DVD Review: Classic Ghost Stories

This was an extra DVD in the M.R. James Ghost Stories set. I’d mentioned that a couple of the other disks had an extra short feature in which Christopher Lee took the role of M.R. James, presenting one of his stories to a group of enthralled students. These are similar short features, done in 1986. Each is about 10 minutes long.

The actor telling the stories is Robert Powell, wearing spectacles and a pinstriped suit with a high Edwardian shirt collar and the black robe of a Cambridge don. The setting for the room he is in likewise suggests that of a scholar at Cambridge, with a desk and shelves full of books on one side, a comfy armchair before a fireplace with a high fender on the other, and a pointed-top Gothic door.

The Mezzotint
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX04.htm.

This is one of James’s most memorable stories, a good, creepy tale of a museum curator who purchases a mezzotint (a kind of engraving) of an old house:

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.

But this scene changes and becomes more disturbing each time anyone looks at it.

The story doesn’t lend itself well to dramatization, since the characters aren’t nearly as important as the horrible drama they see playing out in the changing images. The narration provided by Powell, however, is interspersed with little scenes played out silently, in which the main characters view and react to the changes in the mezzotint.

The Mezzotint in its final phase.

Best of all, the different phases of the mezzotint are shown. Someone actually created each of stage of the engraving exactly as described, beginning with the image of the house alone, then a hooded figure just appearing in the foreground, then seen more fully crawling toward the house, then the house now with one window open–until we finally come to the last scene, the abduction of a child by an obviously skeletal thing:

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.

The Ash-Tree
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm.

Sir Richard and the Spider-babies

I’ve covered this story in my review of the Christmas Ghost Story version. Powell’s narration is augmented again by a couple of silent scenes showing Sir Matthew and Sir Richard Fell each in turn dying in their beds poisoned by giant spiders via a witch’s curse.

The Wailing Well
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX31.htm.

This was written by James for the Eton Scouts during the time he was Provost of Eton; when you read it, imagine him presenting it aloud to a group of delighted 12- to 14-year old boys who would understand all the in-jokes.

Boy Scout It is a darkly humorous and cautionary tale of a particularly naughty Boy Scout at a unnamed private school named Stanley Judkins.

On a Scout outing in the countryside, Stanley ignores everyone’s warnings about a grove around a well that is said to be haunted by a man and three women. He trespasses there as a prank, the ghosts come out to take him in as one of their own.

There are no silent scenes this time, only close-ups of a photograph of a Scout Troop on Powell’s desk, with special attention to one smirking child representing the unrepentantly naughty Stanley Judkins, who got what he deserved in the end.

Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX08.htm.

I’ve gone into this story in more detail in my review of the BBC version from the 1960s.

The story as told here is truncated, presumably to fit into a predetermined amount of storytelling time. The opening scene at the university is skipped and Powell begins with the pedantic Mr. Parkins’s arrival at the Globe Inn. The sequence involving Parkins’s vision of a man being chased up a beach by a ghostly white figure is also removed.

There are no silent scenes acted out with the narration, but there is a nice little touch at the end. Powell prepares to leave the room as he speaks the final line of the story: “…he cannot even now see a surplice hanging on a door quite unmoved, and the spectacle of a scarecrow in a field late on a winter afternoon has cost him more than one sleepless night.” As he goes out and closes the Gothic door behind him, his scholar’s gown is shown hanging somewhat ominously on the back.

The Rose Garden
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX11.htm.

Robert Powell

For this last segment, Powell changes into a nice gold and burgundy dressing gown.

The Rose Garden is a rare story for James in that the person who inadvertently disturbs some occult or ghostly creature and feels the effects of it is a woman, one Mrs. Anstruther. She isn’t an antiquarian scholar, however, like most of his unfortunate protagonists, but a keen gardener. When she orders an old post removed from its spot in her garden to plant the roses mentioned in the title, she releases something that was pinned down beneath it for at least 200 years.

What I found most interesting about this presentation of the story was the scenes involving the dream. In the course of the story, we hear about two different people having parts of the same dream, involving a person being arrested and tried for treason, then taken to a place of execution on a snowy day.

A little boy standing trial

One of the dreamers is a little boy who fell asleep near the old post in the garden; as we hear about his dream, there is a silent scene of a trial as described… and the prisoner is shown to be a little boy. At a later point, Mrs. Anstruther’s husband will have a similar dream; when we see the trial scene this time, the prisoner is a grown man.

Where the story is let down is the moment where the ghost, which has already been making its presence felt through other means, at last shows itself by emerging from the shrubbery:

…she turned and started at seeing what at first she took to be a Fifth of November mask peeping out among the branches. She looked closer.

It was not a mask. It was a face — large, smooth, and pink. She remembers the minute drops of perspiration which were starting from its forehead: she remembers how the jaws were clean-shaven and the eyes shut. She remembers also, and with an accuracy which makes the thought intolerable to her, how the mouth was open and a single tooth appeared below the upper lip.

I’m sorry to say that what’s shown here is a badly done, superimposed image of the face of the judge from the treason trial, and not at all as effective as the above description.


Also on the same disk are three more short features titled Spine Chillers, which appear to be a subset of the BBC’s children’s story program Jackanory. The actor here is Michael Bryant, well known to us by now from The Stone Tape and The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, wearing evening clothes with a white tie.

Michael Bryant

Like Robert Powell’s Cambridge digs, the setting for the room he’s in appears to be comfortably Edwardian, with bookshelves and a desk, fireplace, and a leather sofa appropriate to a men’s club of the era.

This series was done in 1980.

The Mezzotint

As above, but with no pictures accompanying the story this time.

A School Story
On the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX10.htm.

I always get this one mixed up with The Wailing Well, since it also involves a boys’ private school. A grown man recalls some strange occurrences at his school when he was a child–some mysterious texts in Latin show up during class exercises, and the Latin teacher abruptly disappears. There is a follow-up long afterwards with two dead bodies discovered in a well.

The Diary of Mr. Poynter
This one’s not on the Gaslight site, but it’s my favorite of this set. The story concerns one of James’s usual antiquary gentlemen who buys a collection of 18th-century diaries at an estate sale.

In one diary, he finds a sample of an old printed pattern that resembles long locks of flowing hair tied here and there with ribbons. His aunt is so delighted with the pattern that he has it reproduced and used on the bedroom curtains for the house they share… which turns out to be an extremely bad decorating idea. The flowing pattern turns out to be disturbing to the eye when viewed on a larger scale, and the curtains appear be moving even when there’s no breeze. Worse yet, the pattern also conjures up one of those strange Jamesian monsters–as the protagonist discovers one evening as he reaches down over the arm of his chair to pet what he thinks is his spaniel, and touches something that’s more like Cousin Itt crawling on the floor.


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.