I saw Robert Lloyd Parry, self-described storyteller, perform twice last summer at the NecronomiCon in Providence, Rhode Island. Seated in a darkened theatre lit only by candles, he didn’t simple tell us stories, but rendered highly dramatic recitations of M.R. James’s ghostly tales with character voices, one or two props, and expressive emotion whenever the narrative called for it. He was the surprise sensation of the Con; I wasn’t the only person present who’d never heard of him before, but came away a fan of his work.
When I found out earlier this year that some of his performances were available on DVD, I ordered a couple. The one I was most interested in getting a copy of was Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come To You, My Lad, the first story I saw performed in Providence.
You can read MR James’s original story online. I’ve also previously reviewed the 1968 BBC adaptation starring Michael Hordern as the rationalist Professor Parkins, whose views on the supernatural are drastically altered when he finds an ancient whistle and accidentally summons a spirit that forms a body for itself from the sheets on the spare bed in his hotel room.
This 1957 film is loosely based on M.R. James’s 1911 short story, Casting the Runes–a story about a warlock who sics a demon on his enemies by secretly passing them a slip of paper with a runic curse on it. The only way his victims can escape a horrible fate is by giving the runes back to him without him knowing it, so that the curse rebounds back on the caster. Although the plot and characters are altered from those in James’s story, this version is generally considered one of the best films adapted from his work, and one of the best horror films of its era.
It’s a British film with a mostly British cast, but with an American star to draw a U.S. audience, which was a common practice at the time. It was released in the UK under the title Night of the Demon and in the US as Curse of the Demon.
The DVD has both versions of this film on it: the 95-minute original UK version and the US release, which is about 10 minutes shorter. The order of the scenes are slightly rearranged in the US version, and two full scenes plus some other little bits here and there are removed.
Both versions of the film begin with shots of Stonehenge back when it stood alone on Salisbury Plain and wasn’t surrounded by wire fences, visitor parking lots, and gift shops. A solemn narrator tells the viewer:
“It has been written since the beginning of time, even unto these ancient stones, that evil, supernatural creatures exist in a world of darkness. It is also said that Man, using the magic power of the ancient runic symbols, can call forth these powers of darkness–the demons of Hell.”
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.
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.
The BBC’s Ghost Stories for Christmas series had petered out by the end of the 1970s. They ceased to use the works of M.R. James as a basis for their story adaptations, instead turning to other classic authors such as Dickens or new and independent works, with varying degrees of success. Some of these are in the DVD set I purchased this spring and I may or may not deal with them later.
After a long lapse, the BBC returned to M.R. James this past decade. In 2005, their first new adaptation was based on a short story titled A View from a Hill. This is a story of James’s that I’d never read before seeing this television version. It’s not in the anthology under my pillow, nor on the Gaslight site. I have found it online in a couple of places and read it since then; for example, it’s on the Thin Ghost site at http://www.thin-ghost.org/items/show/162.
Basically, it’s the story of a pair of binoculars that allow the person looking through them to see things such as old buildings that were there long ago in the past. But the way the binoculars were constructed means that there is a price to pay for this vision.
The BBC version begins with a young man (an actor I don’t know named Mark Letheren) standing on the platform of a tiny rural railway stop on a lovely autumn afternoon, and looking impatient. It’s not a delayed train he’s waiting for, but the person who was supposed to come and pick him up.
After awhile, he gives up. Fortunately, he has his bicycle with him; unfortunately, his bag falls off the back onto the road and he has to retrieve it.
When he arrives at the house where he thinks he’s expected, it’s a large and grand old place but looks neglected and perhaps even empty. No–there are two people living here: the last Squire, Mr. Richards, and his elderly family retainer, Patten (Pip Torrens and David Burke respectively, two actors I know fairly well).
Mr. Richards is astonished to see the young man, who introduces himself as “Fanshawe. I’m here about the collection.”
“That’s next week,” says the squire.
“This week. I’m here.”
“So I see.”
Both Richards and his manservant are a hoot in their different ways. Neither seems entirely in touch with reality, but Richards has more funny lines.
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.
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.
This short feature is an extra on the DVD for Casting the Runes, also made by ITV Yorkshire Television in the 1970s. It is very short, only about 15 minutes, and appears to be part of an educational video for musicians on how to score a television show; it begins with an interview by the composer who wrote the music for it.
After the composer’s introduction, we go to the film and meet Mr. Humphreys as he arrives at the Wilsthorpe rail station. A helpful narrator, reading text from James’s story, informs the viewer that “[Mr.] Humphreys had inherited — quite unexpectedly — a property from an uncle: neither the property nor the uncle had he ever seen.” (James’s Mr. Humphreys is described as a young man; the actor playing him here, Geoffrey Russell, is considerably older. IMDB tells me that he was 51 at the time this was made.)
Humphreys is welcomed warmly at the station by his late uncle’s man-of-business, Mr. Cooper. By his frequent misuse of words in the English language, Cooper would seem to be a descendant of Mrs. Malaprop. Cooper escorts Humphreys to the house he has inherited, and Humphreys has his first look over the grounds of the place.
Because of its length–or lack thereof–the story in this film version is highly compressed. There are only the two characters, Humphreys and Cooper. James’s story also gives us Cooper’s wife and daughter, a lady who comes to visit, and a few servants; if any of these people appear at all in the film, they are no more than lineless extras.
