Legend has it that three silver crowns were buried somewhere along the East Anglian coast in Anglo-Saxon times to ward off invasion. These three crowns can still be seen on coats of arms around Norfolk and Suffolk. In the 1600s, a silver crown was supposed to have been dug up not far from the coast but its finders, more interested in silver than in priceless historical artifacts, promptly melted it down. A second crown is said to have been lost to the sea due to erosion.
M.R. James uses this legend as the basis for “A Warning to the Curious,” written in 1925, and builds a ghost story upon it. Two friends are staying at an inn at the seaside town of Seaburgh when a third guest at the inn, a man named Paxton, approaches them and tell them how he has traced the location of the third silver crown and actually dug it up. Now he wants to put it back. “I’ve never been alone since I touched it.”
The remaining crown has been guarded by a local family named Ager since time immemorial; the last, William Ager, died some years ago but continues to take his duty seriously even after death. With the aid of his two new friends, Paxton puts the crown back, but that doesn’t mean he’s been forgiven.
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Continuing with my reviews of the BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas based on the stories of M.R. James, I’m going to look at “The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral.”
The story, written in 1911, is online at http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/24086/.
Short summary: A first-person narrator—presumably James himself, since he did this kind of work in real life—is cataloging the collection in the Barchester Cathedral library when he discovers a box containing the diary and other effects belonging to an Archdeacon Haynes, who died under mysterious and grisly circumstances in the early 1800s. Excerpts from Haynes’s diary indicate that he deserved what he got.
The city of Barchester and its cathedral are fictitious, created by Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope but used as a setting by later writers as well, much like Lovecraft’s Arkham.
The BBC version is a faithful adaptation of James’s story, with only a few small alterations. Barchester Cathedral is here played by Norwich Cathedral, which adds a level of realism to the scenes set in and around it.
The James-narrator is replaced by Clive Swift as Dr. Black. Most of the story is shown in flashback, but Black and the librarian who shows him the box containing the diary provide a framing story, popping in at intervals and adding narrative comments on what they’ve read. Events concerning Archdeacon Haynes are moved from the early 1800s to the later end of 19th century.
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From the 1960s, the BBC presented a television series on Christmas Eve titled A Ghost Story for Christmas. Just recently, I picked up a set of episodes from this series on DVD, most of them based more-or-less faithfully on the short stories of Montague Rhodes James.
M.R. James, who was a Cambridge professor, biblical scholar, antiquarian, and historian, had his own tradition of reading his latest story aloud to friends or students on Christmas Eve. Many of his best ghost stories involve scholarly men like himself who accidentally stumble across some inexplicable horror–some, like the museum curator in The Mezzotint are merely witnesses and survive their brush with the supernatural while others, like poor Mr. Wraxall in Count Magnus, are not so fortunate.
The first of these I’m going to look at is one of my favorites, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad. It’s on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX08.htm.
Written in 1903, Oh, Whistle concerns a professor who doesn’t believe at all in the supernatural until he takes a vacation at a seaside inn; there, he finds an ancient tin whistle in the ruins of a Templar preceptory and blows into it, summoning up an entity that forms a body for itself from the sheets of the spare bed in his room. After his encounter with this creature, “the Professor’s views on certain points are less clear cut than they used to be.”
This story has been adapted twice by the BBC, once in 1968 for the show that led to A Ghost Story for Christmas and again in 2010. Both versions dropped the “Oh” and “My Lad” from the beginning and end of the original title (which, by the way, is a quotation from a song by Robert Burns).
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