Virtually unrivalled in his generation as a writer of ghost stories (even afterward, only H. Russell Wakefield, Robert Aickman, and Ramsey Campbell approach him in literary prowess), M. R. James excelled at nuance, suggestion, and the psychology of fear. James wrote stories that featured a tense, slow-burning dread, which steadily increased until the thing of horror thrust its head into the protagonist’s reeling face. “Lost Hearts” was among James’ first stories, and (other than the wartime allegory “A Warning to the Curious”) represents his most cynical and somber work.
Like “The Old Nurse’s Story,” it follows an orphan whose wealthy guardian ironically poses a very real danger to his life. However, in the world that young Stephen inhabits, there is no protective nurse-maid to guard him – it is a world where adults are either clueless enablers or sinister threats; it is a world without moral authority, a world stripped of protections and devoid of benevolence, where the vulnerable must fend for themselves, and the innocent are in peril.
In the autumn 1811, Stephen Elliot – a twelve year old orphan – is invited to live with one of his few surviving relatives, his middle-aged, bachelor cousin, Mr. Abney. Abney lives in an isolated Lincolnshire manor where he is known as an eccentric – but harmless – Cambridge professor of Greek, who consumes himself with studies of esoteric Greco-Roman metaphysics and mystery religions: “his library contained all the then available books bearing on the Mysteries, the Orphic poems, the worship of Mithras, and the Neo–Platonists.”
When Stephen arrives at his Queen Anne mansion one September evening, his cousin greets him warmly, although he oddly questions him about his birthday and seems strangely pleased to confirm his age. The pleasantries wrap up almost immediately, and he has his butler escort Stephen to his housekeeper’s room.
He is introduced to her, a warm, elderly woman named Mrs. Bunch, who helps Stephen get moved into his new room. Stephen is naturally inquisitive, and Bunch – who is chatty and affable – enjoys answering his many questions. Some of them are strange, however: one day, he unexpectedly asks her if Mr. Abney was a good man and whether he would go to heaven after his death. She vociferously confirms this by pointing to his history of charity. In particular, she reports that he has twice – in the recent past – provided shelter to orphaned children of no relation.
Stephen is surprised to hear this, and asks her to explain more about these other children. Both, it seems, proved ungrateful and absconded – or were kidnapped – without a word. The first was a gipsy girl who lived with them for three weeks before vanishing (Bunch supposes this to be the work of her fellow gipsies).
The second was an Italian boy named Giovanni (Bunch only identifies him as a “foreigner” and calls him “Jevanny”) who had arrived at their door one winter playing a hurdy-gurdy (a type of a stringed instrument that is played with a rotating, rosined cylinder that makes it sound something like a cross between a fiddle and a bagpipe). Instead of simply paying the boy for the song, Abney took him in, but he too one day selfishly ran away. However, she oddly notes, he left his beloved instrument behind.
These stories stew in Stephen’s mind, but he still doesn’t seem to sense any danger to himself. That night, however, he has a disturbing dream. There was an unused bathroom at the end of the hall of the top story where Stephen’s bedroom was located, and inside of this bathroom was a lead bathtub which faced the window looking out over the park – all of this could be seen through an uncurtained glass door. In his dream, Stephen found himself peering through the glazed door at the end of his hallway. The room was illuminated by the light of a full moon pouring through the window, and by this light he was startled to see a figure laying in the bath:
“A figure inexpressibly thin and pathetic, of a dusty leaden colour, enveloped in a shroud-like garment, the thin lips crooked into a faint and dreadful smile, the hands pressed tightly over the region of the heart. As he looked upon it, a distant, almost inaudible moan seemed to issue from its lips, and the arms began to stir. The terror of the sight forced Stephen backwards and he awoke to the fact that he was indeed standing on the cold boarded floor of the passage in the full light of the moon. With a courage which I do not think can be common among boys of his age, he went to the door of the bathroom to ascertain if the figure of his dreams were really there. It was not, and he went back to bed.”
On another night, Stephen wakes up to find his nightshirt oddly torn – scored by several parallel slits over the left side of his chest, almost as if an animal had scratched at it with claws. Mrs. Bunch is stupefied by this, wondering if it could have been a rat, but when they realize that similar scratches had been made in the wood of his bedroom door, it disturbs them even more.
Soon after this, Bunch is speaking with the butler, who nervously reports that he has heard voices conversing in the wine cellar, and declares that he will no longer go down there to bring up Abney’s evening wine, but when they realize that Stephen has overheard them, they play it off as a joke, and Bunch suggests that the butler has been sampling the wine for himself, but he warns that if she wanted to be proven wrong, she could hear the voices at that very moment by pressing her ear to the floor.
