Legend has it that three silver crowns were buried somewhere along the East Anglian coast in Anglo-Saxon times to ward off invasion. These three crowns can still be seen on coats of arms around Norfolk and Suffolk. In the 1600s, a silver crown was supposed to have been dug up not far from the coast but its finders, more interested in silver than in priceless historical artifacts, promptly melted it down. A second crown is said to have been lost to the sea due to erosion.
M.R. James uses this legend as the basis for “A Warning to the Curious,” written in 1925, and builds a ghost story upon it. Two friends are staying at an inn at the seaside town of Seaburgh when a third guest at the inn, a man named Paxton, approaches them and tell them how he has traced the location of the third silver crown and actually dug it up. Now he wants to put it back. “I’ve never been alone since I touched it.”
The remaining crown has been guarded by a local family named Ager since time immemorial; the last, William Ager, died some years ago but continues to take his duty seriously even after death. With the aid of his two new friends, Paxton puts the crown back, but that doesn’t mean he’s been forgiven.
“A Warning to the Curious” was made into a Ghost Story for Christmas by the BBC in 1972. This version begins with an archaeologist digging up a hillside in the trees near the coast, when he is interrupted by another man in a black cloak who vehemently insists that he stop.
“I have permission from the owner,” the archaeologist replies, but the black-cloaked man doesn’t care. Picking up the nearest sharp-edged tool at hand, he proceeds to strike the archaeologist in the head until he kills him.
A caption under a train arriving at the Seaburgh station tells us it’s now “Twelve Years Later.”
Mr. Paxton (Peter Vaughan) steps off the train carrying his suitcase and a small shovel. We see him go through the steps of his investigation to locate the site where the crown is buried. In James’s story, this was all told to the two other inn guests after the fact and was more of an accidental stumbling upon clues, while the shovel Paxton brings with him here indicates that his search is deliberate. For some reason, Paxton has been changed into a clerk and amateur archaeologist rather than a scholar.
He first talks with the vicar at the parish church and hears the legend of the three crowns as well as the part traditionally played by the Ager family in protecting them. He views William Ager’s grave; the man died in 1917, and presumably that murder we saw at the beginning went undetected, or at least Ager wasn’t arrested for it.
Paxton then finds an old book in a dusty old bookshop that features a family tree for the Agers on the flyleaf. This, he buys and takes back to the inn. When Paxton asks the hotel servant about the Agers, the servant replies he’s never heard of them (but he looks like he’s lying).
It’s around this time that Paxton first glimpses a black-cloaked figure. While out in the country lanes around the neighboring towns, he follows the figure to find an old farmstead, now occupied by a woman and her husband but formerly belonging to the Agers. The Agers were before her time, the woman tells him, but she’s heard how during the war, Ager would stand at one spot in the woods in all weather until he finally caught pneumonia. Where in the woods? Right over there, in that clump of trees on the hill by the shore.
Back at the inn that evening, Paxton announces that he’s been called away but will be back in the morning. He catches the train to the next station and walks out to the copse by the shore for some overnight excavation. While he’s digging, he finds a blood-stained spade and part of the skull of that missing archaeologist. The black-cloaked figure appears standing amid the trees above him, watching him.
At last, Paxton reaches the silver crown and pulls it out of the earth. As he heads back to the station in the early morning with his prize, he is followed–first through an open field by Ager’s ghost in visible form, then by the unseen spirit. The people he passes on his way turn to look at him as if they notice something odd, and the porter at the rail station holds the door of Paxton’s train compartment open as if he’s letting another passenger get in.
When he returns to the inn, Paxton finds the old book shredded on the floor of his room, and he hears someone nearby coughing.
I think that the failing lies in the presentation of the ghost. Ager simply isn’t very spooky. It’s not that he’s only a slightly-out-of-focus man in a black cloak without any special effects; that kind of no-effects ghost can work very well under the right circumstances. For example, the late Miss Jessel in the film The Innocents. She appears as a sad-faced, pale woman in a black dress standing amid the reeds on the far side of a lake. She’s not transparent or made up to look ghastly or ghoulish, but she shouldn’t be there and so remains a haunting (pardon the pun) image. Ager’s ghost doesn’t leave the same strong impression. In the written story, there is a pervasive feeling that many generations of spirits who have guarded the site for over thousand years are still watching. Except for a few little tricks, Ager might as well still be a living man–he was as menacing alive and death doesn’t increase his power.
Another notable change between the written story and this television version occurs in Paxton’s choice of confidant. The first-person narrator and his friend are gone, replaced once again by Clive Swift as Dr. Black, looking just as he did in The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral. Dr. Black, who is staying at the same inn, is painting a watercolor of the sea when Paxton approaches him. Ager’s ghost makes a brief appearance on the shore in front of them.
It was Dr. Black’s appearance here that confirmed to me that the framing story of The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral must be set in the 1920s or ’30s. If Ager died in 1917, then the events shown here can’t be happening later than 1929.
After confessing to his night-time archaeology adventures, Paxton takes Dr. Black to his room to show him the crown. Paxton’s room has been trashed and there are scratches on the outside of the suitcase where the crown has been stored; evidently, Ager’s ghost doesn’t have the power to jimmy the lock.
Paxton takes out the crown, unwrapping it from a bundle of handkerchiefs, to show it to Black but will not allow him to touch it. He’s afraid that the ghost wouldn’t like it and doesn’t want to put Black in danger, but he needs his help. The two men wait until nightfall to repeat Paxton’s journey of the previous night, taking the train to the next stop and crossing the fields to the shore to put the crown back in place. Ager keeps an eye on them from a distance.
After the crown is reburied and they walk away, Black observes that Paxton has left his coat on the ground. No, he hasn’t–it’s on his arm. Then what’s that dark shape lying over the spot where they left the crown?
This should be the end of it, but Paxton is mournfully certain that he still has to pay for his transgression.
The next morning as he comes out of the inn, Paxton sees someone he takes for Dr. Black standing farther up the beach, beckoning him. He goes out to meet him and, when the figure walks away, runs to catch up. As the two disappear from view along the shore, Dr. Black emerges from the inn’s back door to the amazement of the servant who’s been sitting cleaning the boots and has witnessed the whole thing. Dr. Black, quicker to realize the danger than poor Paxton, races down the shore after them… but he’s too late. Ager has had his revenge.
The story ends with Black at the train station, leaving Seaburgh. The station porter holds open the door of his compartment as if another passenger is getting in. Is Ager’s ghost pursuing him? That’s the impression the viewer is left with, but now that I know The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral is set in 1932, I’m relieved to know that the good doctor escaped harm. However, Dr. Black appears in no subsequent BBC Ghost Stories as a narrator substitute.
On this same DVD was a short feature in which Christopher Lee plays M.R. James, telling the story “A Warning to the Curious” to a group of Cambridge students.