1: GHOST STORIES OF AN ANTIQUARY

* * * * *

If anyone is curious about my local settings, let it be recorded that St Bertrand de Comminges and Viborg are real places: that in ‘Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You’ I had Felixstowe in mind. As for the fragments of ostensible erudition which are scattered about my pages, hardly anything in them is not pure invention; there never was, naturally, any such book as that which I quote in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’. ‘Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book’ was written in 1894 and printed soon after in the National Review, ‘Lost Hearts’ appeared in the Pall Mall Magazine; of the next five stories, most of which were read to friends at Christmas-time at King’s College, Cambridge, I only recollect that I wrote ‘Number 13’ in 1899, while ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’ was composed in the summer of 1904.

M. R. JAMES

* * * * *

CANON ALBERIC’S SCRAP-BOOK

St Bertrand de Comminges is a decayed town on the spurs of the Pyrenees, not very far from Toulouse, and still nearer to Bagnères-de-Luchon. It was the site of a bishopric until the Revolution, and has a cathedral which is visited by a certain number of tourists. In the spring of 1883 an Englishman arrived at this old-world place—I can hardly dignify it with the name of city, for there are not a thousand inhabitants. He was a Cambridge man, who had come specially from Toulouse to see St Bertrand’s Church, and had left two friends, who were less keen archaeologists than himself, in their hotel at Toulouse, under promise to join him on the following morning. Half an hour at the church would satisfy them, and all three could then pursue their journey in the direction of Auch. But our Englishman had come early on the day in question, and proposed to himself to fill a note-book and to use several dozens of plates in the process of describing and photographing every corner of the wonderful church that dominates the little hill of Comminges. In order to carry out this design satisfactorily, it was necessary to monopolize the verger of the church for the day. The verger or sacristan (I prefer the latter appellation, inaccurate as it may be) was accordingly sent for by the somewhat brusque lady who keeps the inn of the Chapeau Rouge; and when he came, the Englishman found him an unexpectedly interesting object of study. It was not in the personal appearance of the little, dry, wizened old man that the interest lay, for he was precisely like dozens of other church-guardians in France, but in a curious furtive or rather hunted and oppressed air which he had. He was perpetually half glancing behind him; the muscles of his back and shoulders seemed to be hunched in a continual nervous contraction, as if he were expecting every moment to find himself in the clutch of an enemy. The Englishman hardly knew whether to put him down as a man haunted by a fixed delusion, or as one oppressed by a guilty conscience, or as an unbearably henpecked husband. The probabilities, when reckoned up, certainly pointed to the last idea; but, still, the impression conveyed was that of a more formidable persecutor even than a termagant wife.

However, the Englishman (let us call him Dennistoun) was soon too deep in his note-book and too busy with his camera to give more than an occasional glance to the sacristan. Whenever he did look at him, he found him at no great distance, either huddling himself back against the wall or crouching in one of the gorgeous stalls. Dennistoun became rather fidgety after a time. Mingled suspicions that he was keeping the old man from his déjeuner, that he was regarded as likely to make away with St Bertrand’s ivory crozier, or with the dusty stuffed crocodile that hangs over the font, began to torment him.

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M. R. James–Master of the English Ghost Story, a Must-See Documentary!

“Casting the Runes” — A Classic Ghost Story by M. R. James

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Casting the Runes”, art by SAS Christian (Circus Posterus).

 

Casting the Runes

M. R. James

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April 15th, 190-

Dear Sir,

I am requested by the Council of the ⸻ Association to return to you the draft of a paper on The Truth of Alchemy, which you have been good enough to offer to read at our forthcoming meeting, and to inform you that the Council do not see their way to including it in the programme.

I am,

Yours faithfully,

— Secretary.

April 18th

Dear Sir,

I am sorry to say that my engagements do not permit of my affording you an interview on the subject of your proposed paper. Nor do our laws allow of your discussing the matter with a Committee of our Council, as you suggest. Please allow me to assure you that the fullest consideration was given to the draft which you submitted, and that it was not declined without having been referred to the judgement of a most competent authority. No personal question (it can hardly be necessary for me to add) can have had the slightest influence on the decision of the Council.

Believe me (ut supra).

April 20th

The Secretary of the ⸻ Association begs respectfully to inform Mr Karswell that it is impossible for him to communicate the name of any person or persons to whom the draft of Mr Karswell’s paper may have been submitted; and further desires to intimate that he cannot undertake to reply to any further letters on this subject.

‘And who is Mr Karswell?’ inquired the Secretary’s wife. She had called at his office, and (perhaps unwarrantably) had picked up the last of these three letters, which the typist had just brought in.

