This is the last of the M.R. James-based Ghost Stories for Christmas in my DVD set; it aired on the BBC in 2006.
It’s the story of a haunted inn. During the day, rooms Number 12 and 14 sit next to each other, spacious with 3 windows overlooking the street. At night, in the dark, the rooms appear somewhat smaller and it takes the occupant a little time to observe that one of their windows is missing. If he happens to go down the corridor during the night, he may also notice that there is a door marked 13 halfway between 12 and 14, and the occupant of 13 seems to exhibit some very strange behaviors.
You can find the story on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX06.htm.
It’s one of my favorite M.R. James stories, amusing as well as interesting for the spacial dynamics of its haunted place. Even though it’s the last one I’m reviewing from the DVD set, it was the first one I watched when the package arrived.
The most obvious, immediate difference between the written and television versions is that the setting has been altered. James’s story is set in the Jutland town of Viborg, in Denmark. The BBC version has been relocated to an unspecified cathedral town supposedly in East Anglia (although I think the cathedral shown is actually Winchester; Old Stumpy is fairly recognizable, as cathedrals go).
Wherever it is, the old inn looks charming as our protagonist arrives in a horse-drawn carriage.
The gentleman’s name is Professor Anderson (Greg Wise), and the first thing we perceive about his character is that he’s a supercilious jerk, snubbing the innkeeper (David Burke, last seen in A View from a Hill) almost as soon as he’s in the front door. After the porter drags his large and heavy portmanteau up two flights of stairs, Anderson declares that it’s too high up. Can’t he have a room on the lower floor? The innkeeper is happy to oblige, so thump, thump, thump, the heavy baggage gets dragged back downstairs. The porter looks as if he already knows this guy isn’t going to give him a decent tip.
Anderson looks into a couple of rooms and decides on 12 as the one that will best suit his needs. He doesn’t care about a view of the cathedral; he just wants a quiet place to sleep and work.
It’s a lovely room, with old-fashioned oak paneling, a bow window on either side of a large fireplace, and a comfortably sized bed with white curtains.
The one odd thing about the room is the painting hanging on the far wall next to the bed. Would a late-Victorian hotel in a provincial town really put up a copy of the middle panel of Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights?
The porter doesn’t get any tip; the innkeeper Mr Gunton sends him away as soon as the portmanteau is disposed of on a luggage rack against the same wall and delicately asks Anderson if he wouldn’t mind paying in advance. Some previous occupants of this room, apparently respectable people, have left without settling their bills. Mr Gunton particularly mentions a university man, just like the professor, named Entwistle who disappeared one night.
Anderson grumbles, but he pays.
Like many of James’s heroes, Professor Anderson is a scholar of antiquities. His job here is to examine some papers dating from the English civil war, recently discovered behind a wall in the cathedral archives.
A cursory examination of the papers reveals little of interest–most of it concerns the usual Puritan complaints about Anglican High Church ceremonies and practices–but Anderson notes that there are a few more remarkable accusations against the local bishop of the era, a man named Walgrave. The documents mention a house belonging to Bishop Walgrave where townsfolk have observed curious lights, unnatural cries, and the comings and goings of a stranger in the night-time.
Peeking into the hole behind the bookshelves where the papers were discovered, Anderson finds one more item: an old letter with its red wax seal still intact. Ominous, echoing sound effects and the fact that they show Anderson breaking the seal twice indicates that his opening of this letter is a momentous event.
The letter is in a language I don’t recognize, and contains several cabalistic-looking drawings near the bottom along with the signature of its author, one Nicholas Francken. Anderson folds the letter back up and returns it to the place where he found it before the archivist returns. When asked, the archivist replies he’s never heard the name of Nicholas Francken.
At dinner that evening, Anderson meets the other people staying at the inn, including his next-door neighbor, a brash and vulgar young lawyer named Jenkins (Tom Burke)–just the type of fellow whom the priggish professor disapproves of. This dining-room scene reminds me of the pension in A Room with a View since the other noteworthy people at the table are a pretty young lady and her older companion (“another Lucy and Charlotte,” only this pair turns out to be mother and daughter).
Anderson rejects Jenkins overtures of friendliness and instead of hanging around the sitting-room for brandy and cigars after dinner, heads up to his room for an early night. But he doesn’t sleep well. His dreams are haunted by that letter signed by Nicholas Francken and by images of all the naked people from that painting by his bed.
