this is the second m.r. james story that seth included in his ghost stories for christmas series (after The Diary of Mr. Poynter: A Ghost Story for Christmas, which is about HAUNTED CURTAINS!!!). this one is equally bonkers. it’s a genre chimera most accurately, albeit cumbersomely, described as a found-epistolary ghost story/murder mystery with additional horror elements coming from…puppets.
The letters which I now publish were sent to me recently by a person who knows me to be interested in ghost stories. There is no doubt about their authenticity. The paper on which they are written, the ink, and the whole external aspect put their date beyond the reach of question.
what follows are six letters written by a man to his brother concerning his investigation into the disappearance of their uncle henry, the rector of a rural village.
the author of these letters repairs to this village over the xmas holidays to assist in the search for his not-particularly-beloved uncle, as the situation develops from disappearance to suspected death to homicide, offset by appearances of a dickensian innkeeper and his bewildering and irrelevant(?) story about a disagreement about beer that i truly i never understood, partially due to having to parse his (santa?) clause-riddled speeches:
“When I think,” he said, “of the language that man see fit to employ to me in this here parlour over no more a matter than a cask of beer—such a thing as I told him might happen any day of the week to a man with a family—though as it turned out he was quite under a mistake, and that I knew at the time, only I was that shocked to hear him I couldn’t lay my tongue to the right expression.”
He stopped abruptly and eyed me with some embarrassment. I only said, “Dear me, I’m sorry to hear you had any little differences: I suppose my uncle will be a good deal missed in the parish?” Mr. Bowman drew a long breath. “Ah, yes!” he said; “your uncle! You’ll understand me when I say that for the moment it had slipped my remembrance that he was a relative; and natural enough, I must say, as it should, for as to you bearing any resemblance to—to him, the notion of any such a thing is clean ridiculous. All the same, ‘ad I ‘ave bore it in my mind, you’ll be among the first to feel, I’m sure, as I should have abstained my lips, or rather I should not have abstained my lips with no such reflections.”
he makes several equally chatterboxy appearances, and i have no earthly idea why he took up so much space in this <50-page story, other than to be comic relief against the real selling point of the piece—the narrator’s creepy-creepy supernaturally-enhanced christmas eve dream sequence, featuring a punch-and-judy show whose violence is eerily realistic.
The crack of the stick on their skulls, which in the ordinary way delights me, had here a crushing sound as if the bone was giving way, and the victims quivered and kicked as they lay. The baby—it sounds more ridiculous as I go on—the baby, I am sure, was alive. Punch wrung its neck, and if the choke or squeak which it gave were not real, I know nothing of reality.
The stage got perceptibly darker as each crime was consummated, and at last there was one murder which was done quite in the dark, so that I could see nothing of the victim, and took some time to effect. It was accompanied by hard breathing and horrid muffled sounds, and after it Punch came and sat on the footboard and fanned himself and looked at his shoes, which were bloody, and hung his head on one side, and sniggered in so deadly a fashion that I saw some of those beside me cover their faces, and I would gladly have done the same.
this dream will tell him everything he needs to know about his uncle’s disappearance, if he knows how to interpret it. ‘course, it doesn’t matter if he interprets it correctly or not, because anything that can scootch into yer dreams doesn’t need a proxy to effectuate their revenge plots, which will soon become clear.
on the first day of christmas, my true love gave to me: several bodies, zero motives, and absolutely no closure on the matter of the beer disagreement.
not as memorable as haunted curtains, but still, a good creepy story for your xmas eve zoom party.