‘Why, my dear, just at present Mr Karswell is a very angry man. But I don’t know much about him otherwise, except that he is a person of wealth, his address is Lufford Abbey, Warwickshire, and he’s an alchemist, apparently, and wants to tell us all about it; and that’s about all—except that I don’t want to meet him for the next week or two.

Now, if you’re ready to leave this place, I am.’

‘What have you been doing to make him angry?’ asked Mrs Secretary.

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“Some Thoughts on Ghost Stories”, an Essay by M. R. James

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(Pinterest)

Very nearly all the ghost stories of old times claim to be true narratives of remarkable occurrences. At the outset I must make it clear that with these — be they ancient, medieval or post medieval — I have nothing to do, any more than I have with those chronicled in our own days. I am concerned with a branch of fiction; not a large branch, if you look at the rest of the tree, but one which has been astonishingly fertile in the last thirty years. The avowedly fictitious ghost story is my subject, and that being understood I can proceed.

In the year 1854 George Borrow narrated to an audience of Welshmen, ‘in the tavern of Gutter Vawr, in the county of Glamorgan’, what he asserted to be ‘decidedly the best ghost story in the world’. You may read this story either in English, in Knapp’s notes to Wild Wales, or in Spanish, in a recent edition with excellent pictures (Las Aventuras de Pánfilo). The source is Lope de Vega’s El Peregrino en so patria published in 1604. You will find it a remarkably interesting specimen of a tale of terror written in Shakespeare’s lifetime, but I shall be surprised if you agree with Borrow’s estimate of it. It is nothing but an account of a series of nightmares experienced by a wanderer who lodges for a night in a ‘hospital’, which had been deserted because of hauntings. The ghosts come in crowds and play tricks with the victim’s bed. They quarrel over cards, they squirt water at the man, they throw torches about the room. Finally they steal his clothes and disappear; but next morning the clothes are where he put them when he went to bed. In fact they are rather goblins than ghosts.

Still, here you have a story written with the sole object of inspiring a pleasing terror in the reader; and as I think, that is the true aim of the ghost story.

As far as I know, nearly two hundred years pass before you find the literary ghost story attempted again. Ghosts of course figure on the stage, but we must leave them out of consideration. Ghosts are the subject of quasi-scientific research in this country at the hands of Glanville, Beaumont and others; but these collectors are out to prove theories of the future life and the spiritual world. Improving treatises, with illustrative instances, are written on the Continent, as by Lavater. All these, if they do afford what our ancestors called amusement (Dr Johnson decreed that Coriolanius was ‘amusing’), do so by a side-wind. The Castle of Otranto is perhaps the progenitor of the ghost story as a literary genre, and I fear that it is merely amusing in the modern sense. Then we come to Mrs Radcliffe, whose ghosts are far better of their kind, but with exasperating timidity are all explained away; and to Monk Lewis, who in the book which gives him his nickname is odious and horrible without being impressive.

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7 Great Edwardian Ghost Story Writers

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While the weird tale and horror fiction existed in Britain long before the Edwardian Era (fl. 1895 – 1919), this period was certainly the zenith of supernatural fiction in the English-speaking world. Although the Victorians boasted a handful of truly excellent supernaturalists (Le Fanu, Riddell, Oliphant, Edwards, Broughton, etc.), the production of high-octane speculative fiction reached a high watermark during the years between Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan and M. R. James’ “A Warning to the Curious.” This period was profuse with talent and vision. The weird tale virtually cut its teeth in the wake of the Decadent Movement, with a renewed fascination in the occult, the pagan, and the otherworldly rushing into the salons and intellectual clubs of London, Dublin, Edinburgh, New York, and Paris. The Edwardians rejected the sober piety of their forefathers, embracing lifestyles of oppulence, fashion, and society. While the masters of Victorian horror used their fiction to expose and exercise the sins of a society which sought repress its violent, feudal past and its oppressive colonial policies, the Edwardians investigated the consequences of excess — of comfort and indulgence, of individualism and artistic integrity. While the Victorian victim of supernatural terror was often a member of the social elite plagued by guilt and haunted by the phantoms of their exploitative privilege, the typical Edwardian quarry was a loner — an artist, scientist, or scholar — who rejected company and the approval of society in order to plumb the limits of self-indulgence, often with catastrophic results. Here, in a follow up to our “7 Great Victorian Ghost Story Writers,” we laud seven of the era’s best.

7 — WALTER DE LA MARE
Rarely anthologized and often remembered more for his poetry, children’s stories, and children’s verses than his speculative fiction (some have placed this blame on his estate, which may want to promote his wholesome albeit conventional verse and put distance between his legacy and his startlingly grim horror), Walter de la Mare was, nonetheless, a master of the sinister, investing his writing with the same fluid, lyrical beauty that made his poetry renowned. His stories often dealt with the predatory influence of the dead, psychic vampirism, and rich, succlent atmospheres of dread and decay, woven in masterful prose. His most famous tale is “Seaton’s Aunt” — about just such a psychic vampire, an old woman consumed with thoughts of death, whose influence on her nephew is less than wholsome — although “Out of the Deep” (a smiliar premise, but with a deceased uncle as the parasite) and The Return (similar to Lovecraft’s “Evil Clergyman,” it follows a man who falls asleep on a grave and wakes up physically transformed) are perhaps even more powerful.

