DVD Review: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral

Continuing with my reviews of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas based on the stories of M.R. James, I’m going to look at “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.”

The story, written in 1911, is online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/24086/.

Short summary: A first-person narrator—presumably James himself, since he did this kind of work in real life—is cataloging the collection in the Barchester Cathedral library when he discovers a box containing the diary and other effects belonging to an Archdeacon Haynes, who died under mysterious and grisly circumstances in the early 1800s. Excerpts from Haynes’s diary indicate that he deserved what he got.

The city of Barchester and its cathedral are fictitious, created by Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope but used as a setting by later writers as well, much like Lovecraft’s Arkham.

Dr. Black and the Librarian The BBC version is a faithful adaptation of James’s story, with only a few small alterations. Barchester Cathedral is here played by Norwich Cathedral, which adds a level of realism to the scenes set in and around it.

The James-narrator is replaced by Clive Swift as Dr. Black. Most of the story is shown in flashback, but Black and the librarian who shows him the box containing the diary provide a framing story, popping in at intervals and adding narrative comments on what they’ve read. Events concerning Archdeacon Haynes are moved from the early 1800s to the later end of 19th century.

We first meet Haynes (Robert Hardy with impressive mutton-chop whiskers) as a junior deacon in the 1870s in an amusing montage that shows his growing impatience as the old archdeacon Pulteney refuses to die and leave his position vacant.

Haynes and his sister Leticia are walking in the cathedral close and observing that Dr. Pulteney is 84. “A marvelous age,” says Haynes.

Not happy about the old ArchdeaconThere’s a birthday party for the old man with a number of local clergy in attendance, then a scene of a service in the cathedral with Pulteney seated at his desk in the stall behind Haynes.

Then Pulteney is 88; Haynes says “marvelous” again, but looks less than thrilled about it. He makes a joke about Methuselah.

Another scene at a sermon where Abraham living for hundreds of years is referenced, and Haynes looks as if he believes Pulteney (still seated behind him) will hang on that long too. Then Pulteney is 92. Another birthday party, with fewer people this time since most of the other clergyman have died off. Then the aged man slips on loose carpeting on his stairs and tumbles down, breaking his neck. The maid who finds him stands and stares for a moment, then screams.

Now, there’s no explicit statement about how Dr. Pulteney was killed. Haynes is certainly responsible, but did he meddle with the stair carpet himself and pay the maid to take the blame for the “accident,” or did he pay her to remove the rod holding down the carpet and to keep quiet about it afterwards? Dr. Black finds a badly spelled note from a Jane Lee asking for money, and the librarian observes that there were regular payments to a JL in Haynes’s accounts after he became Archdeacon.

Once they read the blackmail note, both Black and the librarian arrive at an understanding of what must have happened without further discussion.

At first, Haynes appears to have gotten away with his crime. Turning over the pages of the diary, Dr. Black observes that things go well for the new archdeacon for about three years after he takes up the office; Haynes and his sister have moved into the old archdeacon’s house and he sets about straightening up a number of administrative messes left by his ancient predecessor.

One hand on the cat carvingThe first curious incident occurs in the autumn after Leticia has gone to spend the winter in Brighton. Haynes is seated in the archdeacon’s stall now, looking bored and a little bit drowsy at the service. His hand rests on the carving of a cat on one corner of his desk–and under his hand, there is suddenly black fur instead of carved wood. When he returns home that night, a black cat runs under his feet on the stairs (the same stairs Pulteney tumbled down). Haynes begins to have the impression that “there is company… of some kind” in the house with him. He admits to hearing voices.

Some scenes of the haunting that follow are nicely done, making good, spooky use of the dark corners behind this man alone in his house. Who knows what might suddenly appear over his shoulder? Other bits are overdone. On New Year’s Eve as he’s going up the stairs to bed, Haynes hears someone whispering close to his ear–then the sounds repeat more loudly, reverberating as he clutches his head.

Evil kitty And every time Evil Kitty is shown, there’s an accompanying yowl like the cat has been stepped on, even when it’s just sitting still.

These disturbing incidents abate in the spring when Haynes’s sister returns. Things are quiet during the summer months. Leticia asks her brother if he is happy at Barchester and speaks of his retiring in the near future, but Haynes says he has his duty. I don’t think she knows what he’s done, but may have an inkling of suspicion. Nothing happens while Leticia is in the house, but other visitors do see the Black Cat.

Haynes asks about the carvings on his desk, and the verger shows him some of the other woodwork in the cathedral.