On the evening of March 24th 1812, Abney asks Stephen to visit him in his study at 11pm, because he has something important to show him, but made him promise not to mention this to Bunch or the butler. One hour before their appointment, Stephen finds himself standing at his bedroom window and looking out over the park, which is awash with the light of a full moon. He had been drawn their by a series of odd noises – “strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers” – which floated in the air and seemed to be coming closer and closer. Suddenly, the cease, and Stephen is about to return to bed when he catches the sight of two figures on the lawn: a boy and a girl who appear to be looking directly at him.
The girl is a sad spectacle, and appears to be the same mummified corpse that he saw languishing in the bath during his dream, sporting a weak smiling and holding her hands protectively over her heart. Meaning, the boy – whose aspect terrifies Stephen far more – aggressively raises his arms in a gesture of “menance and of unappeasable hunger and longing.” The moonlight glows through his nearly transparent hands, “and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them,” but even more repulsively, his bare chest reveals a “black and gaping rent” where his heart should be. Meanwhile, Stephen suddenly hears – seemingly in his brain more than in his ears – one of the “hungry and desolate cries” that had been floating in the air that evening, and then the ghoulish pair “swiftly and noiselessly” retreat over the dry gravel.
Horrified, but dutiful to his guardian, Stephen heads down to Abney’s study at 11pm, but finds that the door is jammed shut, and hears voices coming from inside. Suddenly, he hears Abney make a strangled cry, and wonders if he has seen the ghostly children, too, but at that moment the door gives way and Stephen stumbles into the study where he finds a strange and brutal scene.
On the table near Abney’s chair, he finds a large glass of wine, “a long knife,” and a manuscript which outlines Abney’s religious beliefs and his plans for Stephen: based on his studies of Greco-Roman mystery religions, he believes that it was possible to “gain a complete ascendancy over those orders of spiritual beings which control the elemental forces of our universe” by ritualistically harvesting the hearts of three adolescent children (while they are still living), burning the hearts to ash, mixing them with wine and drinking them. He reports that the 1st century sorcerer Simon Magus successfully used this ritual to make himself invisible, fly through the air, and shapeshift.
In his papers he coolly admits that he has already harvested living hearts from a gipsy girl, Phoebe Stanley (March 24, 1792) and an Italian boy, Giovanni Paoli (March 23, 1805) – both “such persons as could conveniently be removed without occasioning a sensible gap in society.” The third and final victim, he declares “must be my cousin, Stephen Elliott. His day must be this March 24, 1812.” He admits that he has suffered “some annoyance … from the psychic portion of the subjects, which popular language dignifies with the name of ghosts” but argues that this is all worthwhile for “the man of philosophic temperament” who is willing to follow the “experiment” to completion in pursuit of “the enlarged and emancipated existence” which it will “confer upon [him],” including removing him forever from “the reach of human justice (so-called) [and] eliminating to a great extent the prospect of death itself.”
But Abney’s hopes of immortality and supernatural ascendancy are not to be: he is found slumped in his chair, his head “thrown back, his face stamped with an expression of rage, fright, and mortal pain,” while his chest is torn open by brutal lacerations, “exposing the heart.” The coroner declares that Abney has been slain by a wildcat of some kind, which must have climbed in through the open window, but Stephen Elliott – who didn’t fully understand the papers he found until he was much older – arrived at a much different conclusion.
Whether a naïve and susceptible victim or a brave and watchful tactician, Stephen is caught in a hostile environment where the most vulnerable members of society – children, foreigners, orphans, females – are preyed upon by those with the most power, with seeming impunity. No external agency steps in to defend them; the police do not arrive at the eleventh hour; the government fails to provide guidance; religion does nothing to prevent the abuser.
Ultimately, the victims themselves must rise up against their oppressor, since their society allows such atrocities to go unnoticed. The weak can expect no defender, and the abused must choose between submission and self-defense, because no one can be counted on to act on their behalf. James’ stories almost always expose uncommon horrors festering beneath a facade of everyday normalcy: charred corpses prowl in lovely hedge mazes, sweaty faces protrude from rose gardens in midday, and a dollhouse teems with murderous ghosts.
In the midst of a quintessentially English background – a country manor, the seat of a rural scholar – pagan dangers lurk and thrive. His universe – the one which made him famous as a first rate writer of ghost stories – is not one of clear boundaries between good and evil, but one in which the two merge and blend, trespass and encroach. While Stephen was fortunate to escape a hideous death, we cannot avoid the fact that two others were not so fortunate: just as they were stripped of their hearts, their world is one bereft of sensitivity, compassion, and morality.