“Lost Hearts,” one of M.R. James’s early stories, is a more conventional type of ghost story, in which the dead seek revenge against a wrong done against them. But the ghosts are not the horror here and, for once, the scholarly gentleman is no mere witness nor a victim, but the villain of the piece.
It’s on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX03.htm.
The BBC version filmed for Ghost Stories on Christmas Eve in 1973 begins on a very Dickensian note. We are in the early 1800s–James’s story was set in 1811, but this looks more like the 1830s or ’40s to me. A horse-drawn coach comes riding out of the morning mists; inside is a little boy dressed in a top hat, caped coat, and scarf, and looking like the Artful Dodger. (This same child actor, Simon Gipps-Kent, also played young Pip in a film version of Great Expectations made around the same time; he grew up to be Michael York.) The boy is Stephen, recently orphaned and invited to come and live with a distant cousin.
“Is it much farther?” he asks the coachman in weary tones.
“Not long,” the coachman assures him. “Don’t lose heart.”
As the coach passes by an open field, Stephen sees two raggedly dressed children, a boy and a girl, around his own age. They wave to him; the horse shies.
When the coach arrives at the large, old house, its owner, Mr. Peregrin Abney, is waiting eagerly. He is much older than his young cousin, an elderly man, with long, white hair and spectacles. He greets Stephen with avuncular warmth, shakes the boy’s hand, asks when Stephen’s birthday is–asks it twice. Stephen will be 12 on October 31.
Abney seems like just the sort of absent-minded, comical gentleman one might find in a Dickens novel, if more intellectual than the usual Dickens character. He has an interest in the occult and studies books of antiquary spells.
Simon Magnus, for example, wrote that one who performs a certain spell can “fly through the air.”
Mr. Abney then jumps off his library steps, but doesn’t fly. “Not yet.”
A harmless eccentric? No. As we learn more about the type of spells Abney is most interested in, the ones about how to gain immortality, he grows more sinister.
Mr. Abney is a kind man, the cook tells Stephen. Why, Stephen isn’t the first poor orphaned child Mr. Abney has welcomed into his home. Eighteen years ago, he brought home a homeless little girl named Phoebe; she was with them for three weeks before she ran off one night. More recently, Mr. Abney gave shelter to a little Italian boy named Giovanni who came to the house playing his hurdy-gurdy. Giovanni ran off too, leaving the hurdy-gurdy behind. It’s there on the shelf.
But Stephen frequently glimpses the two children who waved to him. They disappear around corners of the old house, pop up in the trees in the orchard. He hears their laughter. Once, he even sees them in the house looking out at him through the windows while he’s in the garden with Abney. They hold their fingers up to their lips, silently urging him not to tell his cousin that he sees them. Stephen realizes that Phoebe and Giovanni haven’t left at all.
When the cook and manservant find long scratch-marks cut into a door, they hold Stephen responsible even though he insists he didn’t do it. He doesn’t even have a penknife. The manservant also hears something scratching around in the cellars–rats, the cook insists, but rats don’t whisper.
Then one night, the two children appear inside the house looking far more ghostly. Their skin is pale and blue, their eyes darkly shadowed. They now have very long fingernails like talons.
As they walk along side by side down a long corridor, both hold their arms crossed over their chests, hands upraised at their shoulders and long nails clicking. It’s a very creepy effect.
Giovanni plays his hurdy-gurdy and leads Stephen down the hall to a washroom, where Phoebe sits in an old-fashioned tin bathtub. Here, they show Stephen what they’re hiding beneath their crossed arms: gaping wounds in their chests. Behind the exposed ribs is a black gap where their hearts should be. This is surprisingly grisly-looking for 1970s British television.*
Stephen screams in horror, waking the whole household. The ghost-children have disappeared and the adults all seem to believe that the boy has had a bad dream.
After Stephen has been sent back to bed, a more appalling truth emerges. Abney has murdered the two children and taken their hearts to use in a potion to make himself immortal. If that’s not horrible enough, he is also well aware of their ghostly presence in the house. “Some annoyance from the psychical portions of the subjects,” he writes dismissively in his journal. He burns the hurdy-gurdy, but he doesn’t believe the ghosts of his victims can harm him nor put a stop to his plans for Stephen.
A third heart is needed to complete the potion, and Stephen’s 12th birthday comes at the end of October. The significance of this date has been emphasized since we first met Abney. It’s an addition made by the television version, but I’m not sure if it’s just that Stephen is old enough to fulfill the requirements for the spell in time for All Hallows Eve, a traditionally important night for students of the occult, or if the spell needs children who have their birthdays on that date to work. If it’s the latter, then it is remarkable that Abney could come by chance on three orphans of exactly the right age whom no one would inquire after if they disappeared.
That evening, after Stephen’s birthday party, Abney asks the boy to come down to his study at midnight.
In James’s story, the ghost-children intervene before the living boy is in any real danger. Before he enters the study, Stephen hears Abney get his comeuppance at the hands (or, to be more precise, the long, long fingernails) of his victims.
The scene is made more dramatic for television: Stephen is given drugged wine and Abney has time to explain his plans before the boy loses consciousness. A knife is raised above his chest… when we hear that jangling hurdy-gurdy music.
They take the knife from him. His last words are “I’m immortal!” but he’s wrong about that too.
At his cousin’s funeral, Stephen sees Phoebe and Giovanni one last time. They wave to him, and walk away hand in hand.
This has never been one of my favorite James stories, but the television version is extremely creepy. I won’t say it’s spooky, since I’m entirely on the side of the ghost-children, but it is effective at building up the feeling of menace to Stephen even before it’s clear exactly what the danger is and what part the two ghosts have in it.
* The DVD also features an interview with the director about the making of this show. According to him, the two kids playing the ghosts were delighted by their gross chest wounds and went around showing them to the cast and crew.
The director also mentioned that Abney’s appearance and the ghostly make-up for the children are meant to resemble Dr. Caligari and the sleepwalker Cesare. I can see that after I hear him say it, but it didn’t occur to me while I was watching; my mind was more on Dickens than German Expressionism.