6 — W. W. JACOBS
Though principally known for his tremendously popular “The Monkey’s Paw” (most pedestrian anthologies of classic horror will, without fear of contradiction or complaint, include this tale alongside Stoker’s “The Judge’s House (a Le Fanu rip-off), Stevenson’s “The Body Snatcher,” and Dickens’ “The Signal-Man”), W. W. (William Wymark) Jacobs was a talented practioner of the short story, and his horror oeuvre of some twenty tales are remarkable for their proficient use of irony, mood, and suspense. “The Monkey’s Paw” does indeed deserve its reputation — it is embalmed in a deep and wrenching pathos — but other tales such as “Jerry Bundler” (a Christmas story about the lurking ghost of a highwayman and the dire consequences of mocking fear), “The Toll House” (perhaps the best haunted house story of the era, rivalled only by Onions’ magnum opus), and “The Well” (a grisly, Jamesian story about romantic rivals and a cold, wet embrace) deserve far more recognition than they have so far accrued.

5 — WILLIAM HOPE HODGSON
Although Hodgson is more remarkable for his weird fiction, in particular his grisly Sargasso Sea Mythos and a series of oceanic tales, his ghost stories continue to be regularly anthologized and continue to unsettle. Most notable for his collection Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, Hodgson’s contributions to the ghost tale eminate chiefly from this volume. The eponymous psychic investigator — a combination of Van Helsing and Sherlock Holmes — regularly regails his friends with the details of his supernatural exploits: uncovering villainous hoaxes and disarming genuine psychic perils. Although his stories begin in a well-lit den, warmed by port and beef, the reader is rapidly sucked into his harrowing experiences, steeped in demonic terrors and predatory phantoms. “The Whistling Room,” perhaps the best story, involves a chamber possessed by the carnivorous spirit of a jester whose tongue was removed to keep him from singing, “The Gateway of the Monster” follows a vicious, homicidal entity haunting a room known for its murders, and “The Hog” concerns a horrific, porcine demon which invades dreams.

4 — OLIVER ONIONS
Perhaps only James and Benson out perform Onions in his craft. Best known for the novella “The Beckoning Fair One,” a sickening story of possession and artistic mania in a haunted house, and for the anthology that it headlined, Widdershins, Onions pairs well with de la Mare, both for his phenomenally lyrical prose and for his penchant for possession, psychic vampirism, and dramatic irony. Onions tales often concern the interplay between erotic beauty and supernatural danger, and while they rarely follow the same plot conventions of TBFO (his “ghosts” are sometimes rifts in the demensions of space and time, visions of the future, and reincarnation), his stories are regularly chilling, mystifying, and unsettling. Like Jacobs, they double easily as literary fiction, and like Blackwood, they exceed the genre’s tropes and conventions, exploring the breadth of supernatural mysticism. Of note are his tales “Rooum” (a Lovecraftian story of vampirism on a molecular level), “Benlian” (wherein a monomaniacal artist worships his art and creates his own savage gods), and “The Painted Face” (a shy girl goes on a fateful vaccation, whereafter her personality is transformed and her past lives — as a fatal temptress throughout many aeons — is revealed).

3 — ALGERNON BLACKWOOD
Like Hodgson, Blackwood is primarily known for his weird fiction and his psychic investigator (the meddlesome “physician extraordinary” John Silence), but his ghost stories are among the era’s best. For Blackwood, whose experiences in New York City left him deeply disturbed by the isolationism and anonymity of postindustrial urban life, there was no social sin in more need of exposition than urban dehumanization. His ghost stories followed the lives of marginalized intellectuals with petty jobs leading lonely lives, bunkered in cheap lodgings run by unprincipled landladies. The ghosts who haunt them all died as a result of the isolation, marginalization, and abuse of commercialized, urban materialism, and those they haunt are unwitting victims of the same forces, sometimes just as imperiled as their deceased predecessors. In “The Listener” a man is trailed by the specter of a leper — and his hoard of cat familiars, while “A Case of Eavesdropping” features a poor boarder becoming a witness to a patricidal murder, and “The Kit-Bag” and “The Occupant of the Room” both involve bachelors preparing for alpine vaccations and being thwarted by the predatroy spirit of a suicide.

