Feb 09

Hauntography: Lost Hearts

FT + The Brown Wedge10 comments • 1,930 views

To read the story, click here; to read about our ‘hauntography’ project, click here.

An elderly man takes in his orphaned young cousin. It is surprising, given that the man is known as something of a recluse, a retiring academic type – specialist in the later pagans and their mystical beliefs – seemingly more comfortable with books than persons. Or maybe it is not surprising for a man to take an interest in the welfare of a young relative, if interest of a distant kind. He asks the boy’s age, and such, and sends him off to be looked after by the housekeeper; and the housekeeper tells him, one day, of her master’s kindness, that he has taken in children before, a little gipsyish girl and a little foreign boy, although being gipsyish the little girl ran off after a few weeks, and being a foreign ragamuffin and naturally unruly so too did the boy.

Strange dreams this young cousin has, of a thin thin body lying moaning, hands pressed to its heart; and he sleepwalks at night at times; and there are rats in the house too, huge ones they must be, for there are scorings on the young boy’s door and even scratches on his nightgown, all down the left side of his chest, after he has spent another night in a dream he cannot quite remember; and it might be rats or the wind in the cellars at night but the butler will not go down to fetch the wine once dark has fallen, for in that dark such scuttlings and sighings have a sound uncommonly like speech.

And, now the boy is eleven and a half, something dreadfully exciting is to happen: for his uncle has asked him to sit up until quite eleven o’clock, and to come and visit in his study.


M.R. James’ first collection is called Ghost Stories of an Antiquary: they are the ghost stories of someone who collects antiquities, and also ghost stories about the collector of antiquities, the various forms that the antiquary takes. Most of James’ antiquaries arrive at houses, or villages, or hotels, and there their curiosity brings some historical horror to light. “Lost Hearts” focuses on one such antiquary: but his research has not brought some horror to light so much as made himself the horror.

In “Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook”, the antiquary Denistoun discovers the scrapbook of a past antiquary – an unprincipled one, he decides, who must have plundered his library in order to make his scrapbook. Alberic’s moral failure to respect the intact books of his library creates an object of curiosity and desire for the future Denistoun; Alberic’s failure to control his rapaciousness creates the “night monster” that terrorises him to his death, and lives on after in the book he created.

It was asked: Shall I find it?
Answer: Thou shalt.
Shall I become rich?
Thou wilt.
Shall I live an object of envy?
Thou wilt.
Shall I die in my bed?
Thou wilt.

Denistoun mistakes this for a “treasure-hunter’s record”: wrapped up in an antiquary’s concerns, it is hard to tell intellectual curiosity from a Faustian bargain.

Mr Abney, the antiquary of “Lost Hearts”, lives retired from society, “a man wrapped up in his books”, with a library full of works on the mysticism of the Late Classical period. He is a writer of articles, recognised by academics for his learning. And within him the pursuit of knowledge has warped into something terrible. Immersed in the world of the mystics, he has lost his moral sense– or at least put it aside. What is this thing he plans to do? He writes of “enacting certain processes”, “absorbing the personalities”, “removal”. Oh, it may seem barbaric to the modern mind, but he, a man of philosophic temperament, is merely engaging in experiment, testing the truth of an old receipt of Hermes Trismegistus’: that one may attain the powers known to Simon Magus by a simple method, “by the absorption of the hearts of not less than three human beings below the age of twenty-one years.” The best method is to cut out the living heart, reduce it to ashes, and drink it down in some port; the psychic portion of the souls thus absorbed may be an annoyance for a while, but can be disregarded.

Of course the ghosts get him.

