Monday, 12 April 2010

47. M.R. James - 'The Ash Tree' (1903)

'there is also this passage, which I transcribe for the sake of the light it throws upon the course of events, and also upon the common beliefs of the time: [...]'
M.R. James, Collected Ghost Stories (Ware, Herts: Wordsworth Classics, 1992, p.33)

'The Ash Tree' is a mixture of historical investigation, travelogue and drama: 'And so ends the first act of the Castringham tragedy'. (p.34)

The oddly Italianate Suffolk is perfectly evoked in a lengthy, digressive opening. Past misdeeds, learnedness and loneliness seem intrinsic to this adventurous county of Benjamin Britten and Brian Eno. There are few landscapes as odd in blighty: the juxtaposition of purplish Dunwich Heath with beach and apocalyptic Sizewell Nuclear Power Plant. Time-frozen parish churches that reminded me of Dad's Army, secretive WW2 and Cold War radar sites, villages of 17th century timber housing oddly familiar from Lovejoy; genteel seaside resorts like the becalmed Aldeburgh and the slightly more bustling Southwold, both with distinctively pastel coloured beach huts and houses. Strong, dark Adnams Broadside ale. Weird examples of architectural planning, such as in Thorpeness.

The dating of the different occupants of the house is typically precise: 'Those who are interested in the details will find a statistical account in a letter to the Gentleman's Magazine of 1772, which draws the facts from the Baronet's own papers.' (p.35)

M.R. James ploughs the most English of furrows, in playing upon the mythical and historical exactitude, and their discordance. There is the antiquarian's concern with old books and libraries, inevitably worked into the opening reverie on Suffolk: 'I like the library, too, where you may find anything from a Psalter of the thirteenth century to a Shakespeare quatro.' (p.30) Several of the protagonists have scholarly leanings, as is usual in James; for example, William Crome, the grandson of the erstwhile vicar.

The Michael Reeves film Witchfinder General (1968), almost exclusively filmed in Jamesian Suffolk, comes to mind in Sir Richard's foolhardy burning of Mrs Mothersole's empty coffin, reviving 'for a time all the stories of witch-trials and of the exploits of the witches, dormant for forty years.' (p.35) History will not relinquish its grip, its fascination; James's characters and landscape (from whatever stage in time) resound with the past. It seems natural for James to set the climactic part of his story in 1754 and then have characters who have never previously met striking up an acquaintance based upon familial history: upon meeting William Crome, Sir Richard says, 'the name of Crome is always a passport to Castringham. I am glad to renew a friendship of two generations' standing.' (p.37)

The 'Castringham sickness'. Matter-of-fact, localised tragedy. There is an unknowable quality to the sequence of events which is chronologically related; as ever in MRJ, there is no visible violence, but rather the suggestion of malevolence; no marks of violence, but a window left open. The initial suggestion that it might a squirrel running up and down the stem of the ash seems plausible enough, and even when we get clearer elucidation of the threat, it is left opaque, mystical almost: 'Such a nest of catarrhs and agues was never seen.' (p.37) Ultimately, as is the case in other good weird fiction - and indeed pure cinema - 'the reader must judge for himself.' (p.31)

The topography of the house and its grounds is methodically set out, James creating an eerie atmosphere. It will be interesting to see whether David Rudkin's Ghost Story for Christmas version (TX: BBC1, 23/12/1975) manages to capture the subtle dread of the Jamesian prose. From watching Rudkin's previous Play for Today, Penda's Fen (TX: 21/03/1974), it would seem Rudkin would be an ideal adaptor of this sort of English piece, which is so much about the pull of landscape and ghosts of the past.


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