2 — E. F. BENSON
Tremendously underrated, under-anthologized, and under-adapted, E. F. Benson was the most prolific member of a family of ghost story writers. While A. C. and R. H. Benson, his brothers, wrote definite Victorian ghost tales, Edward Frederic forged a complex and chilling oeuvre of modern supernatural tales. His themes revolved around female vampires, violently vindictive spirits, and gruesome elementals. Like Blackwood and Hodgson, his weird fiction — even more underrated than his ghost tales — was superb, and stories like “The Horror-Horn,” “Negotium Perambulans,” and “Caterpillars” smack of James and Lovecraft. But his ghost stories bear the clear influence of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, following in their tradition of brutal, violent, and physical visitants who prey on the guilty and the guiltless alike. “Mrs Amworth,” “The Cat,” “The Outsider,” and “The Room in the Tower” concern the influence of subtle female vampires; “The Confession of Charles Linkworth” (a hanged man wants to be heard — over the phone), “Naboth’s Vineyard” (a wronged man returns — with avengence, and a telltale limp), “In the Tube” (a subway casualty makes a grisly reappearance), and “The Other Bed” (a man would not sleep quite so well if he could see his roommate’s throat — Blackwood’s “Occupant…” meets James’ “Oh, Whistle”) are splendid examples of the genre.

1 — M. R. JAMES
The dean of the English ghost story (pun intended very much, indeed), M. R. James followed in the tradition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu, incorporating a loathsome ickiness that would inspire Benson and Lovecraft, and earn him the adoration of generations of ghost story readers. His tales concerned the seminal theme of the Edwardian Era: the isolated man further isolating himself, tunnelling deeper into the perils of his unconscious, from which crawling things might climb. James’ stories, written to be read, were invested with a lulling rhythm which inspired both comfort and unease. Following his principle dictum — “let us see [the protagonist] 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” — James’ ghost stories featured chilling shocks in the most unsuspecting places. Of most mention are his “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (a loner-scholar learns the maxim “caveat emptor” — and the maxim “QUIS EST ISTE QUI UENIT”) and “A Warning to the Curious” (a relic hunter deeply regrets uncovering his quarry — with grave results). “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” and “The Treasure of Abbot Thomas” follow the selfsame ramifications of unearthing hidden antiques; “Lost Hearts,” “Martin’s Close,” “The Tractate Middoth,” and “The Ash Tree” concern justice being dealt by the vengeful dead, and “The Haunted Doll’s House,” “Mr Humphreys and his Inheritance,” “A View From a Hill,” and “The Mezzotint” involve innocent persons who unwittingly stumble upon… malice in inanimate objects.

HONORABLE MENTIONS…

PERCEVAL LANDON – “THURNLEY ABBEY”
OSCAR WILDE – “THE CANTERVILLE GHOST”
ARTHUR MACHEN – “THE MONSTRANCE”
A. C. BENSON – “THE TEMPLE OF DEATH”
R. H. BENSON – “FATHER MACCLEFIELD’S TALE”
BARRY PAIN – “THE CASE OF VINCENT PYRWHIT”
LORD DUNSANY – “GHOSTS”
BRAM STOKER – “THE JUDGE’S HOUSE”
ELLIOTT O’DONNELL – “THE TOP ATTIC”
SIR ARTHUR CONAN DOYLE – “THE LEATHER FUNNEL”

(Source: SkullintheStars / WordPress)

“The Mezzotint” a Haunting Story by M. R. James

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Some time ago I believe I had the pleasure of telling you the story of an adventure which happened to a friend of mine by the name of Dennistoun, during his pursuit of objects of art for the museum at Cambridge.

He did not publish his experiences very widely upon his return to England; but they could not fail to become known to a good many of his friends, and among others to the gentleman who at that time presided over an art museum at another University. It was to be expected that the story should make a considerable impression on the mind of a man whose vocation lay in lines similar to Dennistoun’s, and that he should be eager to catch at any explanation of the matter which tended to make it seem improbable that he should ever be called upon to deal with so agitating an emergency. It was, indeed, somewhat consoling to him to reflect that he was not expected to acquire ancient MSS. for his institution; that was the business of the Shelburnian Library. The authorities of that might, if they pleased, ransack obscure corners of the Continent for such matters. He was glad to be obliged at the moment to confine his attention to enlarging the already unsurpassed collection of English topographical drawings and engravings possessed by his museum. Yet, as it turned out, even a department so homely and familiar as this may have its dark corners, and to one of these Mr. Williams was unexpectedly introduced.

Those who have taken even the most limited interest in the acquisition of topographical pictures are aware that there is one London dealer whose aid is indispensable to their researches. Mr. J.W. Britnell publishes at short intervals very admirable catalogues of a large and constantly changing stock of engravings, plans, and old sketches of mansions, churches, and towns in England and Wales. These catalogues were, of course, the ABC of his subject to Mr. Williams: but as his museum already contained an enormous accumulation of topographical pictures, he was a regular, rather than a copious, buyer; and he rather looked to Mr. Britnell to fill up gaps in the rank and file of his collection than to supply him with rarities.

