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Literary Essays on Horror, Ghost Stories & Weird Fiction

— from Mary Shelley to M. R. James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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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.




(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.



(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).

The war was, naturally, a national trauma. Britain and her colonies suffered 888,000 military deaths – roughly 2% of the population – 1.6 million wounded, and a further 17,000 civilian deaths from air raids, torpedoed passenger ships, and the like. In all, Cambridge University would lose 2,470 students in battle, or 18% of those who enlisted. For James, this experience became deeply personal: he would write letters to the parents of King’s College students who died in combat, frequently spoke at their funerals, and even wrote the text for the royal scroll which was presented to the next of kin of each deceased British serviceman.

The scroll, which was written in ornate calligraphy, and accompanied a bronze medallion, read: “He whom this scroll commemorates was numbered among those who, at the call of King and Country, left all that was dear to them, endured hardness, faced danger, and finally passed out of the sight of men by the path of duty and self-sacrifice, giving up their own lives that others might live in freedom. Let those who come after see to it that his name be not forgotten” (and here the serviceman’s name was penned in handwritten red ink).

The war – as his biographers note – was a traumatic experience for James, as it shook him out of his academic comfort and forced him to confront the very real monsters of his own era. With this war, there was no distance of centuries to provide relief to him (unlike the English Civil War, Popish Plot executions, Glorious Revolution, witch hangings, Viking raids, or the Crusades, of which he could write easily enough about). It was – as so many of his ghosts behaved – shoved into his face with relentless aggression, and as he read about students and (younger) colleagues of his who had been killed on the fields of France and Belgium, the horror of modern humanity seemed to settle upon him.

It may be for this reason that his post-war stories suffer in creativity and have a strong tendency to be set almost entirely in speculative past, with little connection to the present day (cf. “Evening’s Entertainment,” “Residence at Whitminster,” “Two Doctors”). All of this – the shift in horror of the perils of industrial modernity, the personal trauma, and the anxiety of being helpless to protect his young protegees from larger forces of death – shapes “A Warning to the Curious” into James’ most emotionally unique story.




("No diggin' 'ere!")

And so we begin “A Warning to the Curious” with two very different young men juxtaposed against each other, and set for a deadly collision course. Both appear to be in their twenties or early thirties – old enough to be called a “man” rather than a “boy,” but young enough to have the word “man” qualified as “young.” It is immediately obvious that – if it is reasonable, given both James’ original manuscript and the clues throughout the story, to read this story as having a wartime setting – neither man appears to have served in the military at a time when nearly 70% of able-bodied British men in their 20s and 30s saw military service of some kind.

It is noteworthy, however, that this did not include the 25% of service-aged men who were considered physically or mentally unfit to enlist or be drafted. Both of our young men may fall into this category: Paxton is almost immediately identified as “anemic” and “rabbity,” and while Ager developed tuberculosis while guarding the crown at night, it sounds as though his health was already compromised and susceptible to a decline.

Therefore, we still have two fairly equivalent young men: roughly the same age, both suffering from poor constitutions, and neither – so it would seem – serving in a branch of the military during a time when well over half of healthy, young men were wearing khaki. The difference between them is almost entirely found in their response to their luck to be excused from service. Ager immediately takes it upon himself to serve his country by camping out by the crown, and – in this way – still manages to experience something of the bitter life of a soldier: standing watch in miserable conditions, protecting state secrets with his life, and sleeping under the naked sky while his health deteriorates.

Like his fellows overseas, he literally gives his life for his country, without an apparent thought or complaint. Paxton, meanwhile, (whose name has often been noted for beginning with the Latin word for “peace”), chooses to spend his time in a manner which is both very similar and very different from Ager. While he also follows in the footsteps of soldiers: spending his time digging trenches, carrying out night patrols, and formulating elaborate strategies to avoid detection by his enemies, he does so for motives which are entirely self-interested.

He is certainly not a criminal or egomaniac – his desire to locate the crown seems utterly academic, and born from curiosity, not out of greed or vanity – but at a time when the discovery could leave the nation vulnerable to invasion, he doesn’t show an even passing concern for the implications to national security.

From a biographical criticism standpoint, I wonder if James wrote himself into Paxton: he often talked a big game about British sovereignty and patriotism, but I truly believe that he was in awe of his students who willingly left the snug coziness of their Cambridge lounges for the cold misery of the trenches.

