by M. R. James
(about 4000 words)
Lost Hearts is a classical horror story in the sense that the thrill comes from the suspense of the narrative, rather than any unexpected occurrence. The story hits the reader with enough hints to know what the end is going to be, so all the excitement is in the waiting for the final, awful reveal.
Stephen Elliot, twelve years old and recently orphaned, has gone to live with his eccentric cousin Mr. Abney at his manor in Lincolnshire. A curious boy, he makes fast friends with the housekeeper, Mrs. Bunch who is delighted to have someone to chat to about all the history of the estate. Some of that history includes other children who have lived there before Elliot, children who have vanished without a trace from their beds, some mornings in March. Mrs. Bunch can’t account for it aside from speculating that such is the nature of grubby foreign kids. But Elliot is hearing strange noises at night, has nightmares about dead girls in bathtubs, and scratches are appearing on his door and night clothes. It could be that the missing children really haven’t gone all that far at all.
Montague Rhodes James was born on August 1, 1862 in Kent, England. A medieval scholar, James is most famous for his ghost stories which were the beginning of whole new schools of horror fiction. James was the son of a clergyman and had a stellar early education, which eventually lead him to positions at both King’s College and Cambridge. On horror writing, he had a very particular philosophy, saying,
Reticence may be an elderly doctrine to preach, yet from the artistic point of view, I am sure it is a sound one. Reticence conduces to effect, blatancy ruins it, and there is much blatancy in a lot of recent stories. They drag in sex too, which is a fatal mistake; sex is tiresome enough in the novels; in a ghost story, or as the backbone of a ghost story, I have no patience with it. At the same time don’t let us be mild and drab. Malevolence and terror, the glare of evil faces, ‘the stony grin of unearthly malice’, pursuing forms in darkness, and ‘long-drawn, distant screams’, are all in place, and so is a modicum of blood, shed with deliberation and carefully husbanded…
M. R. James died on June 12, 1936 at the age of 73.