Casting the Runes

I’ve written blog reviews of two other adaptations of this, the most influential story written by M.R. James: Night/Curse of the Demon, the 1957 Jacques Tourneur film, and the 1970s ITV version starring Jan Francis. Both adaptations moved the story to a contemporary setting and made changes to the characters and plot, while retaining that central idea of a curse that you can only get rid by passing it back to the man who gave it to you. Three months were allowed.

You can read the original story on the Thin Ghost site.

I was somewhat surprised when I first watched this dramatic recitation by Robert Lloyd Parry; it, too, is an adaptation of James’s story and not a straight reading of the text.

Although the setting hasn’t been changed, there are some notable emendations to the cast of characters with some of the smaller roles in the drama are cut, or their parts revised.

I first saw Robert Lloyd Parry perform the NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island, last summer and subsequently purchased two DVDs of his performances–this one and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad, which I’ve already reviewed. In each, Parry renders a dramatic performance of one of M.R. James’s ghost stories, speaking as if he were narrator telling that story, while seated in a darkened theatre or room lit only by candles.

MR James readings set

There may have been emendations in these other performances; I didn’t notice any, and haven’t read along to do a line-by-line check. It may simply be that I’m more familiar with this story than the others, but in this instance, the differences sprang out at me from the very first words.

Casting the Runes is not a first-person narrative, and so Parry has created one for his performance in the character of a Jamesian-style university man who is acquainted with the people involved. The dramatic rendering of this story begins with an introduction about three letters he’s going to read, written within a week in April of 1903. A friend, he tells us, allowed them “to be transcribed some time after the events I’m about to describe.”

These letters are, of course, the three which begin the original story by introducing the reader to Karswell and his foiled attempts to find out who reviewed his paper on alchemy.

Parry’s narrator persona then replaces Mrs. Gayton in the initial conversation about “poor Mr. Dunning,” as well as both Gaytons in the subsequent scene which tells us how Karswell invited the neighborhood children to view a magic lantern slide show. There are some further changes to the description of the horrific images the children saw, and I’ll say more about that later.

Karswell does eventually get hold of Edward Dunning’s name, and manages surreptitiously to pass to him a slip of paper with a runic curse on it. Not that Dunning is immediately aware of this fact.

Robert Lloyd Parry

The episode in which Dunning sees the announcement on the tram–“In memory of John Harrington, F.S.A., of The Laurels, Ashbrooke. Died Sept. 18th, 1889. Three months were allowed.”–is truncated with no attempt on the part of the conductor to remove the message and no follow-up as to how the words appeared there, and disappeared once Dunning had read them.

The spookiest scene of the story is made even more eerie when retold by candlelight. Although Mr. Dunning’s servants and their absence are not mentioned, he is alone, in bed, in a darkened house:

“So he put his hand into the well-known nook under the pillow: only, it did not get so far. What he touched was, according to his account, a mouth, with teeth, and with hair about it, and, he declares, not the mouth of a human being. I do not think it is any use to guess what he said or did; but he was in a spare room with the door locked and his ear to it before he was clearly conscious again.”

The remainder of the story is told more or less as written, as Edward Dunning meets up with John Harrington’s brother Henry and hears how John also received a runic curse from Karswell and subsequently died under strange and mysterious circumstances. Edward and Henry work together to figure out how the runes might be passed back to Karswell, thus saving Edward from the same ugly fate and having the curse rebound on its caster.

Parry does the voices of the two men distinctly as they discuss and argue over how to proceed, so there is no confusion about which one is speaking. Unlike Oh, Whistle, there are no props used to increase the dramatic effect of the final scenes. Not even a little slip of paper.

Robert Lloyd Parry reads Rats

This DVD doesn’t have as many extra features as Oh, Whistle, but there are two of interest.

A Vignette

Parry does a reading of A Vignette, a very short story published after James’s death. This looks as if it were done on the same day as his reading of Rats on the Oh, Whistle DVD–same brick wall, same green shirt.

I had thought that these brick-wall readings were done earlier than the candlelit performances, but the Vignette reading is prefaced by another short feature titled Introduction and Slides. Standing in front of that same wall and wearing that same shirt, Parry discusses the changes he made to Casting the Runes with regard to the narration and his addition of something from A Vignette into the magic lantern slide show: a little boy being pursued through a wood.

Parry also mentions his own experience of staying at the Rectory at Great Livermere–M.R. James’s childhood home and the setting for A Vignette. He says that it’s still a large and spooky place, and shows some pictures from his trip.

Great Livermere Trees

A Vignette is intriguing because it seems to be something that actually happened to little Monty James at the Rectory. Within the plantation of trees behind the house was some element unsettling to him as a small child, although he acknowledges that “I could never glean any kind of story bound up with the place.” The vignette collects his childhood impressions of oddities involving the wood and his dreams related to it, culminating in the “actual incident”.

One afternoon while he was home by himself, young Monty thought he saw something white on the other side of the wooden gate which led from the back garden into the wood. Creeping downstairs and through the garden to investigate, he discovered:

“Things were, alas! worse than I had feared; through that hole a face was looking my way. It was not monstrous, not pale, fleshless, spectral. Malevolent I thought and think it was; at any rate the eyes were large and open and fixed. It was pink and, I thought, hot, and just above the eyes the border of a white linen drapery hung down from the brows.

“There is something horrifying in the sight of a face looking at one out of a frame as this did; more particularly if its gaze is unmistakably fixed upon you. … It was, indeed, quite without emotion: I was only conscious that I could see the whites of the eyes all round the pupil, and that, we know, has a glamour of madness about it. The immovable face was enough for me. I fled, but at what I thought must be a safe distance inside my own precincts I could not but halt and look back. There was no white thing framed in the hole of the gate, but there was a draped form shambling away among the trees.”

Peeking through a gap in the gate


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.