The faces of the damned express more conviction This is an interesting little scene–while the desk carvings are fictional creations for this story, the others are actual medieval features in Norwich Cathedral.

The verger points out the angels and souls going to Heaven on one side of the choir and, on the other, the souls of the damned.

The damned, Haynes observes, look like they express “more conviction.”

The faces of the damnedThe two also view the Seven Deadly Sins on the choir seats, with special attention paid to Pride. The verger then states that the desk carvings are more recent, only about 200 years old.

Haynes investigates the history of the two desk carvings. He learns from a local vicar that they were made from the wood of a tree traditionally called the Hanging Oak; human bones were discovered among its roots when it was cut down.

The carver was a man known as Austin the Twice-Born, famed in his own time as a foreteller of the future. Hand on the carving of Death

In October, after Leticia has returned to Brighton, Haynes is again seated in his stall during an evensong service and puts his hand on the other carving on his desk, this one of a hooded and robed figure. (Note: In James’s story, there was also a third carving, of the Devil, but that one doesn’t appear in this television version.) Under his hand, the head of the wooden figure becomes a real skull.

The carving becomes a real skull. In a spookily done set piece, Haynes is walking around the big, dark, and empty cathedral and cloister, when he hears the echoing sound of footsteps following him. He eventually runs into the verger, who asks was that the canon he just saw with Haynes? Haynes snaps that he was alone.

The haunting now enters a second phase; Death joins the Black Cat in occupying the Archdeacon’s home. One evening, someone knocks on Haynes’s bedroom door and whispers “May I come in?” Haynes takes it for his servant, but when the door creaks open and no one enters, he looks out to see the shadow of a figure slipping around the corner of the corridor. The servant appears from the other direction a moment later. Haynes asks him if he was the one who knocked. No. Is there a cat in the house–a large, black brute? No.

On another night, Haynes awakes standing at the top of the stairs. We see a long-nailed, greenish hand at his back, ready to push him down–it looks more like something from a monster movie to me than the skeletal hand of the Grim Reaper.

The 'monster' hand of DeathAt this point, the librarian wonders why Haynes didn’t just leave Barchester?

Dr. Black believes that, to Haynes, that would be admitting that what was happening to him was more than an aberration of his own disturbed mind and his guilty conscience.

Haynes writes “I must be firm” in his diary several times, pressing so hard that the pen cuts into the paper–once snapping the nib off and spattering ink on the page.

Not that he has much time left to compose himself. The next time he heads upstairs, Death is waiting for him at the top. That green, long-nailed hand rakes across Haynes’s face; he tumbles down to the bottom much like Dr. Pulteney did. The Black Cat is sitting, waiting at the bottom.

Once Haynes is dead, Evil Kitty heads out the front door. Its job here is done.

Suspiciously modern-looking Church Museum sign.In a coda, Dr. Black follows up to find an explanation for these supernatural events. This goes on too long, spoiling the impact of Haynes’s death, but it is in the original story.

I was surprised by the modern-looking sign outside the St. Peter Hungate Church Museum that Black visits at the very end. Was the framing story set in modern times after all? When I thought back, there were no obvious indications that the setting was meant to be the 1920s/30s or earlier, such as automobiles or women’s dresses. The suits that Dr. Black and the librarian wear wouldn’t be remarkably out of place on middle-aged-to-elderly men even into the 1970s.

As it turns out, the story was set in 1932. Dr. Black says so in a voice-over at the beginning that I missed on first viewing. Plus, there’s another reason which I’ll go into in a later review. The museum sign is therefore an anachronism. The church museum is a real place in Norwich, only a few blocks from the cathedral.


This DVD also contains a short feature in which Christopher Lee plays M.R. James telling the above story to a group of enthralled Cambridge students. What’s most interesting and delightful about it is that he does more than recount the story–he has one of the students bring out a large tin box which contains Haynes’s diaries, the blackmail note, and other documents related to the incident, and reads from them, leaving the impression that this is a discovery actually made by James in his work.


Author: Kathryn L Ramage

Kathryn L. Ramage has a B.A. and M.A. in English lit and has been writing for as long as she can remember. She lives in Maryland with three calico cats named after the Brontë sisters. In addition to being the author of numerous short stories, reviews, essays, and period mystery novellas, she is also the author of a series of fantasy novels set in a dukedom called the Northlands on an alternate Earth whose history has diverged from ours somewhere during the medieval period.