This story is famous for two reasons: firstly, it is the only one of James’ stories which is set specifically over Christmas (while some – Martin’s Close, Oh Whistle, etc. – are set near Christmas, this is the only one to explicitly take place on December 25th), a holiday with which James is ubiquitously associated, and secondly, it is “the one with the demented Punch and Judy Show.”
Once a childhood staple, Punch and Judy Shows – which are hardly politically correct – are increasingly a thing of the past and may require some explanation. It is a comic puppet show that uses gallows humor, slapstick, and a carnivalesque atmosphere of chaos and misrule to tell adventures of its trickster anti-hero, the shamelessly wicked and effortlessly lucky Mr. Punch (whose name and character are derived from the scheming Pulcinella, a stock figure in the Italian commedia dell’arte).
As described by Wikipedia, it is:
“…a traditional puppet show featuring Mr. Punch and his wife Judy. The performance consists of a sequence of short scenes, each depicting an interaction between two characters, most typically Mr. Punch and one other character who usually falls victim to Punch's slapstick. It is often associated with traditional British culture. The various episodes of Punch comedy—often provoking shocked laughter—are dominated by the clowning of Mr. Punch… The characters in a Punch and Judy show are not fixed. They are similar to the cast of a soap opera or a folk tale such as Robin Hood: the principal characters must appear, but the lesser characters are included at the discretion of the performer... Along with Punch and Judy, the cast of characters usually includes their baby, a hungry crocodile, a clown, an officious policeman, and a prop string of sausages. The devil and the generic hangman Jack Ketch may still make their appearances but, if so, Punch will always get the better of them.”
The show was brought (like many "heinous" things in M. R. James’ stories) from Italy to Britain during the 17th century. The hero is a trickster character who always escapes consequences, including the murder of his squalling children, nagging wife, and any unfortunates who happen to get in his way in the process. He is scheming, intelligent, and sensual in every way the amoral archenemy of everything that bourgeois, decent society holds dear: a true personification of anarchy, representative of everything which James and his ilk feared about modern society, with its contempt for the past, disdain for tradition, and eager embrace of moral relativism.
In her story, “On Hamstead Heath,” Jan Struthers very succinctly summarizes Punch’s dark nature: “The baby yelled and was flung out of the window; Judy scolded and was bludgeoned to death; the beadle, the doctor, and the hangman tried in turn to perform their professional duties and were outrageously thwarted; Punch, cunning, violent and unscrupulous, with no virtues whatever except humour and vitality, came out triumphant in the end. And all the children, their faces upturned in the sun like a bed of pink daisies, laughed and clapped and shouted with delight…”
James begins the story by introducing the way he came across its strange narrative: it was given to him by a friend who knew about his predilection for ghost stories, and came in the form of a collection of letters written in December 1837 by an anonymous, single gentleman to his brother. James confirmed their authenticity, based on the ink and paper used, but could not learn more about the author other than his initials. Without further commentary, he copies them down verbatim…
The writer, W.R., begins with a gloomy letter to his brother Robert explaining why he will be unable to join their family for Christmas, which is in three days: their elderly Uncle Henry has disappeared without a trace. Having been alerted by his housekeeper, W.R. immediately leaves for Henry’s parish and joins the search. The old man – known for his devotion to justice, order, and charity – was the local rector (clergyman) who was both respected for his generosity to the poor and feared for his wrath towards his parishioners’ vices. This squares with W.R., who remembers his uncle’s stern temper and taste for discipline as a child. He was overall a devoted traditionalist, and was one of the few clergymen in the area who still wore bands (the split, white cravat worn by English clergy and lawyers over their black robes) during his daily life.
W.R. learns that on the evening December 19th, his uncle went to visit a sick parishioner in the country, was accompanied halfway home by one of the man’s children, and was last seen crossing a stile into an empty field. The field and the neighboring ponds, streams, and woods have been diligently searched without uncovering a clue, and a team of Bow Street Runners (London’s primitive police force) have been hired to help conduct an investigation.
Meanwhile, W.R. stays at the local tavern where its innkeeper, the indelicate, bumbling Mr. Bowman, provides hilarious comic relief as he very nervously tries to establish his credibility with the rector’s nephew (the henpecked, working-class Bowman – a Dickensian pastiche – had apparently been publicly scolded by Uncle Henry for an incident involving a barrel of beer, and is worried that he is now a suspect). Bowman clumsily joins W.R. and the Bow Street Runners during their investigation the following day, but comic relief aside, W.R. is troubled by the lack of progress, and the Runners quickly give up the search as fruitless.
