A Ghost Story for Easter: Ager's Martyrdom & Paxton's Penance in M. R. James' Warning to the Curious
To the majority of his readership – especially those in the United Kingdom – M. R. James will forever be inextricably linked to the Christmas holiday season, although it was originally a gossamer connection. The association was slow in coming from the outset: in 1893 James’ read his very first ghost story, “Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book,” to a fireside gathering of his Cambridge social club – the Chitchat Society, where he was surrounded by good friends nursing fine, old port and listening to the rain scratching on the windowpanes. However, the inaugural reading took place – not at Christmas – but on a rainy autumn night.
Eventually, of course, the readings began to take place closer and closer to the end of the Michaelmas term (October – December), before eventually being pushed into the waning days of December. Ultimately, James’ readings always coincided with Christmas Eve or the days just before it: the traditional time for telling ghost stories in Britain.
This association deepened even further in the 1970s when Lawrence Gordon Clark’s classic A Ghost Story for Christmas anthology began releasing atmospheric adaptations of M. R. James’ best ghost stories (along with one of Dickens’ and a few originals) during the holiday season. However, as far as James’ actual stories are concerned, only one (“The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance”) is set firmly during Christmastide, and only a few others (“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You,” “An Evening’s Entertainment,” etc.) have an ambiguously winter setting that may or may not coincide with the holiday. In fact, his best stories very often took place during the spring and summertime, when muggy nights would induce his protagonists to unwisely leave their windows ajar, explore forbidding ruins on school vacation, or go on take in the evening air on mild, moonlit strolls.
Other than his one Christmas story (and a handful of tales set on saints’ days and pagan festivals), James’ stories rarely take place on days with any cultural significance: spooky holidays Hallowe’en and Midsummer Eve are both mentioned only once in passing, but they, Walpurgis Night, New Year’s Eve, Michaelmas, and the like (all traditional times for hauntings) are never a significant part of any plot.
One story, however, is set during an international holiday, and though there is only one passing reference – easily missed – which can place it on the calendar of holidays, it is a detail which draws spades of frequently missed significance out of the fate of its two tragic foils: two young men whose lives are sacrificed (one willingly out of duty, and one shamefully as a penance) to secure their countrymen from invasion and disaster. The story, of course, is his magnum opus – “A Warning to the Curious” – and the holidays (for in fact there are two) in question are Passover and Easter.
THE UNIQUE SIGNIFICANCE OF
“A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS”
IN JAMES’ BODY OF WORK
(Our illustration for the tale from our 2021 anthology)
“A Warning to the Curious” is arguably James’ swan song. Certainly, it is his last great story: although it was followed by one very good story (“Wailing Well”), three decent stories with intriguing ideas (“Rats,” “The Malice of Inanimate Objects,” and “The Uncommon Prayer Book”), and a chilling autobiographical description of James’ only recorded brush with what may have been a ghost (“A Vignette”), he would never again write a story so rich with power and genius.
Indeed, it is the only work of true genius included in his final anthology, “A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories” (“A View from a Hill” and “The Haunted Dolls’ House” are very capable, but not brilliant like this), and the first truly outstanding tale since his 1911 collection “More Ghost Stories” (which boasts the likes of “Casting the Runes” and “Barchester Cathedral”).
The best story of his in over a decade, it immediately invites comparisons to “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and other masterpieces from James’ freshman anthology (viz., “Count Magnus” and “Abbot Thomas”). While each of his collections boasts a handful of great stories (“A Thin Ghost,” perhaps, being the weakest), the inaugural collection, “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary,” is widely regarded as the strongest of the four, and “A Warning to the Curious” seems to deftly sample from this vintage: it reuses the gloomy, Suffolk beachfront setting, unstoppable, predatory ghost, and psychological hijackings of “Oh, Whistle,” as well as the desperate pursuit, tragic protagonist, and brutal punishment of “Count Magnus,” and the ill-starred treasure hunt, vindictive guardian, and mission to replace the find from “Abbot Thomas.”
Likewise it shares elements with other masterworks from the warmly regarded second collection: “Casting the Runes,” “Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance,” “The Tractate Middoth.” We could view this as evidence of James’ increasingly derivative writing, or as a lazy attempt to re-ignite the early fire, but I do not: to me, the genius of “A Warning to the Curious” lies in its intentional reassessment of James’ early work and of his earlier worldview.
THE TRAGIC, HISTORICAL MELIEU OF
“A WARNING TO THE CURIOUS”
(My apologies for triggering any Blackadder fans)
The natural follow-up question to this is, why does “A Warning to the Curious” carry so much weight? Even compared to stories about the deaths of children (“Lost Hearts,” “Haunted Dolls’ House,” “Residence at Whitminster,” etc.) it has a denser cloud of sorrow about it. Although there may be many theories about this, one has been widely embraced by scholars and readers as having a ring of truth to it: this is a story about the war.
The clues to this are manifold, and while some readers might frown on jumping to so easy a solution, they appear to bear the weight of the argument. We learn that William Ager – who has only been dead a matter of weeks or months – died due to sitting out in the cold, guarding the crown, a duty only necessary during times of warfare, and a duty performed by his father during the Boer War (1899 – 1902). If William has done this between 1902 and 1925, then it was – surely – during World War I (1914 – 1918).
Other clues include the dates in James’ early manuscripts: he has changed out the original dates of the story’s action and Ager’s death for the ambiguous “19—,” but the original date of both events was 1916 – the same year as the traumatizing Somme Offensive which resulted in nearly half a million British casualties, including many Cambridge men. This was later crossed out and replaced with 1917 – another banner year for casualties – before being crossed out a final, third time and replaced with 19—.
Other hints which have been picked up on include the apparent isolation of the town during what should be a fairly active time of year – the peak of spring – as well as the regular references to digging trenches and the specific threats of Germans. [Side note: It is certainly interesting that James emphasizes the Germans, historical allies of Britain, because the Vikings, Danes, Saxons, Spanish, and French were much more relevant enemies in English history. Germans (especially the Prussians and Hanoverians) were reliable allies of the German-descended British royal families of Hanover and Saxe-Coburg during the Wars of Religion, 18th century cabinet wars, the French Revolutionary Wars, Napoleonic Wars, and the reign of Victoria and her Saxon husband, Albert.]
Even the last glimpse of Paxton running into the mist, only to be swallowed up by the clouds and found brutally disfigured feels like an allusion to soldiers going “over the top” and charging into the smoke of battle, never to return from the perils of the no-man’s land. A famous photo of British infantry advancing into a cloudbank of mustard gas during the 1915 Battle of Loos has always come to my mind (pictured below).