The bit about the antiquary forgetting his ethics in his pursuit of knowledge isn’t exactly spooky, though there’s a delicious richness to the passage from Mr Abney’s papers where (of course!) he lays out his plans, his reasons and his self-justification. That passage comes right at the end, and the story’s short enough that you can nip back to the beginning and start again, with new knowledge of the details. Abney isn’t brought down by any exterior moral force. It’s his arrogance that gets him, his assumption that he is psychically strong enough to ignore the ghosts of the children he kills. But those ghosts aren’t all that scary – the girl some kind of sad proto-pre-raphaelite figure, lying in the bath with her hands pressed to the place where her heart should be; the boy a conventional figure of vengeance, a rat in the cellar all “hunger and longing” and long long fingernails*, who first tries to steal the heart from Abney’s nephew and then moves on to Abney himself. So what is spooky, here? The housekeeper, that’s who: the one person who might have noticed something, a monster of absolute contentment, who knows the ins and outs of the district and yet cannot see the evil in her own house.

Next week: The Mezzotint.

* bonus spooooky fact: after you die, your fingertips shrink, making your fingernails look longer. this is the root of the superstition that demons’ fingernails keep growing after death: whichever reasonably un-decomposed corpse you dig up, their fingernails will appear to have grown horrifically.


  1. 1
    cis on 18 Feb 2009 #

    notes on the story here: it doesn’t seem to have been a favourite of James himself.

  2. 2
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 18 Feb 2009 #

    the section from mr abney’s own papers is excellent historical pastiche — something james does well, catching the rhythms of the prose of another age — combined in this case with tour-de-force dramatic irony (viz that you can contrast how it actually happened with how abney thought it was going to go)

    this means that the climactic comedy phrase is: “I contemplate with the liveliest satisfaction the enlarged and emanicipated existence which the experiment, if successful, will confer on me” WAHT IS UNNSUCCESSFUL THEN??

    abney on the telly: “the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of OMG GOTHS in ALL THE EYELINER EVAH”

    unlike alberic — with its quilt of actual and hinted (viz knowingly/teasingly occluded) references to historical texts and etc, the hermetic stuff here seems a lot more handwavey, madey-uppy more than sneaky scholarly citation (maybe that’s why james wasn’t happy?)

    so far, in stories one and two, we’ve encountered and neatly established two of the james formats

    A (CAS-B): bachelor scholar looks at what he shouldn’t, is spookatised
    B (LH): hero of tale watches tale of spookatisation unfold as unharmed bystander

  3. 3
    Tom on 18 Feb 2009 #

    “Lost Hearts” isn’t one of my favourites either – it’s a bit more grand guignol than James usually is, and I tend to think of it as a kind of Titus Andronicus style early work: getting the horror out of the system. (Tho like TA, it’s solid entertainment, just not one I get much out of returning to)

  4. 4
    cis on 18 Feb 2009 #

    there is a lot of madey-uppy! Particularly opaque is how he goes about deciding what will be the best method: all that living body, reduce to ash, drink down with port business. Where did he get that from, given it’s not in the fictional version of Trismegistus? (also from what I recall trismegistus is quite low on receiptly detail)

    there’s a weird later echo of this story in Margery Allingham’s “Sweet Danger” – at least in the “local man of letters run mad by too much book-larnin’, increase of mania means victim choice moves from the unlikely-to-be-missed to the more socially secure” aspect.

  5. 5
    a logged-out pˆnk s lord whatnot on 18 Feb 2009 #

    i think the handwaving is actually a function of having the story POV be a child — rather than eg a rival expert on gnostic literature and para-science

    abney i take to be a massive — if rather off-piste* — scholar of alchemical works, all of which (irl) pimped liek crazy off stuff that was DECLARED as byt simon magus and hermes trismegistus, when it very likely wasn’t (if either of them existed which er they may well not have done)

    *he’s a kind of precursor to karswell in fact: whereas an actual real official scholar of this stuff — like casaubon or someone — knows who wrote what and what they believed, he doesn’t try it out and find it works: karswell and abney DO

    moar dramatic irony: abney contrasting the news of the ancients and “us moderns”, in an “oh my dears we are wiser and more cultured these days” kind of tone, which is the kind of naive smugness mrj really likes to tweak

    there is a distinct go-between-ish sechsual undercurrent in this story also: abney is obviously a TITANIC PERVE, but the deadgirl is being quite flirty with billy stephen elliott also

    why do the ghosts bother menacing stephen at all?