He wakes suddenly to the sound of a man and woman laughing in the room next door. Assuming it must be Jenkins entertaining a lady-friend, Anderson gets up to pound on the adjacent wall before flopping back into bed. The laughter stops, but he doesn’t see that he’s roused something else. A man’s shadow appears on the wall beside the painting.
The next day, Anderson continues his research in the cathedral archive to see what further information he can find about Bishop Walgrave. He eventually comes across an account of a witchcraft trial from 1647 (conducted by the real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins), featuring the confession of a woman named Ann Mundy. In addition to admitting to drowning several children and suckling a giant rat, Mistress Mundy claimed that she was taken to visit the Devil’s Emissary, a foreign man who dwelt in a local house. The house belonged to the Bishop. Oh, and the foreign man’s name? Nicholas Francken.
When Anderson looks again into the hole behind the shelves, he finds the letter is no longer there and he assumes the archivist has taken it.
Returning to the inn that evening, he hears a woman laughing in the sitting-room. This turns out to be Miss Goddard, the pretty young lady. Anderson isn’t displeased to see her, until he realizes that Jenkins is also there; while Jenkins flirts with pretty Miss Goddard, Anderson sits in a chair in the corner and rustles his newspaper disapprovingly. I’m sure he suspects that she was the woman in Jenkins’s room the night before.
When he goes up to his room, his portmanteau is missing from its place against the wall.
That night, his dreams take a similar form to the night before, only the naked images from the painting now appear all over his bed-curtains. Miss Goddard also appears in his room, leaning over him in his bed–but disappears just before she kisses him.
He wakes once again to sounds coming from the next room. First, a woman’s laughter, then the murmuring of numerous people. Anderson pounds on the wall as he did the previous night, but this time, his neighbors pound back. There’s a scratching sound like rats inside the wall. Anderson goes out into the darkened hallway and heads for the next door down. A glowing red light can be seen flickering underneath it.
Anderson lights a match and sees that the room is numbered 13. Before he can knock on the door, Jenkins, more than a little tipsy, comes up the stairs to go to bed and Anderson retreats back to his own room in confusion. If it’s not Jenkins making all the noise, then who is it?
In the morning, when the porter brings up a basin of hot water, Anderson asks the man what he did with the portmanteau. He receives a silent, scornful look in reply. The portmanteau is on the luggage rack, right where it should be.
When he goes out into the corridor, the next door seems a little farther down than it did during the night, and the number on the door is 14. Anderson tugs at the numbers to see if they come off and, while he’s examining them, the door opens and the drowsy, hungover Jenkins peeks out. Embarrassed, Anderson mumbles that he thought it was another room.
“You didn’t think it was…” Jenkins starts to say, but Anderson is already retreating downstairs to breakfast.
The one thing I’m most disappointed about is that this adaptation doesn’t show the actual, physical shrinking of Number 12, Anderson’s room, whenever Number 13 is in existence next door. There are always just the two windows, never a third that’s only there in the daytime–at night, it presumably belongs to 13 along with the third window of 14 on the other side. The portmanteau is likewise supposed to be in 13 when the wall moves over. The show does use a trick or two with camera perspective to try and make it look like the wall is closer to the bed during Anderson’s tempestuous night scenes, then it “snaps” back when he wakes abruptly to the sounds next door, but it’s not something a viewer would know to look for or would understand without reading the short story first.
During the day, Anderson learns from the cathedral archivist that the house belonging to Bishop Walgrave still exists in the town, but he doesn’t guess which house it is.
It isn’t until he’s back at the inn that evening that he finally takes Mr. Gunten up on his offer to tell him about the history of the town. Gunten is busy with his account books at that moment, but he informs Anderson that there has been a house on the site of the inn since the Domesday Book (1086), and it belonged to the Walgrave family for many years. The same family as Bishop Walgrave? asks Anderson, just beginning to put all the pieces together. As a matter of fact, yes. The Parliament men threw the bishop into the Tower in the 1640s and stormed this very house, searching for a foreign man whom Walgrave was protecting. This man was said to have vanished into thin air when the men fired their guns at him.
You’d think that this would give Anderson more than enough information about what’s going on. When he goes upstairs to his room, he once again hears the murmuring voices of many people in the next room. Only one woman’s voice is clear enough to distinguish what she’s saying; she’s confessing to various acts of witchcraft, basically repeating the things he read in Ann Mundy’s statement about the rat and the foreign man. That shadow reappears on the wall. This time, Anderson sees it and stares at it in amazement as it moves along the wall toward the corner, then is startled when his bedroom door opens behind him.