That evening, a fellow guest tells him that a Punch and Judy troupe is travelling through the area and recommends that he check it out if he has the time (of note, it has Toby Dog: a relatively recent trend). This seemingly innocuous intelligence has a major impact on W.R.: that night – Christmas Eve – he has a lurid nightmare about a life-like Punch and Judy show. It begins with a audience of grim-looking people facing a crimson curtain, which pulls back to reveal a full stage instead of a puppet’s backdrop. The sign overhead says “KIDMAN AND GALLOP,” which is odd, because those were not the names of the puppeteers which the other guest described. The show begins with the tolling of a funeral knell (instead of the traditional silly music) and Punch takes the stage.
Although he is entirely lifelike, Punch is a grotesque, “Satanic” looking figure – sallow, warped and ghoulish – and his means of killing his victims (rather than using Punch’s goofy slapstick) is truly gruesome: he stalks them, lures them, and lies in wait for them with relish, before bludgeoning or strangling them. W.R. is shocked at the realistic sound of his club (he can hear the “bone … giving way”) and the way that the victims kick and convulse before they die, and is especially disgusted at the choked squeak that the baby makes when he strangles it.
The final killing takes place in utter darkness (W.R. can see nothing, but hears a struggle and muffled cry). Later, Punch returns with gore all over his shoes, laughing to himself. However, the background subtly changes from the exterior of a cottage to a moonlit countryside, and W.R. is stunned by the appearance of a strange figure: all dressed in black and wearing bands around its neck, but with its head muffled in a white sack.
The figure slithers animalistically towards Punch, who is suddenly terrified into making a mad dash through the countryside with the thing in bands close behind. They run through fields and woods, but Punch finally collapses from exhaustion, and the figure throws himself on his prey, peels back the sack and thrusts his face into Punch’s. Everything goes black, a scream is heard, and W.R. wakes up in terror to the tolling of the funeral knell.
Writing to his brother in a final letter, W.R. announces that Uncle Henry’s sad fate has been discovered, but that it still remains a bizarre mystery to him, and wonders whether Robert may be able to help him unpack it. That Christmas Morning he attended church, but the service seemed to be under a grim curse: a coffin bier draped in a funeral pall were mysteriously left out and had to be removed, Uncle Henry’s nervous stand-in does a poor job at delivering a sermon suitable for Christmas Day, the funeral knell begins tolling in the tower, and the organ fails several times during the carols, making an ugly, wolfish sound.
Later in the day (after reading, what else, but some of Charles Dickens’ recent publications), W.R. attends a Punch and Judy Show in the town square, just outside of Uncle Henry’s church. They have a Toby Dog in tow and have different names than those in his nightmare, and – partly due to these apparent inconsistencies with the show in his dream – W.R. enjoys the humor to his surprise.
However, it is clear that something is wrong: the Toby Dog will not stop howling, and ultimately runs away (apparently in fear) despite the puppeteers’ attempts to soothe it. Later, while watching from a window overlooking the square, W.R. notices a third person slip into the puppeteers’ booth during the scene where Punch is taken to be hanged on the gallows – but before he successfully escapes. It appears to be a figure all dressed in black, with a white sack over its head and bands hanging from its collar. No one else seems it, but then one of the puppeteers turns around and – with a look of terror – appears to resist being pushed towards the dummy gallows. Chaos ensues: the stage collapses on them, and the second puppeteer is seen sprinting away, with a second man running after him. However, the first puppeteer is discovered in the wreckage of the stage – dead. The second man is also found soon after: at the bottom of a chalk pit with a broken neck.
In locating his body, the police notice the corner of a white bag protruding from the chalk. After a quick excavation, they find that it is covering the head of a second corpse: Uncle Henry’s. His throat has been savagely mangled. Finally, after an investigation, the police learn that the puppeteers were using aliases: their real names were Kidman and Gallop.
Written towards the later end of his career, “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” begins to reflect James’ growing pessimism with human progress and institutions. To be fair, these themes have been evident in his work since “Lost Hearts,” but there is an unusually sad and wistful nature to this story which gives it the grimness of finding yourself alone in a cemetery on Christmas morning. Although the death of Uncle Henry is not a particularly tragic one compared to, say, the children in “Lost Hearts” or Paxton in “A Warning to the Curious,” there is a loneliness about his demise – and about their narrator’s fruitless Yuletide manhunt – which contrast pointedly with its clever humor and Christmas setting. There is a dreary anonymity about the story: not only do we not even know who the narrator is or what becomes of him (or his theories), but we never really meet Uncle Henry – certainly not enough to feel connected to him in any way – and his death is all the gloomier for it: he seems to be a ghost from the very first lines of the story, irrevocably lost before we even knew him. And so when his bachelor nephew spends his holiday searching for his body with strangers while the family is enjoying a jolly time surrounded by gifts, drinks, and lights, the heaviness of the whole tableau is impossible to miss; what James is deeply concerned about in this story is the problem of mortality and the perseverance of evil in spite of civilization’s best efforts.
