“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.
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