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CLASSIC HORROR BLOG

 

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' The Ash-Tree: A Detailed Summary and a Literary Analysis

Heavily Puritan East Anglia was the hot bed of England’s witch trials, peaking in the mid-1640s with the three year reign of terror of Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed “Witchfinder General” – a travelling fraud who made rounds throughout the region, acting as a paranormal detective and interrogator, using light torture methods, mainly sleep deprivation, pricking, and water dunking, to get confessions (although the more sensational use of the rack, breast-rippers, and red-hot brands were sometimes used in Germany, they were not part of Hopkins’ repertoire). Between the 1500s and 1700s, the era when witch trials became an actual frenzy, England only executed just over 500 people for witchcraft, but Hopkins was responsible for the deaths of over 100 of them.

 

Social historians have raised all kinds of theories – most famously those from the Marxist and feminist camps which suggest that witch trials were either a means by which the properties, businesses, and estates of unpopular landowners could be stolen from them (out of greed), or a patriarchal system of oppression designed to punish female independence, sexuality, and industry (out of sexism). While both might carry a bit of truth, Hugh Trevor-Roper – in his fantastic collection of essays, The Crisis of the Seventeenth Century – rejects both theories for a more basic explanation: the increasing disparity between the courtly, urban, centers of commerce and the isolated, rural districts lead to social distrust, disappointment, and frustration in the country.

 

In his own words, “When a great fear takes hold of society, that society looks naturally to the stereotype of the enemy in its midst.” This unbalance inspired widespread social aggression which eventually caused the people to seek out scapegoats to take their frustrations out on. This makes more sense than the other two theories for another reason: accused witches were usually extremely vulnerable and unpopular – neither well-off landowners whose deaths would profit greedy neighbors, nor buxom, groovy, free-loving hippie women whose sexual libertinism and social independence churned the ulcers of the patriarchy. More often than not they were old, poor, socially obnoxious, powerless, and friendless.

 

“The Ash-Tree” follows the fate – and vengeance – of one such victim: the unfortunate Mistress Mothersole. The trials that James describes are fictional: the last witch trial at Bury-St. Edmunds was in 1662, not 1690, and only two elderly widows were tried and hanged. The earlier, 1645 Matthew Hopkins trials, however saw the execution of 18 men and women, accounting for nearly 4% of England’s total victims. As with so many such proceedings, the victims were largely single, elderly, and socially vulnerable; they had few advocates and their deaths went un-mourned and unavenged. James’ Mistress Mothersole is not quite so hapless, leaving behind a bustling brood of faithful mourners – and avengers…

 

SUMMARY



The tale begins in 1690 at the Suffolk estate of the Fell family, Castringham Hall. The manor was once remarkable for the enormous ash tree that was planted a stone’s throw from the master bedroom nearly a century prior, with limbs so long that they were within a few yards of the bedroom window. By this time in history, the hall was the seat of Sir Matthew Fell, who also served as the district’s deputy sheriff. As history confirms, 1690 was a dark year in Suffolk history, with a rash of witch hysteria breaking out in the aftermath of the Puritan-led Glorious Revolution.

 

Among the many poor souls unfortunate enough to be swept up in suspicion was a woman named Mistress Mothersole. Mothersole was accused by Fell himself, who testifies that he witnessed her harvesting ash twigs from the tree outside of his window on three occasions. Each instance took place in the dead of night, and each time she was wearing only her nightgown. Ash trees have a prominent place in European witchcraft and folklore, being used as a common ingredient in spells of protection and love potions. When Fell tried to apprehend her, she appeared to transform into a hare – or at least she disappeared just before he observed a hare fleeing towards the village.