Now, in February of last year there appeared upon Mr. Williams’s desk at the museum a catalogue from Mr. Britnell’s emporium, and accompanying it was a typewritten communication from the dealer himself. This latter ran as follows:

DEAR SIR,–

We beg to call your attention to No. 978 in our accompanying catalogue, which we shall be glad to send on approval.

Yours faithfully,

J. W. BRITNELL.

To turn to No. 978 in the accompanying catalogue was with Mr. Williams (as he observed to himself) the work of a moment, and in the place indicated he found the following entry:

“978.–Unknown. Interesting mezzotint: View of a manor-house, early part of the century. 15 by 10 inches; black frame. £2 2s.

It was not specially exciting, and the price seemed high. However, as Mr. Britnell, who knew his business and his customer, seemed to set store by it, Mr. Williams wrote a postcard asking for the article to be sent on approval, along with some other engravings and sketches which appeared in the same catalogue. And so he passed without much excitement of anticipation to the ordinary labours of the day.

A parcel of any kind always arrives a day later than you expect it, and that of Mr. Britnell proved, as I believe the right phrase goes, no exception to the rule. It was delivered at the museum by the afternoon post of Saturday, after Mr. Williams had left his work, and it was accordingly brought round to his rooms in college by the attendant, in order that he might not have to wait over Sunday before looking through it and returning such of the contents as he did not propose to keep. And here he found it when he came in to tea, with a friend.

The only item with which I am concerned was the rather large, black-framed mezzotint of which I have already quoted the short description given in Mr. Britnell’s catalogue. Some more details of it will have to be given, though I cannot hope to put before you the look of the picture as clearly as it is present to my own eye. Very nearly the exact duplicate of it may be seen in a good many old inn parlours, or in the passages of undisturbed country mansions at the present moment. It was a rather indifferent mezzotint, and an indifferent mezzotint is, perhaps, the worst form of engraving known. It presented a full-face view of a not very large manor-house of the last century, with three rows of plain sashed windows with rusticated masonry about them, a parapet with balls or vases at the angles, and a small portico in the centre. On either side were trees, and in front a considerable expanse of lawn. The legend “A.W.F. sculpsit” was engraved on the narrow margin; and there was no further inscription. The whole thing gave the impression that it was the work of an amateur. What in the world Mr. Britnell could mean by affixing the price of £2 2s. to such an object was more than Mr. Williams could imagine. He turned it over with a good deal of contempt; upon the back was a paper label, the left-hand half of which had been torn off. All that remained were the ends of two lines of writing: the first had the letters –ngley Hall; the second, –ssex.

It would, perhaps, be just worth while to identify the place represented, which he could easily do with the help of a gazetteer, and then he would send it back to Mr. Britnell, with some remarks reflecting upon the judgment of that gentleman.

He lighted the candles, for it was now dark, made the tea, and supplied the friend with whom he had been playing golf (for I believe the authorities of the University I write of indulge in that pursuit by way of relaxation); and tea was taken to the accompaniment of a discussion which golfing persons can imagine for themselves, but which the conscientious writer has no right to inflict upon any non-golfing persons.

The conclusion arrived at was that certain strokes might have been better, and that in certain emergencies neither player had experienced that amount of luck which a human being has a right to expect. It was now that the friend–let us call him Professor Binks–took up the framed engraving, and said:

“What’s this place, Williams?”

“Just what I am going to try to find out,” said Williams, going to the shelf for a gazetteer.

“Look at the back. Somethingley Hall, either in Sussex or Essex. Half the name’s gone, you see. You don’t happen to know it, I suppose?”

“It’s from that man Britnell, I suppose, isn’t it?” said Binks. “Is it for the museum?”

“Well, I think I should buy it if the price was five shillings,” said Williams; “but for some unearthly reason he wants two guineas for it. I can’t conceive why. It’s a wretched engraving, and there aren’t even any figures to give it life.”

“It’s not worth two guineas, I should think,” said Binks; “but I don’t think it’s so badly done. The moonlight seems rather good to me; and I should have thought there were figures, or at least a figure just on the edge in front.”

“Let’s look,” said Williams.

“Well, it’s true the light is rather cleverly given. Where’s your figure? Oh yes! Just the head, in the very front of the picture.”

And indeed there was–hardly more than a black blot on the extreme edge of the engraving–the head of a man or woman, a good deal muffled up, the back turned to the spectator, and looking towards the house.

Williams had not noticed it before.

“Still,” he said, “though it’s a cleverer thing than I thought, I can’t spend two guineas of museum money on a picture of a place I don’t know.”

