‘A School Story’ by M. R. James: Short Story Analysis
M. R. James is usually known as the academic horror story writer and teller. There is always an academic or studious side to his stories as well as his prime characters. This story takes place in a private school through the reminisces of one man who had an unusual and very frightful experience in his boyhood days. The story has three dimensions to it: the present, the recollection of the past, and a sequel. The story is scary, odious, and cleverly penned with a masterstroke at the end. It begins with two adults discussing supernatural events they encountered when at school. They laugh and joke about the various crazy ghost stories and folklore shared by boy students in those days at these English schools. Everything seems genial until one of the men starts to tell an uncomfortable experience he had in his private school. The other man sits back and listens enthralled to what his storyteller had to say.
According to the narrator of this story, he and his friend had once faced a supernatural experience while at a private school boarding house. His friend’s name was McLeod. McLeod is portrayed by M. R. James to be a very vulnerable person, open to the ministrations of the supernatural, and highly attuned to the forces that do not govern this realm of existence. Notice in the story that it is through Mcleod as a medium that the specter from the well, first tries to communicate with the teacher of Latin Grammar called Sampson. The specter communicates his warning to Sampson twice, once through Mcleod as a medium, and second on its own through another paranormal scrap of paper from the past. There are only two messages for Sampson, the teacher who had traveled far and wide and who regaled his students with many a story:
- Remember the well among the four.
- If you don’t come to me, I’ll come to you.
McLeod was the innocent bearer of the first message. He did it as he felt a spark of inspiration when in Latin Grammar class he had to write a sentence using the word ‘remember’. The specter needed a host to enter the domain of the school and he found his medium in McLeod. We notice in the story that McLeod was down with a chill after that experience. The second happened without the need for a human medium. Now the specter was capable enough of penning down a message either in blood or sympathetic ink on another scrap of paper. This time, the class was supposed to pen a conditional sentence in Latin expressing a future consequence. The second message terrifies Sampson and he hurries out of class. The narrator reads the paper and is stunned because there were only sixteen boys in class but this was the seventeenth scrap of paper handed over to Sampson. Everyone in the class said that they had nothing to do with the scrap; they accounted for their assignments which added to sixteen. Then where did number seventeen come from? This is M. R. James at his best, trying to terrorize the reader with a scholastic story.
By reading the highly thrilling story, we know that the specter does come to Sampson one night by crawling up his window. We know he beckons to him in a sinister manner to come to him which was witnessed by the narrator and McLeod. Notice, here again, McLeod’s sharp senses are focused upon, as it is he who sees the specter and then wakes up the narrator to take a look. After such a frightful night, it is no wonder that the narrator stops keeping in touch with McLeod in his adult life.
Sampson the master, is fun-loving with a murky past. He carries around with him on his gold watch chain, a coin which was a Byzantium relic. His initials were engraved crudely on it as well as a date. It is obvious to us who have read the story that Sampson was a murderer. He was a murderer with a terrible past and it is obvious to our understanding after we read ‘A School Story’ that the specter was a victim of Sampson who he killed and dumped into an old well. Somehow the specter ‘found’ him at his new abode teaching schoolboys, and mysteriously dragged him back to the bottom of the well thus killing him. The specter thus has his revenge. The description of the crawling up of the ‘wet’ and ‘not alive’ creature seen by the narrator and McLeod is unnerving and very frightful to think of. Note that they don’t see Sampson being taken by the specter or the specter going off anywhere. But, the next day ‘they felt very cheap’ because of:
- Disturbance in sleep.
- Lack of sleep.
- They had just witnessed something of the supernatural.
Sampson had cheated someone in the past. That someone came back to avenge himself. It may have had something to do with the Byzantium coin or not necessarily. However, Sampson after the night of the ‘visit’ disappears from the school never to be heard of again. Here comes the third part of the story. The three parts of the story follow this chronology:
- The Present: Two adult males discussing their school days.
- The Past: The narrator telling the tale of Sampson.
- The Sequel: A third party overhearing the conversation and coming across something startling later.
In the sequel, the third party a guest in a person’s country house in Ireland was shown the Byzantium coin of Sampson whose dead body was found in the well along with another older corpse. The frightening part of the revelation is that:
- The other corpse was dead much earlier than Sampson but had his hands throttling the schoolmaster.
- They had been in that well for thirty years, exactly the period since Sampson had disappeared.
- They were found in a well which was mentioned in the message given to Sampson by McLeod.
The story indicates that when a soul wants to take its revenge, it can travel through any distance to do so. In this case, Sampson thought he could run away from his past but the past came calling on him. The third party of this story must have got the shock of his life on seeing the coin and realizing what he was witnessing. These ‘third party’ additions are very common in M. R. James’s short stories. It just adds to the wholesomeness of the tale which otherwise would seem incomplete. I would not call these endings a ‘twist in the tale’, rather, I would call them additions done purposefully with full intent to create completeness to an otherwise unsolvable puzzle thus open to conjecture. Some takeaway points are there in this story which is as follows:
- When the specter was seen by the two boys, they did not cry out for help because they were not sure they were supposed to be seeing what they were witnessing.
- Sampson thinks at first that McLeod was pulling a prank on him or knew something of his past until he got the second message from the dead.
- McLeod was very intuitional.
- There are many Latin references in this story that are translated effortlessly by the master storyteller M. R. James.
- Sampson, probably, after having a terrible but adventuresome past wanted to put his past behind him and start afresh.
I read this short story by M. R. James in the year 2002 when I was still a schoolgirl at Bombay Scottish School. It spooked me then, and it still spooks me now. I love James’s stories and it is always a pleasure to analyze his stories on my blog. I hope to analyze more of his stories as the weeks go by.
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