“May I ask what you intend to do with it next?”
“I’m going to put it back.”
The 1972 Christmas adaptation of the classic M. R. James ghost story, A Warning to the Curious, perfectly captured the unique terror of the story, a terror that was at the heart of most of James’ classics. In the tale, an amateur archaeologist finds himself on the trail of an ancient Anglian crown said to protect the ancient kingdom from invasion, but is pursued by its ghostly protector intent on keeping it hidden. What drives the story is that the past should remain in the past, admired from a distance but never defiled for personal gain, lest destruction be wrought on more than just the individual.
For note, I’m going to discuss the story in detail, so, spoilers ahead. Just a little warning to the curious.
The idea of a ghostly companion isn’t something new; for one such example, Sheridan Le Fanu used a disturbing rendition of a demonic presence in Green Tea, about a man who had his third eye opened to a demon, which takes the shape of a monkey with glowing red eyes that haunts his every waking moment. As James was a great admirer of Le Fanu’s work, and helped compile several volumes of his stories, he would have obviously been aware of this story, and the ghostly companion idea.
For James, however, he uses this device for more than just scaring people. James in his personal life was most at home in the old libraries of Cambridge and Eton, as a medievalist and scholar. He was, for all intents and purposes, very much afraid of radical changes of life, especially through technology and social upheaval. The First World War is said to have affected him tremendously, to hear and know of his students, and friends, dying in the trenches abroad. All of this helps us understand where James comes from when his story puts so much emphasis on maintenance of a status quo, of letting the past lie.
It’s interesting to me that in both the original short story and the BBC adaptation, the main character, Paxton, is going through a period of personal lifestyle change. In the short story he is in the process of moving to Sweden, and spending a last few weeks in England before he follows his belongings abroad. In the BBC version, Paxton has been a clerk for twelve years before his company folded the week before, and he decided to follow up on the story of the Anglian crown as a result of nothing else to do, and nothing left to lose; a chance of making a name for himself. The curiosity in finding an ancient relic, and using it to begin a new life (economically and socially on the screen, as a metaphorical omen of good luck for a new beginning in the original), morphs into Paxton’s eventual undoing.
Even the title spells out the intended meaning of the text; don’t let your curiosity get the better of you. And that in both versions of the text, the re-burial of the crown doesn’t deter the spirit from pursuing Paxton, is further proof that the uncovering of the artifact is not simply a physical defiling of the past, but an endangerment on a larger scale. By removing the crown, there is danger of the shores being invaded, bringing about that social upheaval and radical change that James feared so much. To deter others from doing likewise, and having knock-on effects which negatively influences the wider world, the guardian of the crown must end Paxton’s life. This punishment for curiosity is famously central to H. P. Lovecraft’s stories. Lovecraft would have had the protagonist end up insane, or gods breaking through into our dimension in some way. Lovecraft himself wrote of M R James in many letters and articles, praising him as a master of weird fiction, so the connection between the two writers is certainly there.
In our own days of great social change, with the world going through unprecedented times, the antiquated verse of James’ ghost stories might seem a little stilted. Yet he seemed to express that fear in all of us with the best, that the change overcoming the world might contain some ghosts to be feared. How we choose to take his warning for the world, is up to us, but it seems chilling nonetheless that James was putting into fiction exactly what many people fear will happen if one kicks the hornet’s nest of the past. For an old-fashioned Victorian like James, he wanted the comfort of his history. For any change to happen, we must be prepared to face whatever consequences we unleash.
-Article by Kieran Judge
-If you want more M. R. James, here’s a link to an article I did a few years ago, comparing the device of very literal ‘deadlines’ in James’ Casting The Runes and Koji Suzuki’s novel, Ring: https://horroraddicts.wordpress.com/2018/08/06/odds-and-dead-ends-analysis-of-casting-the-runes-and-ring/