 

Although Fell wasn’t party to the witch craze, and regretted having to testify against a woman he agreed to be harmless, he considered it his duty to share his testimony with the tribunal. Mothersole and six other prisoners are found guilty and condemned, and as deputy sheriff, Fell is obligated to attend the execution – against his desires. While the other six are inconsolable and dejected, Mothersole is livid with rage. Her face is so contorted in fury that she is compared to a demon by witnesses, with an anger so visceral that it is (notably) described as "poisonous" and "venomous," apparently aimed at her accuser, Fell. Before she is hanged she makes a cryptic declaration: “There will be guests at the hall,” referring to Castringham.

 

Fell is unnerved by this horrible scene, but his life proceeds without incident until a night in May, several weeks later, when Lady Fell is away on a trip. The clergyman, Dr. Crome, dines with him that evening, and remembers Fell being disturbed by the sight of something small scuttling in the ash tree. Crome recorded his assessment that it must have been a squirrel, but disagreed due to the fact that it appeared to have more than four legs.

 

In the morning, the servants are horrified to find Fell dead in his bed – contorted in pain and terror, his face bloated and black as from some powerful poison. The window is open, but there are no signs of foul play, and his food is shown to have been unpoisoned. Some of his servant girls prepare his body for burial and are horrified when their hands and arms become stricken with pain, dark and swollen, as if they have absorbed a toxin by contact. The body is carefully examined, and puncture wounds are indeed found, although no criminals are ever apprehended. Unaided by science, Crome turns to a folk superstition: he turns to three random pages of the Bible and sets his finger down, hoping to find supernatural guidance. The random verses read: “Cut it down,” “It shall never be inhabited,” and “Her young also such up blood.”

 

Sir Matthew’s son inherits his father’s estate, but religiously avoids sleeping in his father’s bedroom, by the ash tree, which is shut up. During this period, the estate is blighted by a strange livestock disease – the so-called “Castringham Sickness” – by which sheep, cattle, and other animals are regularly found dead and bloodless. This leads to livestock being kept penned at night, and although this helps, the twisted corpses of woodland creatures and birds are still regularly found – dead and sucked dry.

 

In 1735, Castringham Hall comes into the hands of Sir Richard Fell, Sir Matthew’s grandson, who has recently returned from the Grand Tour of Europe, inspired to remodel his ancestral home in the Italian fashions. Among his first renovations are to make some changes to the parish church, which require the exhumation of some graves on the north side of the building – the site where suicides, witches, and infidels are traditionally buried. Among the coffins which must be relocated is Mistress Mothersole’s. However, when it is located, the sextons are shocked to find it empty, and Sir Richard orders that it be burned.

 

Twenty years later, Sir Richard – who has been following his father’s tradition of sleeping in the wing of the house opposite from the ash tree – prepares to host a massive party. That night, his sleep is disturbed by strange rattles against the window, as if something were trying to get in. Annoyed, he decides to change rooms to his ancestor’s old quarters. Unopened in four decades, it is thick with dust and rotten with the stench of mildew, but he persists, ordering the window to be opened to air it. Noticing the ash tree growing so closely against it, Fell theorizes that the tree may be contributing to the dampness.

 

One of Fell’s guests is the grandson of the clergyman who had been with Sir Matthew the night he died. They discuss the event and laugh about the quaintness of the cleric’s failed attempt at divination and the oddness of the random Bible verses. On further thought, however, looking over at the tree, his guest declares that “cut it down” may be good advice, as the ash tree looks unhealthy. Attempting to restore levity, they get their hands on the family Bible and turn to one passage randomly. They read: “Thou shout seek me in the morning and I shall not be.” Unamused, they decline to turn to any others.

 

Later, Sir Richard chats with another guest, the Bishop of Kilmore (an Irish district), who is struck by the ash tree and reminded of his parishioners’ superstitious prejudice against ash trees, which the Irish view as having magical and unlucky connotations. He wonders who is sleeping in the room it appears to be growing toward and Fell admits that it is his. Not only this, he notes that – despite his hopes for a good night’s sleep – he was kept up all night by the tree scratching against the window. The bishop warily observes that the tree is yet a full foot away from the window pane, and that the scratching must have come from something else.