Professor Binks had his work to do, and soon went; and very nearly up to Hall time Williams was engaged in a vain attempt to identify the subject of his picture.

“If the vowel before the ng had only been left, it would have been easy enough,” he thought; “but as it is, the name may be anything from Guestingley to Langley, and there are many more names ending like this than I thought; and this rotten book has no index of terminations.”

Hall in Mr. Williams’s college was at seven. It need not be dwelt upon; the less so as he met there colleagues who had been playing golf during the afternoon, and words with which we have no concern were freely bandied across the table–merely golfing words, I would hasten to explain.

I suppose an hour or more to have been spent in what is called common-room after dinner. Later in the evening some few retired to Williams’s rooms, and I have little doubt that whist was played and tobacco smoked. During a lull in these operations Williams picked up the mezzotint from the table without looking at it, and handed it to a person mildly interested in art, telling him where it had come from, and the other particulars which we already know.

The gentleman took it carelessly, looked at it, then said, in a tone of some interest:

“It’s really a very good piece of work, Williams; it has quite a feeling of the romantic period. The light is admirably managed, it seems to me, and the figure, though it’s rather too grotesque, is somehow very impressive.”

“Yes, isn’t it?” said Williams, who was just then busy giving whisky-and-soda to others of the company, and was unable to come across the room to look at the view again.

It was by this time rather late in the evening, and the visitors were on the move. After they went Williams was obliged to write a letter or two and clear up some odd bits of work. At last, some time past midnight, he was disposed to turn in, and he put out his lamp after lighting his bedroom candle. The picture lay face upwards on the table where the last man who looked at it had put it, and it caught his eye as he turned the lamp down. What he saw made him very nearly drop the candle on the floor, and he declares now that if he had been left in the dark at that moment he would have had a fit. But, as that did not happen he was able to put down the light on the table and take a good look at the picture. It was indubitable–rankly impossible, no doubt, but absolutely certain. In the middle of the lawn in front of the unknown house there was a figure where no figure had been at five o’clock that afternoon. It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.

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“It was crawling on all-fours towards the house, and it was muffled in a strange black garment with a white cross on the back.”

 

I do not know what is the ideal course to pursue in a situation of this kind. I can only tell you what Mr. Williams did. He took the picture by one corner and carried it across the passage to a second set of rooms which he possessed. There he locked it up in a drawer, sported the doors of both sets of rooms, and retired to bed; but first he wrote out and signed an account of the extraordinary change which the picture had undergone since it had come into his possession.

Sleep visited him rather late; but it was consoling to reflect that the behaviour of the picture did not depend upon his own unsupported testimony. Evidently the man who had looked at it the night before had seen something of the same kind as he had, otherwise he might have been tempted to think that something gravely wrong was happening either to his eyes or his mind. This possibility being fortunately precluded, two matters awaited him on the morrow. He must take stock of the picture very carefully, and call in a witness for the purpose, and he must make a determined effort to ascertain what house it was that was represented. He would therefore ask his neighbour Nisbet to breakfast with him, and he would subsequently spend a morning over the gazetteer.

Nisbet was disengaged, and arrived about 9.30. His host was not quite dressed, I am sorry to say, even at this late hour. During breakfast nothing was said about the mezzotint by Williams, save that he had a picture on which he wished for Nisbet’s opinion. But those who are familiar with University life can picture for themselves the wide and delightful range of subjects over which the conversation of two Fellows of Canterbury College is likely to extend during a Sunday morning breakfast. Hardly a topic was left unchallenged, from golf to lawn-tennis. Yet I am bound to say that Williams was rather distraught; for his interest naturally centred in that very strange picture which was now reposing, face downwards, in the drawer in the room opposite.

The morning pipe was at last lighted, and the moment had arrived for which he looked. With very considerable–almost tremulous–excitement, he ran across, unlocked the drawer, and, extracting the picture–still face downwards–ran back, and put it into Nisbet’s hands.

“Now,” he said, “Nisbet, I want you to tell me exactly what you see in that picture. Describe it, if you don’t mind, rather minutely. I’ll tell you why afterwards.”

“Well,” said Nisbet, “I have here a view of a country-house–English, I presume–by moonlight.

“Moonlight? You’re sure of that?”

“Certainly. The moon appears to be on the wane, if you wish for details, and there are clouds in the sky.”

“All right. Go on. I’ll swear,” added Williams in an aside, “there was no moon when I saw it first.”

“Well, there’s not much more to be said,” Nisbet continued. “The house has one–two–three rows of windows, five in each row, except at the bottom, where there’s a porch instead of the middle one, and—-”

“But what about figures?” said Williams, with marked interest.

“There aren’t any,” said Nisbet; “but—-”

“What! No figure on the grass in front?”

