Monday, January 3, 2011

telling ghost stories for Christmas

or, Our second visit to Hemingford Grey.

"Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.” (Jerome K. Jerome, 1891 introduction to an anthology of Christmas ghost stories)
As traditions go, it's one I prefer to eggnog.

My favourite author of ghost stories is Montague Rhodes James, a Cambridge don, mediaevalist and antiquarian. His stories are marvels of restrained creepiness, and for all his indirection, some of his ghosts will stay with me forever. I know one or two people who won't sleep in a room with a spare bed, and I'm probably not the only one who for years could not sleep with any limb protruding from under the covers.
So when I learned that during our time in England there would be an evening of M. R. James ghost stories at Hemingford Grey, I knew I had to be there.
Here, have the whole blurb, since there will be performances going on into January and February:

Ghost Stories told by candlelight

Robert Lloyd Parry presents Ghost Stories by M R James told by candlelight in the 900 year old Music Room

  • Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and The Mezzotint
    Friday 14 January 2011
    Saturday 12 February 2011
    Thursday 24 March 2011
  • O Whistle and I’ll Come to You and The Ash Tree
    Saturday 15 January 2011
    Thursday 10 February 2011
    Friday 25 March 2011
  • A Warning to the Curious and Lost Hearts
    Thursday 13 January 2011
    Friday 11 February 2011
    Saturday 26 March 2011

Doors for all performances open at 7.30pm for 8.00pm
Tickets: £16.00, to include a glass of wine.
For tickets to any of our events please telephone The Manor on 01480 463134 or email

Here is the Music Room, and yes, the gramophone trumpet is just as huge as it looks. You could hide a medium-sized child inside it.
So. I will pass rapidly over the morning and afternoon, which were spent visiting my uncle in nearby Perry, then in missing the last bus to Hemingford Grey, then in taking the bus to St. Ives and walking from the Hemingford roundabout to the Cock, (rather than waiting for a cab) as advised and accompanied by a charming young man who was walking his very energetic spaniel in the hopes of exhausting it. Lastly in having a more-rushed-than-expected dinner with Mark, who had been waiting for hours. But I made it, we did have dinner together and it was very nice, and we walked to the Manor in good time. And I must say that even a high-ceilinged Norman stone chamber, once you've put a dozen or so people in it, does warm up enough for the removal of jackets and scarves.
We found our seats, the same improvised seating of cushions and mattresses that Lucy Boston had put together for music evenings with serviceman and aviators during WWII (Mark and I were seated on the seat cushion removed from her car), candles were lit, and we waited.
I was watching with particular interest not only because 'Oh, Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad' is one of my favourite James stories, but because I was hoping to pick up tips on effective reading aloud, to add to what I'd noted down from Mary Robinette Kowal's presentation on reading your work aloud, at WFC.

Robert Lloyd Parry, dressed and groomed for the part, does have a striking resemblance to photos of Monty James. He carried himself and spoke as I'd expect an Edwardian don to do, and he didn't break character. Mark asked me afterwards whether his tongue had even once touched the roof of his mouth, and I thought not.
Parry--James?--entered, and sat in the high-backed chair provided, a table beside him with a decanter of what looked like brandy but I'm betting was cold tea. He tells the stories, without notes but with occasional props of documents or boxes. He acts the parts, not only 'doing the voices' (as my son called it when I read him bedtime stories) but changing his posture and gestures to indicate different speakers. He does well with James's donnish humour, and gives it good value. He is quite willing (and this is where I would be afraid) to portray the extremes of fear or despair, and able to keep the story coherent while he does.

The first story was The Ash Tree, and I was teasing Mark about spiders beforehand, though I kept from linking my thumbs together to do spider-hands along his leg (I have some sense of self-preservation).
After a break for a glass of wine, we resumed with Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, which turns on the Halloween rule of 'never take anything from the dead', and has one of James's best ghosts ever. I'm torn between this one and 'Lost Hearts' for most memorable ghosts. More use of props, here, as the story begins in a university dining-hall, with the dons chatting. Parry had a bowl of soup on a tray on his lap, and made fine play with the spoon and bowl to establish the seated speaker and the standing interlocutors.
You'll notice I'm not saying much about the plots, because if you haven't read the stories already (and thus know the plots) you should go and read them now. You can do it online, here. Or you can order the dvds of Parry's performances--I bought the first one that night.

After the misadventures of my arriving, it was a relief to learn that Diana Boston had found someone attending who'd come from Cambridge, and we rode back with a young couple who lived only a few blocks from the house where we were staying. The alternative would have been hiking across a pitch-black sodden field to a bus stop outside a defunct hotel, in hopes that the 11 pm bus would stop for us.

A good evening's entertainment, and I didn't dream of spiders or strange hopping, fluttering figures following me, though they'd certainly have had every excuse.


Terri-Lynne said...

You are just full of adventures, aren't you.

batgirl said...

Do you think I should post about Mary Robinette Kowal's talk on readings? I mean, properly?

Terri-Lynne said...

Well, since I missed every panel she did at WFC AND Readercon, my answer would be YES!