But it’s only Mr. Gunten, bringing in a drinks cart to continue their conversation about the town’s history.
Gunten is bewildered when, instead of a welcome, he receives wild accusations from Anderson about tricks the hotel staff are playing–making spooky noises, changing the room numbers, moving his luggage (the portmanteau has disappeared again), and whatever they’re doing to manage that shadow. Anderson seems particularly inclined to blame the surly-looking porter. Gunten insists that there’s never been a room 13 in his inn and may suspect that his guest is already drunk or gone mad.
Until they both hear the diabolical laughter coming from next door. Even then, they’re ready to attribute it to Jenkins–whom they both know drinks–until Jenkins shows up at the door and asks them to please keep the noise down. “Let me sleep.”
“Let me sleep,” a deep, spooky voice repeats the words.
All three men go out into the hallway to investigate. Number 13 is there, with a flickering red light visible under the door. Gunten goes to get his servants to help break the door down, while Anderson and Jenkins stand in the hallway and finally share their common experiences with the haunted room that sometimes appears between theirs.
Then the door opens on its own.
This scene in the hallway is fairly faithful to James’s text, although he never shows us what’s actually inside the room beyond the somewhat playful spirit of, we assume, Nicholas Francken.
In the television version, we get a look beyond the open door. At first, there’s only complete darkness and we hear a sort of crackling sound, like an electrical zap or sparks. Then a glimmer of something whitish is dimly visible in the distance–much too far away to be inside a room comparable to the size of Anderson’s. It appears to be the figure of a man.
Anderson rather stupidly extends one hand toward it–and a hand seizes his arm and tries to pull him into the room. I don’t think it can be the hand of the distant figure, since that’s still shown standing far away.
In one respect, this scene is more effective than its counterpart in the written version, since Jenkins has to struggle for some time to pull Anderson back to safety. In another, the hand we see isn’t especially disturbing, simply black-gloved, like the serial killer in pretty much every Italian gialli. Compare this to James’s description, which is more creepy:
In that moment the door opened, and an arm came out and clawed at his shoulder. It was clad in ragged, yellowish linen, and the bare skin, where it could be seen, had long grey hair upon it.
Anderson was just in time to pull Jensen out of its reach with a cry of disgust and fright, when the door shut again, and a low laugh was heard.
(Also note that it’s the other man, Jenkins/Jensen, who is menaced, but that’s a minor point.)
The door slams shut just as Gunten returns with his men and a large axe. After what’s just happened, Anderson doesn’t want the door broken, since that will let Francken out, but the hotel staff carry on in spite of his pleas. Fortunately, dawn is approaching and the outcome is just as James wrote it:
The result was not in the least what any of them anticipated. There was no cracking or rending of wood — only a dull sound, as if the solid wall had been struck. … It was gone; the plaster wall of the passage stared him in the face, with a considerable gash in it… Number 13 had passed out of existence.
Cut to the next morning, and Anderson and Jenkins sharing a room on the upper floor of the inn since neither, understandably, cared to spend the rest of the night in their usual rooms. Anderson observes that this is the room Gunten wanted to give him when he first arrived.
“Only think of the excitement you’d’ve missed,” Jenkins replies.
Then we get a nice little coda to the story that isn’t in James’s text. When the two men go downstairs to breakfast, they hear that Gunter and his staff are already up and busy searching for any sign of the mysterious room 13. Gunter has torn up the floorboards under the wall currently between 12 and 14. Beneath the flooring is a collection of shoes, eyeglasses, watches, and miscellaneous clothing, somewhat dusty but all of more recent eras than the 1640s. No skeletons, but Gunter notes that one item does bear the name of that Mr. Entwistle he mentioned earlier. We now have an idea of what happened to those people who disappeared from the inn without paying.
As Anderson bends down to examine these objects, he finds and picks up a letter with a red seal–just like the one he found behind the shelves in the library. Is it actually the same one?
Instead of opening it this time, he quickly throws it back down.
The DVD also features the last of the vignettes featuring Christopher Lee as M.R. James, reading one of his short stories aloud to a group of enthralled Cambridge students. This one is, of course, Number 13, although I’m sorry to say it’s a truncated version of the text. I would absolutely have loved to hear him recite the poem Anderson spontaneously composes when he imagines that the drunken lawyer next door is dancing around his hotel room at night.