 

The scene jumps forward to that night, while Fell and his guests are snug in their beds. Fell has left the window open for fresh air…


And now we are in his bedroom, with the light out and the Squire in bed. The room is over the kitchen, and the night outside still and warm, so the window stands open.
There is very little light about the bedstead, but there is a strange movement there; it seems as if Sir Richard were moving his head rapidly to and fro with only the slightest possible sound. And now you would guess, so deceptive is the half-darkness, that he had several heads, round and brownish, which move back and forward, even as low as his chest. It is a horrible illusion. Is it nothing more? There! something drops off the bed with a soft plump, like a kitten, and is out of the window in a flash; another—four—and after that there is quiet again.

 

In the morning, the guests are mortified when their host is found – just like his grandfather – dead and black in his bed in the morning, inhumanly swollen and contorted. They gather outside his window to discuss possible causes of his death when the bishop notices a cat climb the ash tree where it peers down into its hollowed-out trunk, watching something intently. Suddenly, a part of the dry trunk gives way, and the cat falls into the hollow below. Once it crashes to the bottom, the guests are horrified by the series of agonized howls echoing from the trunk – yowls which suggest that the cat is being attacked, and yowls which eventually subside to silence.

 

Piqued with suspicions, the guests enlist Fell’s gardener to mount the tree with a lantern and rope, hoping to lower it into the hollow to see what is lurking there. He peeks over the side with his lantern, but drops it almost immediately in terror, covering his eyes at what he has seen. The lantern bursts below, setting fire to the dried-out tree, and flushing out a family of monstrous spiders, whose pulpy, grey bodies are the size of a man’s head. The locals beat the arachnids to death, and when the last ones are killed, and the tree burned to ash, they explore the exposed root system, where they find the skeleton of a woman who has been dead for nearly half a century.

 

ANALYSIS



As with so many of his best ghost stories, the core catalyst of the haunting in “The Ash-Tree” is founded in a non-conformist’s revolutionary break with convention and a defiance of the social contracts of their day. But I am not speaking about Mrs. Mothersole at all: it is her accuser, Sir Matthew Fell, who defies centuries of understanding in the name of progress. At the heart of his fiction, James – despite his critics’ accusations of religious chauvinism – depicts paganism and traditional Christian cosmology as being part of the same general worldview, uneasy bedfellows at worst, and respectful allies at best. It is the later, Puritan and Evangelical versions Christianity which James casts (far more often than paganism) as a villain, with its wave of reforms, preference for simplicity, and attitude of ideological superiority.


It is from this tradition – the peak of Puritainism in 17th century Suffolk – that Fell emerges. He is hardly a Bible-swinging tyrant (in fact, he is visibly nervous and uncomfortable with his accusations), but he feels that it is his duty to do that most un-Jamesian of things: to defy centuries of turning a blind eye to some shadiness (done in the name of the protecting the order and the common good) in order to follow a new code of inflexible rules.

 

A similar shift in the academy at the end of the 19th century greatly troubled James, and left its mark on many of his tales. It was a gradual (and then sudden) shift away from leisurely chummy gatherings, lax rules, blurry boundaries between departments, vague expectations for scholarship, and a general “gentleman scholar” culture, and towards the German model of rigorous scholarship, the scientific method, and a general professionalization of the academy, making professors less like teachers, mentors, and club members and more like scientists, researchers, and competitors.


It was a shift away from culture and socialization and towards ambition and rivalry. This was the rise of tenure and the last gasps of the mentorship-centered model that Oxford and Cambridge had been long known for. James most famously lampooned the young up-and-comers who demanded a more rigorous, less collegial system in the figures of Parkins, the humorless ontographer – an intentionally “modern” and ludicrous-sounding area of study – who prickles with discomfort at his colleagues’ jokes about ghosts, seriously approaches golf as a means of rising up the ladder, and has a dangerously high opinion of his understanding of the universe.