“Not a thing.”

“You’ll swear to that?”

“Certainly I will. But there’s just one other thing.”

“What?”

“Why, one of the windows on the ground-floor–left of the door–is open.”

“Is it really? My goodness! he must have got in,” said Williams, with great excitement; and he hurried to the back of the sofa on which Nisbet was sitting, and, catching the picture from him, verified the matter for himself.

It was quite true. There was no figure, and there was the open window. Williams, after a moment of speechless surprise, went to the writing-table and scribbled for a short time. Then he brought two papers to Nisbet, and asked him first to sign one–it was his own description of the picture, which you have just heard–and then to read the other which was Williams’s statement written the night before.

“What can it all mean?” said Nisbet.

“Exactly,” said Williams. “Well, one thing I must do–or three things, now I think of it. I must find out from Garwood”–this was his last night’s visitor–“what he saw, and then I must get the thing photographed before it goes further, and then I must find out what the place is.”

“I can do the photographing myself,” said Nisbet, “and I will. But, you know, it looks very much as if we were assisting at the working out of a tragedy somewhere. The question is, Has it happened already, or is it going to come off? You must find out what the place is.

“Yes,” he said, looking at the picture again, “I expect you’re right: he has got in. And if I don’t mistake there’ll be the devil to pay in one of the rooms upstairs.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said Williams: “I’ll take the picture across to old Green” (this was the senior Fellow of the College, who had been Bursar for many years).

“It’s quite likely he’ll know it. We have property in Essex and Sussex, and he must have been over the two counties a lot in his time.”

“Quite likely he will,” said Nisbet; “but just let me take my photograph first. But look here, I rather think Green isn’t up to-day. He wasn’t in Hall last night, and I think I heard him say he was going down for the Sunday.”

“That’s true, too,” said Williams; “I know he’s gone to Brighton. Well, if you’ll photograph it now, I’ll go across to Garwood and get his statement, and you keep an eye on it while I’m gone. I’m beginning to think two guineas is not a very exorbitant price for it now.”

In a short time he had returned, and brought Mr. Garwood with him. Garwood’s statement was to the effect that the figure, when he had seen it, was clear of the edge of the picture, but had not got far across the lawn. He remembered a white mark on the back of its drapery, but could not have been sure it was a cross. A document to this effect was then drawn up and signed, and Nisbet proceeded to photograph the picture.

“Now what do you mean to do?” he said.

“Are you going to sit and watch it all day?”

“Well, no, I think not,” said Williams. “I rather imagine we’re meant to see the whole thing. You see, between the time I saw it last night and this morning there was time for lots of things to happen, but the creature only got into the house. It could easily have got through its business in the time and gone to its own place again; but the fact of the window being open, I think, must mean that it’s in there now. So I feel quite easy about leaving it. And, besides, I have a kind of idea that it wouldn’t change much, if at all, in the daytime. We might go out for a walk this afternoon, and come in to tea, or whenever it gets dark. I shall leave it out on the table here, and sport the door. My skip can get in, but no one else.”

The three agreed that this would be a good plan; and, further, that if they spent the afternoon together they would be less likely to talk about the business to other people; for any rumour of such a transaction as was going on would bring the whole of the Phasmatological Society about their ears.

We may give them a respite until five o’clock.

At or near that hour the three were entering Williams’s staircase. They were at first slightly annoyed to see that the door of his rooms was unsported; but in a moment it was remembered that on Sunday the skips came for orders an hour or so earlier than on week-days. However, a surprise was awaiting them. The first thing they saw was the picture leaning up against a pile of books on the table, as it had been left, and the next thing was Williams’s skip, seated on a chair opposite, gazing at it with undisguised horror. How was this? Mr. Filcher (the name is not my own invention) was a servant of considerable standing, and set the standard of etiquette to all his own college and to several neighbouring ones, and nothing could be more alien to his practice than to be found sitting on his master’s chair, or appearing to take any particular notice of his master’s furniture or pictures. Indeed, he seemed to feel this himself. He started violently when the three men came into the room, and got up with a marked effort. Then he said:
“I ask your pardon, sir, for taking such a freedom as to set down.”

“Not at all, Robert,” interposed Mr. Williams. “I was meaning to ask you some time what you thought of that picture.”

“Well, sir, of course I don’t set up my opinion again yours, but it ain’t the pictur I should ‘ang where my little girl could see it, sir.”

“Wouldn’t you, Robert? Why not?”

“No, sir. Why, the pore child, I recollect once she see a Door Bible, with pictures not ‘alf what that is, and we ‘ad to set up with her three or four nights afterwards, if you’ll believe me; and if she was to ketch a sight of this skelinton here, or whatever it is, carrying off the pore baby, she would be in a taking. You know ‘ow it is with children; ‘ow nervish they git with a little thing and all. But what I should say, it don’t seem a right pictur to be laying about, sir, not where anyone that’s liable to be startled could come on it. Should you be wanting anything this evening sir? Thank you, sir.”