  6. 6
    c on 18 Feb 2009 #

    the story pov isn’t just a child, either – it’s young Stephen through the eyes of older Stephen (who can read Abney’s notes). I assumed the ghosts could get into his dreams etc cos he is the right age? But yeah there is no explanation for why longnails giovanni scritched at stephen’s door and shirt, my brain kind of made the ‘trying to get stephen’s heart to replace his own’ bit up to fill in that gap.

    deadgirl has no interaction with stephen in the story! i thus declare yr ‘being flirty’ a torchwood too far, my dere.

    Isn’t abney’s ancients/moderns thing rather the other way round? ‘modern people have qualms about things like murderizing children but the ancients knew it to be an awesome idea’.

  7. 7
    Matthew on 18 Feb 2009 #

    Titus Andronicus is a brilliant play! Less an “early work” than an “ahead of its time” one, in my opinion. Make it more palatable for the masses, rename it “Othello” or “King Lear”, and you’ve suddenly got a hit on your hands… but Andronicus has any of the good stuff that either of those two plays has, if you’re just willing to get onto its howlingly nihilistic level.

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 19 Feb 2009 #

    deadgirl does so have interraction with stephen!

    a: she gets into his dream
    c: she smiles at him twice!
    d: her little hurdygurdy-playin boyf is jealous and scratches stephen’s nightie to flinders
    [s] e: then they all lez up [/s]

    obviously it is a flirtation he is well able to resist, as she has omitted to moisturise and defoliate recently

    re: ancient v modern, well, yes and no — i think there’s several layers of ironised regaling of the situation going on (the story is after all told by someone the adult stephen told it to); so yes abney is — as you say — actually saying the ancients were onto something we moderns are too pussy to appreciate, but he goes on to say the stuff about goths i mean ghosts can’t hurt you, despite mere popular opinion, which really IS moderns copping attitude at the ancients (in the form of folk wisdom), except actually folk wisdom is (per the story itself) right

    ditto actually with mrs bunch — who he makes a lot of fun of (viz the “resources of her powerful intellect”) , and who really must be a bit useless when it comes to looking out for the kids in her care, as you argue, BUT “great friends they remained” — she may be something of a fool, when all’s said an done, but she’s a better bet than abney’s ideas of the ancients OR the moderns

    there’s an echo of this in CAB-S, the sacristan’s daughter that doesn’t understand her dad’s obsession: what’s going on is knowledge and events and being that only SOME people have the capacity (innate or learned) to interract with, and be harmed by

  9. 9
    lonepilgrim on 23 Feb 2009 #

    much of the first paragraph put me in mind of an estate agents’ brochure, much as the start of CAB-S is reminiscent of an antiquated guide book. Both create a matter-of-fact mood before heading into stranger realms.
    I like the image of “the clock in the church-tower, buried in trees on the edge of the park” hinting at what is to come.

  10. 10
    Kat but logged out innit on 28 Feb 2010 #

    I finally got round to reading this today! I thought it was a bit on the short side, like James had got bored with the whole thing and decided to kill off the dude before little Stephen had the chance to confront him. But as said upthread, little Stephen is apparently too much of an idiot at 12 years old to understand what’s going on AND he misses out on the gruesome action, which makes him rather a daft choice for a protagonist if you ask me.

    Mrs Bunch on the other hand is more interesting: she might well have been in on the whole deal – perhaps Abney was going to test out the method and if it works, she can have a go too (in return for keeping chummy w/ the victims so they DON’T run off). Obv it all went wrong so she kept schtum and no-one was any the wiser. But Abney seemed obsessed with writing everything down in incriminating detail & footnotes so I doubt he’d have left off Bunch’s involvement. Unless SHE wrote those notes FOR him and scrubbed out any mention of her! Perhaps her intellect is vastly superior to even that of the ghosts!

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