The Ash Tree … Hollow, Haunted, and Deadly

The Ash Tree  by  M.R. James

Tuesday’s Tale of Terror, January 1, 2013


M.R. James (1862-1936) is known as the master of ghost stories. His tales are somewhat formulaic in that he sets his characters in ordinary life, creepy surroundings, and into this he lets the ominous enter. Much of James’ horror is implied and suggested in his famous chilling style. The Ash Tree is a story that can truly make you shiver. The dark and gloomy house Castringham Hall in Suffolk is not without a history of 17th century witch-trials. We meet Sir Matthew Fell, his heir Sir Richard, and a particularly vengeful witch named Mrs. Mothersole, who, the story goes, is hanged for her crimes not far from the Hall. Witches, you might know, are especially fond of ash tree branches as they make quite fine brooms for zooming across the night sky.

In this old twisted ash tree that grows directly outside the windows of Castringham Hall, the branches touch the very glass of the bedroom windows. One evening Sir Matthew sees an odd moving creature scurry among the branches. In this thick moonlight, Sir Matthew can only make out that this blackened creature has more than four legs. The next day, Sir Matthew is found dead, swollen, and black in his locked bedroom, the window open to the branches.

Sir Richard succeeds Sir Matthew and inherits Castringham Hall, and Richard decides to build a family tomb on the property. But one grave in unhallowed ground must be removed.

Yep, you guessed it, they exhume the coffin of Mrs. Mothersole, the witch executed in the district. The sealed coffin is dug up, pried open, and …

And here is where M.R. James lets the ominous rule the rest of the delicious ghostly story, which has quite a fantastic climax.

Read it here, maybe on a windy night, by firelight, and near a window:

But if you like stories to be read aloud to you, here is an M.R. James story read by Robert Powell from a shadowy English library under the flickering firelight. Superb!

Also, I came across a short film of The Ash Tree (30 minutes) you might find fun:

Please leave a comment and stop back every Tuesday for another classic Tale of Terror.



Filed under fiction, Hauntings, horror, mysteries, short stories, supernatural, suspense, tales of terror, witches

4 responses to “The Ash Tree … Hollow, Haunted, and Deadly

  1. Paula… The Ash Tree is a *perfect* example of why I fell in love with M.R. James’ writing. It’s soft horror (not gross horror), it employs historical details to give the story that ring of verisimilitude (quotes from documents, etc), and, as you said, James talent was in creating a sense of “ominous.”

    As an antiquarian, James’ love for research and obscure history comes out in all his stories, and I really resonate with that.


    • Thanks, Alan for your insightful comments. I certainly agree about gross horror vs. soft horror. Some of the modern horror today is just over the top for me with too violent descriptions and I can’t get through it. Even in my own fiction writing, I prefer the atmospheric fear, which is not easy to write. I read some of James’ work years ago and loved it just for that reason. Now I’m rediscovering his stories and appreciating them more than ever. My blog is quickly becoming a society of dead authors! For next Tuesdays Tale of Terror I’m working on a story by Arthur Conan Doyle … and again, Doyle’s subtle but detailed style of high prose is very captivating.Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


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