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.
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