With these words the excellent man went to continue the round of his masters, and you may be sure the gentlemen whom he left lost no time in gathering round the engraving. There was the house, as before, under the waning moon and the drifting clouds. The window that had been open was shut, and the figure was once more on the lawn: but not this time crawling cautiously on hands and knees. Now it was erect and stepping swiftly, with long strides, towards the front of the picture. The moon was behind it, and the black drapery hung down over its face so that only hints of that could be seen, and what was visible made the spectators profoundly thankful that they could see no more than a white dome-like forehead and a few straggling hairs. The head was bent down, and the arms were tightly clasped over an object which could be dimly seen and identified as a child, whether dead or living it was not possible to say. The legs of the appearance alone could be plainly discerned, and they were horribly thin.

From five to seven the three companions sat and watched the picture by turns. But it never changed. They agreed at last that it would be safe to leave it, and that they would return after Hall and await further developments.

When they assembled again, at the earliest possible moment, the engraving was there, but the figure was gone, and the house was quiet under the moonbeams. There was nothing for it but to spend the evening over gazetteers and guide-books. Williams was the lucky one at last, and perhaps he deserved it. At 11.30 p.m. he read from Murray’s Guide to Essex the following lines:

“16½ miles, Anningley. The church has been an interesting building of Norman date, but was extensively classicized in the last century. It contains the tombs of the family of Francis, whose mansion, Anningley Hall, a solid Queen Anne house, stands immediately beyond the churchyard in a park of about 80 acres. The family is now extinct, the last heir having disappeared mysteriously in infancy in the year 1802. The father, Mr. Arthur Francis, was locally known as a talented amateur engraver in mezzotint. After his son’s disappearance he lived in complete retirement at the Hall, and was found dead in his studio on the third anniversary of the disaster, having just completed an engraving of the house, impressions of which are of considerable rarity.”

This looked like business, and, indeed, Mr. Green on his return at once identified the house as Anningley Hall.

“Is there any kind of explanation of the figure Green?” was the question which Williams naturally asked.

“I don’t know, I’m sure, Williams. What used to be said in the place when I first knew it, which was before I came up here, was just this: old Francis was always very much down on these poaching fellows, and whenever he got a chance he used to get a man whom he suspected of it turned off the estate, and by degrees he got rid of them all but one. Squires could do a lot of things then that they daren’t think of now. Well, this man that was left was what you find pretty often in that country–the last remains of a very old family. I believe they were Lords of the Manor at one time. I recollect just the same thing in my own parish.”

“What, like the man in Tess of the D’Urbervilles?” Williams put in.

“Yes, I dare say; it’s not a book I could ever read myself. But this fellow could show a row of tombs in the church there that belonged to his ancestors, and all that went to sour him a bit; but Francis, they said, could never get at him–he always kept just on the right side of the law–until one night the keepers found him at it in a wood right at the end of the estate. I could show you the place now; it marches with some land that used to belong to an uncle of mine. And you can imagine there was a row; and this man Gawdy (that was the name, to be sure–Gawdy; I thought I should get it–Gawdy), he was unlucky enough, poor chap! to shoot a keeper. Well, that was what Francis wanted, and grand juries–you know what they would have been then–and poor Gawdy was strung up in double-quick time; and I’ve been shown the place he was buried in, on the north side of the church–you know the way in that part of the world: anyone that’s been hanged or made away with themselves, they bury them that side. And the idea was that some friend of Gawdy’s–not a relation, because he had none, poor devil! he was the last of his line: kind of spes ultima gentis–must have planned to get hold of Francis’s boy and put an end to his line, too. I don’t know–it’s rather an out-of-the-way thing for an Essex poacher to think of–but, you know, I should say now it looks more as if old Gawdy had managed the job himself. Booh! I hate to think of it! have some whisky, Williams!”

The facts were communicated by Williams to Dennistoun, and by him to a mixed company, of which I was one, and the Sadducean Professor of Ophiology another. I am sorry to say that the latter when asked what he thought of it, only remarked: “Oh, those Bridgeford people will say anything”– a sentiment which met with the reception it deserved.

I have only to add that the picture is now in the Ashleian Museum; that it has been treated with a view to discovering whether sympathetic ink has been used in it, but without effect; that Mr. Britnell knew nothing of it save that he was sure it was uncommon; and that, though carefully watched, it has never been known to change again.

– M. R. James, 1904

The Tractate Middoth by M. R. James

“I made a bit of noise on purpose, coughed and moved my feet. He turned round and let me see his face. 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.”

– M. R. James, The Tractate Middoth

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