When Mr Crome thought of starting for home, about half past nine o`clock, Sir Matthew and he took a preliminary turn on the gravelled walk at the back of the house. The only incident which struck Mr Crome was this: they were in sight of the ash- tree which I described as growing near the windows of the building, when Sir Matthew stopped and said: ” What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.”
The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing of it`s colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs.”
In the axis of the year, at the traditional time for telling ghost stories, it would be wise to pull up a chair in front of a warm, comforting fire, and listen in guttering candle light, while shadows danced upon the walls, and darkness lurked in hidden corners, to the chilling supernatural tales of Montague Rhodes James. I have written about this master story teller before, of how he had no time for benign spirits with friendly inclinations; he is a weaver of classic ghost stories – and I use the word `ghost`, for his tales are not of the sledgehammer, horror variety of blood and violence, but of the sinister realm of vengeful phantoms and ethereal apparitions barely discernible out of the corner of the eye; a glimpsed, but never fully revealed terror just lurking out of sight. His skill is in winkling out the irrational, psychological terrors from the brain that had been buried in the unconscious darkness of our primeval imaginations, that makes the most sensible reader look nervously under the bed to check for unwanted visitors.
James`s own fears were possibly in evidence when he penned The Ash Tree, because it seems to me, that only an arachnophobe could have written it. A splendid sense of gloom and foreboding hangs over the story, as Sir Richard takes possession of not just the family mansion, but of the consequences of an ancestral crime and curse which has taken the lives of several family members down the years.
In the year 1690, the district in which the Hall is situated was the scene of a number of witch trials; farm animals were dying, and, in an age when science had not yet superseded superstition, any woman who behaved in any way out of the ordinary, was ripe for accusation of witchcraft. The then proprietor of Castringham Hall, Sir Matthew Fell, had seen a certain Mrs Mothersole gathering sprigs from the ash tree near his property at full moon on several occasions. That was enough to indict, and condemn her to be hung as a witch. At her execution, all she would say was, “There will be guests at the Hall.” From this moment on, a pall of sickness and death descended upon the inhabitants of the Hall, as all the time, the ash-tree grew more bounteously strong in growth, year by year. Sir Matthew Fell is found dead in his bed next morning, his body black, poisoned and twisted, with a look of stricken pain and terror, on a face looking out with bulging eyes towards the branches of the ash-tree scratching against the window panes. Mrs Mothersole is presumably dead and buried, but her final words begin to gather momentum and weight. Enter Sir Richard, and his hopes of a family to buck the unhappy trend of childless proprietors of the Hall: but first he wants a brand, spanking new family pew in the church; for this, several untended graves on the unhallowed side of the building need to be moved. Among them was that of Mrs Mothersole, but when her coffin was broken open, not a sight of bones was to be found. Where could she be? Because of his nights being constantly disturbed by the branches of the ash-tree scratching against his bedroom windows, Sir Richard is determined the next day to cut the thing down and have done with it. Off he goes by candle light, through the old, dark, creaking house, to his bed chamber. 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 thro 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 like a flash; another-four-and after that there is quiet again.
“Thou shalt seek me in the morning, and I shall not be.”
As with Sir Matthew, so with Sir Richard – dead and black in his bed!
There is a thread of sly humour which runs through the stories of M.R. James which only increases the sense of foreboding when the spectres from the underworld finally decide that there has been enough playing with the mouse, and crashes down on their victims like a ton of phantasmagorical bricks. Pay back for our unfortunate protagonists comes on swift wings.
With poor Sir Richard stone cold dead in his bed, the household flock to the window when they hear the howling of a cat; it sits in the ash-tree, looking down a hollow with keen interest at something moving and screeching, whether with pleasure or pain, who knows? Now the cat has fallen into the bowels of the great tree, and is making a terrible commotion; the screams and noise of struggle persist as a lantern is lowered through the tree trunk by the gardener, and there it`s yellow light shows a look of incredulous terror and fright upon his face, as he falls back, letting go of the lantern, which crashes to the bottom, setting light to the tree. The next day, they gather around the monstrous sight of the blackened and shrivelled form of Mrs Mothersole, sitting in her throne of charred wood, surrounded by her nightmarish children of death, hell and torment. No more shall they go a roving. It`s a story which displays an intense, hallucinogenic quality, of psychological unease, moral dread, and genuine fear. It`s entirely what one expects from the master of his genre.