M.R. James’ “Lost Hearts”

I just re-read the M.R. James story “Lost Hearts” about an orphaned boy named Stephen who is sent to live with his uncle, Mr. Abney, who has ulterior motives. Apparently, he is an alchemist and intends to use Stephen for a ritual sacrifice, but the ghosts of his uncle’s previous young tenants intervene to spare the lad from their gruesome fates. A very dark tale, but one with a happy (?) ending.

Mr Abney gets his comeuppance in an illustration by Douglas Walters; note the spirit in the brazier.

Mr Abney gets his comeuppance in an illustration by Douglas Walters; note the spirit in the brazier.

I first read this back in the 90’s in a collection of ghost stories illustrated by Walt Sturrock, which my cousin Jason used to own. It made an impression on me then, but for some reason I didn’t really pursue James’ work like I should have, maybe because I was just starting to collect Lovecraft and was singularly focused at the time.

“Ghosts: A Classic Collection” illustrated by Walt Sturrock.

However, reading it again, some twenty plus years later, I am impressed with it’s power and subtlety. It is a little gory in spots and it is also one of the few stories where James goes against his famous maxim that “…amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story.” [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M._R._James#Ghost_stories, retrieved 12/16/2014]

The ghosts as they appear in the 1973 BBC adaptation; note the log fingernails, which they later put to good use.

The ghosts as they appear in the 1973 BBC adaptation; note the long fingernails, which they later put to good use.

There have been two adaptations of the story to date, one which appeared in the TV series “Mystery and Imagination” in March of 1966, of which no archival print is known to have survived, then again for the BBC series “A Ghost Story for Christmas”, in 1973. This version is notable for the emphasis on the music of the hurdy gurdy which the the Italian boy, one of the spirits looking out for young Stephen, used to to play before he “disappeared”. Both his ghost as well as the young gypsy girl, are sad and frightening figures in the story, with gaunt features, long pointy fingernails and cavernous holes in their chests, where their hearts had once been.

An illustration featuring the ghosts of the alchemist's previous victims for the Ghosts & Scholars publication by Paul Lowe.

An illustration featuring the ghosts of the alchemist’s previous victims for the Ghosts & Scholars publication by Paul Lowe.

“Whilst the girl stood still, half smiling, with her hands clasped over her heart, the boy, a thin shape, with black hair and ragged clothing, raised his arms in the air with an appearance of menace and of unappeasable  hunger and longing. The moon shone upon his almost transparent hands, and Stephen saw that the nails were fearfully long and that the light shone through them. As he stood with his arms thus raised, he disclosed a terrifying spectacle. On the left side of his chest there opened a black and gaping rent; and there fell upon Stephen’s brain, rather than upon his ear, the impression of one of those hungry and desolate cries that he had heard resounding over the woods of Aswarby all that evening. In another moment this dreadful pair had moved swiftly and noiselessly over the dry gravel, and he saw them no more.” [James, M.R. 2008. Lost Hearts. The Haunted Dolls’ House. pg 82. London: Penguin Books]

“Ghost Stories of an Antiquary” (1953, Pan Books).

The tale was originally collected in James’ “Ghost Stories of an Antiquary”, but has been anthologized many times since and reprinted in various modern collections of James’ stories including “Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales” [2009, Penguin].

“Lost Hearts and Other Chilling Tales” (2009, Penguin Books).

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