Uncle Henry seems to be nearly everything that James himself respected and aspired to: a confident, no-nonsense man of letters and learning who has earned the fear and respect of his entire parish for his dedication to the Right Way. He cuts no corners, promotes the teachings of the church, and is not afraid to stand up for justice and order. And yet, not only does he die in an appalling act of violence which is reserved for the basest of criminals (strangled with a hood over his face like a hanged murderer), but his death would have gone undiscovered and unavenged had his spirit not (apparently) intervened out of sheer dedication to his worldview of Old Testament justice.
Very much like Charles Dickens’ “Trial for Murder,” this ghost story has a depressingly cynical view of the efforts of the institutions of the law: both stories feature a murder victim whose spirit intervenes in the world of the living out of concern that his killer will go free, and both seem deeply interested in suggesting that – far more often than not – justice is elusive, and wrongdoers go unpunished. The very figure of Uncle Henry – a so-called “martinet” (stern disciplinarian), minister, and community leader – represents all that is orderly and authoritative in the world. His murder is not only suggestive of misrule and chaos flying in the face of these values, it can be read as a literal attack on the person of Order and Civilization itself.
As the human representation of these intangible virtues, Uncle Henry’s death can be interpreted as a commentary on civilization itself, and his death serves as a metaphoric loss of authority and justice. That the criminals use Punch – the international icon of anarchy and amorality – as their totem and means of (lawful) income only underscores this theme. Like Punch, they have turned Order on its head: executing an elderly minister (on his way home from visiting a sick parishioner) like a common criminal, then proceeding to shamelessly play a Christmas show for a crowd of children in the shadow of a church. Indeed, Punch and Uncle Henry seem to be fully-fleshed and adversarial archetypes of their respective value systems: Punch is relativistic, individualistic, amoral, selfish, reactionary, violent, carnal, and dedicated to self-pleasure and self-preservation. Uncle Henry is dogmatic, communitarian, righteous, dutiful, prescriptive, orderly, chaste, and dedicated to his self-discipline and self-denial. The only cross over between the two figures is a bad temper and a sharp tongue (if Mr. Bowman is to be believed), but even this vice seems to only come out of Uncle Henry when he feels that best practices are being ignored, for Uncle Henry lived and died by the rules. In fact, rather than immediately appearing to give clues to his murderers, he seems to patiently wait his turn: Henry’s ghost does not appear, nor does anything supernatural occur (viz. the narrator’s ghoulish dream) until after the Bow Street men have given up and returned to London.
The hosts of the M. R. James-themed Podcast to the Curious note that this almost seems to be the last straw for the spirit: he peacefully waits for the authorities to hunt and capture his killers, but when their efforts prove insufficient, he must rise from the grave – as Sherlock Holmes once said of the police – “to supply their deficiencies.” Justice, alas, is lacking (or at least imperfect) in the mortal world, requiring the time-honored trope of the vengeful ghost to collar his killers.
For a writer so closely associated with Christmas, it is odd that this is likely his only tale set at Yuletide (several have winter settings, two of which are vaguely in December/January), but his treatment of Christmas is telling of how the man himself must have felt about the holiday: alone and drifting in a ghost-haunted world while everyone else seemed to have something better to do, somewhere better to be, and someone better to be with. His narrator is left alone with his Uncle’s mute memory and the pompous protests of (the admittedly hilarious) Mr. Bowman. His sole concern is ensuring that justice be done to a man whom he does not appear to have loved, but whom he believes should have been respected, and whose disappearance, he believes, should have been noticed, mourned, and solved. With little help and no answers from the earthly authorities, it is up to Uncle Henry himself to enforce the worldview that he so dearly subscribed to.
And he does so: he not only leads to the disclosure of his killers (and at least one of their demises), but seems to have had a hand in transitioning a cheery Christmas sermon into a funeral by glooming-up the music, ringing the death knell, and causing the appearance of the funereal pall and bier. Once Order has been restored, his body is fittingly discovered (with its throat brutally garroted and the head shamefully covered in a sack) as if to say “I did the job you weren’t able to; now here I am.” The story is certainly one of James’ more opaque and confusing: he was just about to launch into his puzzle-story phase – his first was “A School Story,” but the likes of “Two Doctors,” “An Evening’s Entertainment,” “The Diary of Mr Poynter,” “The Residence at Whitminster,” and “A Neighbour’s Landmark,” were soon to follow. And yet, unlike most of those stories, this one remains memorable and relatively popular – an especially fitting read for a wet and windy December night with flits of something white (snow, perhaps, surely) passing just outside the window.