The Residence at Whitminster by M.R. James


“On the table near the doctor’s elbow was a green cloth, and upon it what he would have called a silver standish—a tray with inkstands—“

I absorbed, at first, the backstory as its own frontstory (of two youths, one called Saul, meddling with some ‘game’ of ‘second sight’ in the residence’s garden), leading to the main story involving Dr Oldys and his niece Mary, and all this is achieved by dint of the naively instinctive  narrator somehow real-time reviewing for me an eventual gestalt of evil. And I do not use the word ‘evil’ lightly there, as I have received  from this work more of a sense of pervasive evil than in any other M.R. James story. Not just an experience of frissons from a ghost story nor even a rollercoaster of a horror story, but an experience of sheer evil. And this is not lightened by the otherwise amusing stream-of-consciousness monologues of Mrs Maple (outbursts that she uses as a series of off-the-point  tripswitches for her confused memory) but she nevertheless conveys some of this evil. I surely need not describe to you in detail, myself, with my own tricksy memory, the well-evoked nature of the eponymous residence and the characters themselves over generations because these evocations are readily available in the story itself. I will just finish with a hint of some of its ingredients, such as the ‘sawflies’, the ‘talisman’ and the ‘black cockerel’, and more hints below as example quotations from the text, quotations that (beware!) may be spoilers or worse!  — ingredients that build and build and build towards  an eventual bathetic, yes, bathetic ending, but an ending  that was therefore of some relief to me from the evil!  — despite the promise of a later “Jack-in the-box” that might spring out at me one day! (But who is Miss Bates?)

 “…and say on my authority that he is to stop the clock chimes at sunset:”

“Her husband had told her often enough that it would make a suitable sacrifice to Æsculapius;”

“…ichneumon fly (Ophion obscurum), and not the true sawfly, is meant.”

“….constantly turning a pale face to look behind him, as if he feared a pursuer: and, indeed, pursuers were following hard after him. Their shapes were but dimly seen, their number—three or four, perhaps, only guessed. I suppose they were on the whole more like dogs than anything else, but dogs such as we have seen they assuredly were not.”

“…a mass of linen neatly folded: upon which, as I looked with curiosity that began to be tinged with horror, I perceived a movement in it, and a pink hand was thrust out of the folds and began to grope feebly in the air.”

“‘What I call a sawfly,’ I said very patiently, ‘is a red animal, like a daddy-longlegs, but not so big, perhaps an inch long, perhaps less. It is very hard in the body, and to me’— […] ‘…an insect’s leg, by the shape of it: but, Lord, what a size! Why the beast must have been as tall as I am. And now you tell me sawflies are an inch long or less.’”

“Only to come near the door and you’d hear them pattering up against it, and once you opened it, dash at you, they would, as if they’d eat you. […] …and them that was with him, why they were such as would strip the skin from the child in its grave; and a withered heart makes an ugly thin ghost, says Mr. Simpkins. But they turned on him at the last, he says, and there’s the mark still to be seen on the minster door where they run him down.”

“Mr. Simpkins’s grandfather to see him out of his window of a dark night going about from one grave to another in the yard with a candle, and them that was with him following through the grass at his heels: and one night him to come right up to old Mr. Simpkins’s window that gives on the yard and press his face up against it to find out if there was any one in the room that could see him:”

“Safe bind, safe find,…”

(Miss Bates is a character in Jane Austen.)


My other reviews of M.R. James:

Above image is by Tony Lovell for The HA of HA (2011)

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