A Warning to the Curious, A Ghost Story for Christmas by M.R. James (1925)
December’s Short Story, Tuesday, December 14, 2021
M.R. James (Montague Rhodes James) is the master of British ghost stories. Five stars all the way. No arguments. He is known as the originator of the “antiquarian ghost story.”
This story was written to be read aloud on Christmas Eve, like many of James’s stories were at the time. I love his style of writing because he often brings up the mysterious in a way that leaves you chilled to the bone with his supernatural manifestations. In his A Warning to the Curious, A Christmas Story we have a multiple layered narrative that is creepy and unsettling— storytelling so smooth, you’ll be unable to stop reading. His skills in drawing in the reader by implication and suggestion of the malevolent supernatural reach far deeper into the imagination than explicit horror narratives. He does write exquisitely in “quiet horror,” which is my genre!
The setting is the wind-beaten coastal town of Seaburgh. Heaths, fir woods, a gorse, church tower, white windmills and cottages of bright red brick. Quaint, yes, but buried here is an Anglo-Saxon crown (one of three holy crowns of East Anglia). An antiquary archeologist, Paxton (A James’ classic gentleman protagonist), is vacationing at the village inn and discovers where this crown is buried in “a mound in the woods” of Seaburgh . Dare he dig it up? He does, of course he does. And soon after Paxton begins to notice a “dim presence” following him … and waiting for him in secret places.
The theme is obviously curiosity but with tones of the attraction to fear. And as ghost story readers that we all are, attractions to fear are always at the core.
You can read it below, listen to the audio, or watch the 1972 film, which is vintage horror.
Read the full short story (35-minute read) at Gutenberg Australia
Listen to the audio on YouTube.com:
Watch the 1972 film broadcast by the BBC:
James’s ghost stories were published in a series of collections: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904), More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925).
In the anthology Ghosts and Marvels, James is quoted: “Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo. … Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.”
As an extra treat, you might want to try BRIT BOX from your cable stations. They are showing MR James’ A Ghost Story for Christmas collection (available from 20th December 2021).
Based on the works of MR James’ chilling short stories, this collection of BBC produced adaptations of ghost stories is an extra special Christmas treat. These adaptations, which have a subtlety and style all of their own, have been a major influence on many contemporary British horror filmmakers and have come to be some of the most sought after British TV titles of all time by their legions of eager fans.
TO ALL, HAVE A HAPPY AND HEALTHY HOLIDAY SEASON AND PROSPERITY FOR ALL THE NEW YEARS TO COME!
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