The most attractive feature of the new property to Mr. Humphreys is a yew-hedge maze. Mazes, he tells Cooper, are of “mathematical interest” to him and asks if Cooper has ever been inside. Regretfully, Cooper says he hasn’t, although he’d like to see it. Humphreys’s late uncle had the gates locked and forbade anyone to enter; he had a “dislike to the memory of his grandfather,” who created the maze. No one has set foot within the maze in years.
From Cooper, Humphreys also learns that the grandfather was a strange man and that no one seems to know where he’s actually buried. When Humphreys observes that a man who designed a maze would surely have designed his own mausoleum as well, Cooper says that none was ever built and that he’s certain the old gentleman isn’t in the family vault. Continue reading “DVD Review: Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance”
Casting the Runes is perhaps M.R. James’s most famous story, certainly his most influential. Its central concept of having a curse you can pass to someone else–or have it rebound back upon you with horrific results–can be seen in Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell as well as the recent hit It Follows. The story itself was the basis of a terrific horror film made in the 1950s by Jacques Tourneur titled Curse of the Demon/Night of the Demon, depending on whether you saw the UK or US version.
But that’s not the film I’m going to talk about.
The television version of Casting the Runes made in 1979 wasn’t part of the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas series, but was made by ITV Yorkshire Television. Unlike the BBC, and like most U.S. stations, ITV has commercials. In this case, the commercial breaks separate the show into 3 Acts as if it were a play.
While the structure of this TV version remains close to M.R. James’s original short story, there are several significant and noteworthy changes. The story has been relocated to Yorkshire and has also moved from the early 1900s to a contemporary setting to make use of modern technology. And, the most unexpected and curious change of all–the hero Dunning has become a woman.
Edward Dunning, an expert in alchemical manuscripts who reviews articles and papers for an unnamed scholarly society, is now Prudence Dunning (Jan Francis), who makes documentaries for a local television station (much like the one that made this program). Her most recent work is a series of programs debunking superstitions and supernatural claims. One of these shows is highly critical of an expert in the occult and self-proclaimed magician named Karswell–and Mr. Karswell does not take kindly to criticism. Continue reading “DVD Review: Casting the Runes”
M.R. James’s story, on the Gaslight site at http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/jamesX05.htm, is about a 17th-century gentleman who accuses a woman of witchcraft. Unfortunately for him, the accusation isn’t unfounded and she places a curse on his family that will not only destroy him but also his grandson 50 years later.
James tells his story in chronological order, beginning with the grandfather then going on to the grandson. The BBC version, made for their Ghost Story for Christmas series in 1975, reverses the order. It also makes a slight alteration to the family tree, so that the curse passes from great-uncle to grandnephew.
The television version of The Ash Tree opens in the 1700s just as Sir Richard Fell (Edward Petherbridge) returns from his travels in Italy upon his uncle’s death to claim his inheritance. Sir Richard is full of progressive ideas and plans to improve his newly acquired estate. He sketches up a Palladian front for his old manor house, decides on a spot for a Grecian-style temple, and speaks to the vicar about building a family pew in the parish church. At every opportunity, he mentions his pending marriage to one Lady Augusta and the progeny he hopes to have–sometimes both in the same breath.
That Sir Richard’s thoughts go straight from marriage to baby-making is probably not due entirely to his sense of duty in carrying on his family line; this becomes apparent once we meet his lovely fiancee (Lalla Ward).
Together, they are a fast and modern young couple. Lady Augusta rides over unaccompanied to visit her fiance and see her future home. The two laugh over racy books like Tom Jones, hang up nude paintings brought back from Italy in the front hall, and kiss right in front of the servants.
But a strange darkness already overshadows their prospective happiness. As Sir Richard rides around his new estate, he observes dead sheep and cattle in the meadow. The shepherd says that that happens when they’re left out and that animals shut in for the night are safe from “the sickness.” Continue reading “DVD Review: The Ash Tree”
The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, written by M.R. James in 1904, is a tale in which his usual type of protagonist, an antiquary scholar, discovers and solves a series of puzzles that lead him to find a horde of gold concealed by a wicked Reformation-era Abbot. But this treasure still has a guardian protecting it.
The plot is similar to A Warning to the Curious, but the mystery to be solved is more complicated and interesting, and the creature who guards the gold more horrible than the angry ghost that protects the buried Anglo-Saxon crown.
In 1974, the BBC presented its Ghost Story for Christmas based on The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. Aside from the central mystery leading to the treasure, there’s very little of James’s original tale. I like it, but it’s barely the same story.
The BBC’s Treasure of Abbot Thomas begins with a seance–and you know how I enjoy those. The year is 1859. A man with abundant side-whiskers and three ladies in black crinolines and lacy headgear are seated around a table in dim light, attempting to contact the spirit world but having some problem getting through. The man at last announces that his wife, the medium, is unable to reach the spirits due to a “presence hostile to manifestations.”
A moment later, we meet this hostile presence–a young man (a boy, really; he doesn’t look to be more than 20) who obviously thinks that the whole thing is rubbish. This is Peter, Lord Dattering (Paul Lavers). He’s just come into the title following his father’s death. His mother, Lady Dattering, is having a hard time accepting the loss of her husband and Peter believes that these spiritualists are charlatans taking advantage of her grief.
None of these people are in James’s story. At most, there are one or two passing references to a Lord D who owns a chapel. The three characters in James’s story are the antiquarian Reverend Justin Somerton, his comic Cockney manservant, and another clergyman, Mr. Gregory, who comes to Somerton’s aid and hears the story he has to tell about finding the treasure; only Somerton appears in the television version. Continue reading “DVD Review: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”
“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.
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.”