But throughout his corpus, James presents us with reckless reformers eager to do it “the new way” without bothering to understand why it was ever done “the old way” to begin with. Sir Matthew Fell – and to an even greater extent, his grandson Richard – is just such a man.

 

For centuries the Christian worshippers of his community were likely aware that women like Mrs. Mothersole were practicing white magic, and did nothing to prevent them from carrying on (in all likelihood more out of fear and respect for their arts than out of progressive tolerance), but Fell is a slave to his conscience and cannot look away.


This is more fleshed out in the 1975 television adaptation where Fell repeats his stalwart credo: “The law is the law… What I have seen – I have seen.” Fell – unlike James and unlike the other villagers who make “efforts … to save her” – sees no virtue in compromise and sends Mothersole to the gallows simply because he must follow the rules. By breaking this ancient agreement between pagan and traditional Christian cultures to tolerate elements of one other, Fell brings a curse down on the entire community in the form of the Castringham Sickness, as the hellish offspring of Mothersole’s “poisonous rage” run rampant all over the countryside, literally upsetting the natural order and leading to the deaths of countless livestock (and surely some people: cf. “An Episode of Cathedral History”).


James’ harmonization of pagan and Christian practices features in other stories as well: “Stalls of Barchester” (where the locals once hung stick figures in the branches of the Hanging Oak for good fortune), “An Evening’s Entertainment” (where a witch-doctor-like shaman – rather than a priest or doctor – is called on to undo the swelling of a woman horribly stung in the arm by a Satanic fly), and here in “The Ash-Tree” (where the practice of “drawing the sortes” – a form of folk divination which, although it uses the Bible, was seen as superstitious and uneducated by the clerical establishment – is shown to be both accurate and potentially life-saving) among others.

 

Undoubtedly, pagan magick is more commonly used for evil means (Karswell in “Casting the Runes” and Dr. Abney in “Lost Hearts” being prime examples), and James was definitely not a paragon of broad-minded tolerance, but he certainly wasn’t a fundamentalist, nor – like so many of his Anglican brethren – the sort of religious person who writes off others’ religious convictions or worldviews as silly or impossible. Sir Matthew Fell and Sir Richard Fell, however, both have a strain of arrogance in them which cannot tolerate something which they either do not understand or appreciate.


In Sir Matthew’s case he didn’t know why he found Mothersole cutting springs off of his ash tree dressed only in her nightgown, but he didn’t care: he testified because he was asked, and he told the exact truth because why would he lie? In Sir Richard’s case, he goes about renovating his ancestral manor in the newly-fashionable Italian style with just as little respect for the balance of Castringham’s village culture as his grandfather, and while a renovation may be far less weighty than a testimony which costs a woman’s life, both are examples of the same hubris that was disturbing James in his own little realm of long-standing tolerance and tradition: the British academy.


Like Castringham, James sensed that Cambridge had a good thing going for it – that things somehow worked well, if not entirely efficiently, and that to recklessly undo it all in the name of progress and fashion would lead to the corruption, if not the utter destruction, of a culture which he loved and in which he felt at home.

 

As to the actual story itself, before we depart there are at least two questions which we should try to address: what was Mothersole actually up to that night, and what can be inferred about her nature, activities, and intentions by the ending? As to the first question, there are dozens of possibilities, but we can hone in on some likelier options. The cornerstone of all speculation rests on the interpretation of the ash tree.


In European folklore, ash trees were seen as a source of material for white magic rituals, for although witch brooms were said to be traditionally made out of ash, nearly all of the other lore surrounding ash trees considered them useful in fighting against black magic. Talismans made of ash wood were said to be useful for redirecting the evil eye, for supernaturally preventing illness, and deflecting evil spells or spirits. Sleeping with ash leaves or sprigs under one’s pillow was thought to conjure prophetic dreams. The Yule log – burnt at Christmastime to usher in a prosperous year – was traditionally from an ash.


