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Literary Essays on Gothic Horror, Ghost Stories, & Weird Fiction

from  Mary  Shelley  to  M.  R.  James —

by M. Grant Kellermeyer

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M. R. James' Lost Hearts: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

One of James’ most extraordinary tales (both for him as a writer and for the period during which he wrote), “Lost Hearts” was only the second story that he wrote, but it pushed limits that he would never again feel comfortable pursuing. In fact, in spite of its popularity, James was famously displeased with it, considering it a lesser work and the result of a lack of maturity. There certainly are one or two maxims of his treatise on writing ghost stories which it appears to defy, but it has always stood out to me (along with “The Ash-Tree” and “Count Magnus”) as being a surprisingly complex offering from his freshman collection (“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”). While every story from that collection is a masterwork – an anthology without a single dud – it does present a much less malevolent and pessimistic worldview – overall, as a collective whole – than his later anthologies (especially “More Ghost Stories” and “A Warning to the Curious”). Most of these stories are framed as chilling adventure stories where the industrious, academic protagonist experiences a near-miss assault by something otherworldly, and escapes with a great story to tell at club meetings (cf. “Canon Alberic,” “Mezzotint,” “Oh Whistle,” “Abbot Thomas,” “Number 13”). “Lost Hearts” is not this sort of story, however: it’s protagonist is not a salt-and-pepper-haired, Eton/Cambridge-educated, nosy bachelor with a penchant for trespassing and petty theft, and a low-boil passion for achieving professional acclaim. Instead, it features Stephen, one of James’ handful of prepubescent protagonists (cf. “A School Story,” “The Residence at Whitminster,” “Wailing Well”) who finds himself just as lost as the proverbial hearts in a universe that seems to have taken a blind eye to his wellbeing. He is orphaned and duly handed over to the care of his eccentric, elder cousin, Mr. Abney, who views him much less as a vulnerable minor in need of protection than as a supernumerary commodity at his disposal.

To say much more is to risk giving too much away, but it is certainly fair to say that this story is far bleaker than any of James’ other stories where children are the center of the action. Even in “The Haunted Dolls’ House,” “The Residence of Whitminster,” or “Wailing Well,” where the children in question fair far worse than Stephen, the cause of the horror is arguably justified: in the first, their fate is an act of Old Testament justice caused by their parents’ murder of their grandfather; in the second, the protagonist – something of a Karswell Jr. – brought it upon himself by invoking the Forces of Darkness; in the third, the doomed urchin is a detestable vulgarian who ignored warnings. This story, however, has no justifiable reason for the atrocities that take place in Abney’s house, and by the end, we are left pondering the evils of educated, privileged, human adults far more than we are the evils of the supernatural realm. Like similarly-themed stories, “The Old Nurse’s Story,” “Jane Eyre,” “The Turn of the Screw,” and “Kidnapped,” 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, governess, or courageous father figure to guard him – it is a world where adults are either clueless enablers or sinister threats; it is a world without moral authority – one 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.

As dark as this all is, however, there is an even yet darker element to this story which – on the surface – seems quite obvious, yet is a rarely commented upon subtext. Regardless of whether or not he intended to paint a picture of child molestation, James’ portrayal of the two ghosts roaming the manor, mourning the desecration of their quite literally violated bodies certainly jumps out to the modern reader as suggestive. There is, of course, the uncomfortable “shower scene,” wherein the corpse of the emotionally shattered girl is seen bent over in the tub while Stephen gazes at her through the door. Using the rhetoric of ghost stories (that is, the suggestive tropes that are used over and over again to imply rather than tell): she has brought him to the bathroom in order to teach him something without using words, but what is it? He finds himself drawn to the door before peering in on her nude form. Why? We might guess that the girl is causing Stephen to follow in Abney’s footsteps: to stand where he stood and see what he saw. And although Abney surely could have gazed upon the prepubescent girl with no longing other than his metaphysical thirst for immortality, we may once again remind ourselves that horror fiction frequently uses fantastical monstrosities to gently speak to us of common place ones. Her warning goes unheeded, so it is then the boy’s turn: he scores the door and Stephen’s nightshirt with his talons – using rage and anger where the girl used pathos and sorrow to illustrate his point. Like her, he is trying to illustrate a story without words. The narrative is that something wild and dangerous lives in this English manor – passing by that door every night, perhaps. He shows Stephen what the target of this beast is by ripping jealously at the breast of his nightshirt, but – whether willingly or fecklessly – the adult servants convince him to pay it no mind.

Without the ghosts’ intervention he would be a defenseless target, so they move a third time – now together. When they appear beneath his bedroom window, their respective emotional attitudes towards their loss is telling: the girl is ashamed and wilted, covering her wound protectively as if hiding a miserable secret that she can’t fully process. Meanwhile, the boy is seething with bitter rage, exposing his injury defiantly and lifting his claws in a promise of revenge. Both are understandable reactions to having one’s heart cut out of one’s living body, but they also tally up with scientific reports of how children respond to physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. In particular – although this is certainly not true in all cases – abused girls tend to blame themselves and become fearful peacemakers, turning their emotions inward, while abused boys tend to radiate their rage outward, becoming violent, resentful, and antisocial. The warning that the ghosts send to Stephen can be read either literally or as a code, but in either case the threat is the same: Abney is an abuser, not a protector, and he plans to take from Stephen a core part of his selfhood and innocence which will change him forever.

While I do doubt that James was consciously writing about child abuse (sexual, emotional, physical, or otherwise), I also strongly believe that this is – in any case – a story about abuse. It is a story about a world which is frightening and unpredictable for children; one where adults often respect authority unquestioningly and are often far likelier to turn a blind eye to a suspicious report if the abuser is in a position of power or influence. It is a story about the need to be resilient and vigilant for one’s own self, because adults (or those in privilege) cannot always be counted on to have the interests of children (or those who are socially marginal) at heart, nor do they always take the time to notice when something feels wrong or is being done in a suspicious manner. At the end of the story, we cannot say that Stephen is any safer than when he rolled up to Aswarby Hall: surely the next guardian will not be an armchair alchemist, but he could be a monster of a different, more conventional kind. Except for James’ assurance that Stephen survived to adulthood, his fate at the end of the story might be truly bleak, indeed. Fortunately, though, he has been educated by this experience, and hopefully he is not the simple, trusting lad who took Abney, Bunches, and Parkes at their words when he called to question the things going on around him. He may have learned to trust his intuition and to live a more assertive, proactive life. And surely he will never forget Mr. Abney’s greatest lesson: no matter how trusted and respected a human being is, no matter how ordinary or decent they may seem, no matter how confidently others affirm their good nature, or how sincerely they assert their good intentions, it is wise to watch and listen closely and to come to your own conclusions, and it is wise to guard your boundaries, your wellbeing, and your self-respect against the designs of those who view you as little more than a pawn in the game of their life. Because some men are monsters, and they will cut the very heart from you if it gets them to where they want to be.


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