M.R. James’s story, on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm, is about a 17th-century gentleman who accuses a woman of witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, the accusation isn’t unfounded and she places a curse on his family that will not only destroy him but also his grandson 50 years later.
James tells his story in chronological order, beginning with the grandfather then going on to the grandson. The BBC version, made for their Ghost Story for Christmas series in 1975, reverses the order. It also makes a slight alteration to the family tree, so that the curse passes from great-uncle to grandnephew.
The television version of The Ash Tree opens in the 1700s just as Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) returns from his travels in Italy upon his uncle’s death to claim his inheritance. Sir Richard is full of progressive ideas and plans to improve his newly acquired estate. He sketches up a Palladian front for his old manor house, decides on a spot for a Grecian-style temple, and speaks to the vicar about building a family pew in the parish church. At every opportunity, he mentions his pending marriage to one Lady Augusta and the progeny he hopes to have–sometimes both in the same breath.
That Sir Richard’s thoughts go straight from marriage to baby-making is probably not due entirely to his sense of duty in carrying on his family line; this becomes apparent once we meet his lovely fiancee (Lalla Ward).
Together, they are a fast and modern young couple. Lady Augusta rides over unaccompanied to visit her fiance and see her future home. The two laugh over racy books like Tom Jones, hang up nude paintings brought back from Italy in the front hall, and kiss right in front of the servants.
But a strange darkness already overshadows their prospective happiness. As Sir Richard rides around his new estate, he observes dead sheep and cattle in the meadow. The shepherd says that that happens when they’re left out and that animals shut in for the night are safe from “the sickness.”
The construction of the pew necessitates expanding the north side of the church and moving a grave that’s too close to the wall in the yard outside. According to this story, the northern side of the churchyard is traditionally considered unhallowed ground, the place where murderers, suicides, and others who have committed serious sins are buried. When the coffin belonging to a Mistress Mothersole is dug up, it’s found to be empty.
Also, since the evening of his arrival, Sir Richard has been experiencing flashbacks to events of the previous century, to the memories of Sir Matthew Fell (also Petherbridge) related to the trial and execution of Mistress Mothersole.
We are given no description of Mistress Mothersole in James’s story beyond the facts that she was more well-off than most women accused of witchcraft and that several townsfolk spoke on her behalf. There’s no indication that she was an old hag.
In the BBC version, she’s still a fairly young and attractive woman; it is hinted that Sir Matthew’s sight of her sitting in the ash tree outside his bedroom window is a dream or hallucination based on suppressed Puritan desires. It is this sighting that leads to his testimony against her.
Before she hangs, she places a curse on Sir Matthew: “Mine shall inherit–and no sweet babes shall mine be.”
As these memories grow more powerful, Sir Richard drifts out of his present life and into the past. He’s distracted during conversations, and occasionally repeats what his great-uncle said many years ago. He doesn’t answer Lady Augusta’s letters.
It’s the aged vicar, who was a young man in Sir Matthew’s day, who tells him how it all ended.
A few days after the witch-hangings, Sir Matthew and the vicar were walking in the garden and saw something scrambling up the ash tree–something that the vicar was certain wasn’t a squirrel but that he couldn’t identify. When they looked up into the tree, they heard a sound like a cat or baby mewling.
Before the vicar left that evening, two men played a sort of spiritual advice game where you open the Bible at a random page, shut your eyes and land your finger on a particular text. The vicar still recalls the three texts:
- “It shall never be inhabited.”
- “Cut it down.”
- “Her young ones also suck up blood.”
The next morning, Sir Matthew was found dead in his bedroom, killed by some poison so toxic that the people who touched his body experienced tingling, pain, and swelling in their hands and arms. The bedroom was shut up and hasn’t been used again since.
Until Sir Richard finds the room he’s been sleeping in unsatisfactory and decides to move to his granduncle’s room. He calls it “my room,” as if the memories of the late Sir Matthew are influencing this decision. The ash tree is still there, an ugly old thing with branches scraping against the window (that mewing sound can also still be heard). Sir Richard says that it’s too close to the house and that “Cut it down” is very good advice. He intends to follow it and have the tree cut down tomorrow.
He doesn’t get the chance.
Before he goes to bed that night in Sir Matthew’s room, Sir Richard plays the Bible game himself and gets the following text: “Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.”
It’s then we get our first good look at Mistress Mothersole’s “children.”
In James’s story, these are simply very large spiders, “the size of a man’s head … covered with greyish hair. ” (James was one of those people who can’t abide spiders.) The makers of the television series, not finding this creepy enough, kicked the monster factor up a little higher.
As Sir Richard sits in his darkening room, we glimpse baseball-sized furry lumps scurrying up the branches of the ash tree, then in over the windowsill. He turns his head to find one sitting on his shoulder: a mewling baby-doll head on spider’s legs. I’m not sure if I find these creatures silly or disturbing, but there’s no reason they can’t be both. A dozen or so cover the unfortunate man and he’s discovered in the early hours of the morning as dead as Sir Matthew.
The horrified housekeeper who finds his body throws her lantern out of the window and the ash tree catches fire. A whole nest of little spider-babies comes climbing out of the hollow tree trunk, some afire and others soon smashed by the servants who’ve gathered to put the fire out.
Down inside the trunk, after the fire has been subdued, they discover the mummified remains of a woman’s body.