Significantly, it was also associated with love: it was thought to help attract romantic partners and to be useful in love spells. Those who have seen the 1975 adaptation of the “The Ash-Tree” likely recall the erotic subtext that it ginned up: Mothersole is played by a comely blonde in her mid-thirties, who shares knowing glances with Fell. He is clearly struck by her, but is married to a pregnant wife, much to her jealousy and rage.


When she is captured by the witch hunters, she is shown chained up in an ode to Hammer Horror films: bare-breasted and misted with sweat. Fell ogles her before resorting to his mantra (“What I have seen – I have seen”) and witnessing her execution. While James does very little to encourage the reading of an erotic subtext between the two, it is certainly not beyond all possibility: she is seen crouching in the tree that looks into Fell’s bedroom, dressed in her underwear, and knowingly clipping sprigs of ash for some kind of spell or ritual.


It is not at all ludicrous to suggest that she may be working up a love potion to attract Fell’s attentions, (although it could just as easily be a simple shopping trip meant to help her see the future or ward of bad vibes). In any case, she is unquestionably very drawn to Fell’s ash tree in particular. The fact that her spider brood strikes so soon after her death leaves us with one more possibility: perhaps they were already living in the ash tree – a family of familiars granted to her by Satan as helpers – and if so, she would surely need to visit and nurse them.


Traditionally familiars are stored in a secluded dry place (like a pot padded with wool, or, say, a tree trunk padded with dry leaves) and fed with the blood or milk of their witch. So then, we could argue that a likely reading of her visit is as both a trip to gather ash clippings for a potion (whether directed at Fell or someone else) and, possibly, to visit and nurse her spider-spawn – an activity which surely came with no light risk of being poisoned herself.


Perhaps it is this which lends Mothersole that particularly “poisonous” and “venomous” appearance. Is she herself brimming with trace amounts of demonic venom – the accidental drippings from the fangs of her “children” as they suckle blood from her breasts – and is it this venom in her own body which gives her the “Aspect of a mad Divell”? It is an interpretation which rings true to me. 

 

As to the second question, it would appear fairly clear that James intends us to read this brood of spiders as both her metaphysical (if not literal) offspring and as her familiars: demonic attendants disguised in the forms of animals (usually cats, dogs, bats, rats, wolves, or toads) who are given to the witch by Satan as supernatural helpers. But – as with all of James’ better stories – we don’t have all the answers here, and that’s fine.


In particular, we don’t know when the familiars came about because they weren’t first noticed (so far as we know) until a few weeks later, when Dr. Crome witnesses the eight-legged “squirrel” lurking in the ash tree. Were they born when she died, or had they been there all along? Was she even – as I earlier suggested – suckling them with her blood well before her execution, leaving them to grow hungry and ravenous when their mother no longer came to feed them?


In any case, however, she did not leave them alone for long. Her appearance in the pit of the tree is certainly bizarre and difficult to understand, but it is certainly not without precedent: James’ ghosts are not spirits, but the physical dead – clattering about in dry bones and shriveled flesh – and we can safely assume that, shortly after her death, Mothersole abandoned her grave to set up a base of operations within sight of her betrayer, all while nourishing and commanding multiple generations of spider familiars (note that some of the spiders are brown while others are grey and slow to escape the fire).


It very well may be that the gruesome arachnids which pump Sir Matthew Fell’s grandson with venom are in fact, ever so fittingly, the grandchildren of Mrs. Mothersole. In the end both houses are brought down: the “house” of Fell and the protective ash tree that gave Mothersole’s revenant and her brood of familiars a secure refuge from an unforgiving world. But that seems to have been Mothersole’s intention: like the skeletal avenger in “A School Story,” she isn’t interested in vindication or elevation or salvation – just revenge – to drag her killer down with her into the depths.

 


 

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