I do not mean this in a sentimental way (although he was obviously deeply touched and impressed by their sacrifices): I doubt that he could imagine himself making a similar choice when there was so much puttering to be done about country churches and French monasteries, and so much reading and biking to catch up on.

Paxton is certainly a Jamesian figure: while we don’t know his profession, he is immediately welcomed as a sort of mentee/colleague by the two older academics, and he certainly has professional experience with archaeology (having lead some excavations in the down country). That being said, he still has a sense of the amateur about him (just as James always did) in that he was never willing to fully pour himself into archaeology as a professional, but enjoyed reaping the rewards of others, or doing a bit of speculative investigation during his biking holidays.

Both men are loners, both are enamored with uncovering lost artifacts if only to be able to say – as the narrator does – that they were able to lay eyes on it, and both remained single, unattached, and aloof from strong social ties (“the fact was he had nobody”). Paxton may be a bit of a James wish fulfilment – much like Baxter in “A View from a Hill” – though not without a self-addressed warning of the pitfalls of a solitary, self-indulgent life.

Meanwhile, Ager is the exact opposite: working class, uneducated, devoted to his family, nation, and commission above all else (especially above his safety and personal interested), and motivated by unquestioning duty and honor rather than the reckless and scintillating personal curiosity which brings Paxton to Ager’s outpost. The two men share so much physically – age, gender, constitution, habits, isolation – but so little in terms of their motivations and values. However, both share one more critical trait: both are sacrificed for their country.




(Christ depicted as a fatally wounded Passover Lamb

sacrificing its life for humanity)

This brings us to the final significant piece of this story – a keystone which is rarely addressed but which is critical to understanding the deep current of mythic power with which James designed it. It is this context which provides the entire literary structure which makes it a masterpiece. One of the most crucial elements of this story is that it takes place during the Jewish feast of Passover, which corresponds to the Christian holy day of Easter.

Most readers would be forgiven for missing the single reference, either because it is mentioned only once, or because James uses a term which many readers – even Christians or Jews – may not be familiar with: “Paschal moon,” the full moon that initiates the Jewish Passover holiday (“Pascha” is the Greek word for “Passover”).

Passover is not celebrated on a fixed date on the Gregorian calendar, but rather on the first full moon following the Spring Equinox (technically the date is set on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan, but Jewish months are based on lunar phases, and change from year to year). The principle Christian holiday, Easter, is similarly celebrated on the Sunday following Nisan 15, due to the fact that Jesus was executed during Passover.

Passover, one of the most important Jewish festivals, celebrates final plague of Egypt during the last days of the Israelites’ slavery. Moses, their leader, had prophesied that the Angel of Death would sweep through Egypt, slaying the first-born child of every family. The only way to deter its visit – for Egyptians and Israelites alike – was to sacrifice a spotless lamb and to mark the doorposts of the house with its blood:

“The sacrificial animal, which was either a lamb or goat, had to be a male, one year old, and without blemish. Each family or society offered one animal together… The [Passover lamb] was slain on the eve of the Passover, on the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan... The slaughtering took place in the courtyard of the Temple at Jerusalem. The slaughter could be performed by a layman, although the rituals dealing with the blood and fat had to be carried out by a priest. The blood had to be collected by a priest, and rows of priests with gold or silver cups in their hands stood in line from the Temple court to the altar, where the blood was sprinkled.” (Wikipedia)

The slaughter of these animals was done in part to atone for the sins of the Jewish people by symbolically casting their wickedness and moral failures onto the sinless lambs. By offering these sacrifices to the Hebrew god, Yahweh, the Jewish people hoped to atone, in part, for their insufficiencies and to restore their special relationship to the Creator.

In Christian theology, this symbolism came to even greater prominence when Jesus of Nazareth was executed on the day before the Passover Sabbath, on the very day when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered in the Temple, and was said to rise from the dead three days later on the first Easter Sunday. Christians believe that Jesus was the incarnation of the Creator God who was willingly born as a human being in order to experience human suffering and to offer his life as the ultimate sinless sacrifice to atone for both individual and collective human sin once and for all: the proverbial Lamb of God.