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?
Shall I live an object of envy?
Shall I die in my bed?
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.