‘Lost Hearts’ by M. R. James: Short Story Analysis
Montague Rhodes James or M. R. James is one of the finest ghost story writers the world has ever had, and is indeed the father of the scholarly and academician Victorian ghost story. His stories are seminal to the glossary of ghost stories even in our time, and ‘Lost Hearts’ is definitely one of his scariest yet, a very academic work. The story tells us a lot about M. R. James’ life as well as his works. ‘Lost Hearts’ as a title could not be nearer the truth where this short story is concerned. Not only does the character Mr. Abney seek mastery over the dark arts by consuming the ashes of a child’s living heart, but also the fact that to do so, he and anyone for that matter could be ‘lacking a heart’ or the emotions. Stephen Elliott, in the story, who is soon to be twelve years old, is a brave lad, indicative of a strong willpower – a strong heart as one would conclude. He could have easily ‘lost heart’ in the face of the devilry that was at work in Aswarby Hall, but he stays strong and probably compared to all the characters in the story, is the only one not to lose his heart physically as well as metaphorically.
We know that the boy Stephen Elliott has a strong heart and independent spirit as he is shown to be reading Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, a classic, which is the very epitome of a singular mind and survival of the fittest. Stephen survives with his heart intact as well as his sanity in check. It is us readers who are terrified beyond all proportion about the nature of what Mr. Abney is planning to do with the boy. The first few lines in the story make mention of the word ‘heart’ indicative that the vital organ ‘the heart’ is going to be a primary feature of this ghost story. Also, in the beginning, M. R. James makes mention of Aswarby Hall being studded with oaks and firs which is indicative of ancient evil, the old world and dark arts. The scene is therefore set in M. R. James meticulous work to frighten the living daylights out of his Victorian English population. There are several references to academic works and symbols throughout the story. This brings us directly to the fact that James was a man who dabbled in old books of history, ancient books and in old churches, studying their books, documents, etc. There is a mention of the famous vaults of St. Michan’s Church, in Dublin, which M. R. James says to his Victorian readers and audience, had the notoriety of doing the most unchristian like act of actually ‘preserving corpses from decay for centuries’. There are the two ghosts that make very dramatic appearances and disappearances in this story, both from whom Mr. Abney has taken their hearts from their chests while they were alive, and most probably in a very ancient ritual of Greek origin burnt their hearts to ashes, mixed them in port or red wine and drank it up. One can easily cringe when one thinks of the acute and unbearable pain these innocent children had to face. The dead girl, Phoebe, was dumped in a disused bathroom while the boy Giovanni in the wine cellar. Both children were independent individuals, Phoebe was a gypsy girl, while Giovanni was a wandering Italian lad. Both will not be missed immediately; they are not part of everyday society which is perfect for the diabolical mind of Mr. Abney. Stephen, being without family, too would have suffered from the same fate if not for an unseen deliverer of salvation, which was most probably the dead ghosts taking their vengeance upon their evildoer. The story makes mention of the maid, Mrs. Bunch, who takes very quickly to Stephen, and the butler Parkes. There is a mention of them ‘conducting Stephen to the lower regions’ suggestive that they were taking him into the dark world of Mr. Abney. The horror of the disused bathroom and wine cellar chaos is chronicled through their eyes which makes the story spooky and unnerving. Mr. Abney gives off by his persona the character of a paedophile who is not in charge of his lust which is obvious when he repeatedly asked Stephen for his birth date. Let us also not forget the potent symbol mentioned in the story of ‘Mithras slaying a bull’ which in the Greek and Roman period symbolized the ‘sacrificial animal’ or ‘sacrifice for a purpose of unearthly nature’. Parkes and Mrs. Bunch are clueless to the strange goings-on in their place of residence and work. Mrs. Bunch gets unnerved and so do the readers, when the image of the long nails scratching on the heart region of Stephen’s nightgown and on his closed bedroom door is mentioned. Again, these are very creepy descriptions of a diabolic nature, making us however think that it is the two ghosts who are the evildoers and not Mr. Abney. M. R. James has this talent for giving detailed explanations after events in his stories to ratify his point. He does it in almost all his stories and he does so here in ‘Lost Hearts’ as well. Goodness triumphs over evil, but does it? Remember the claw marks by the ghost Giovanni on Stephen’s nightgown and his door. Was he wanting to rip out the boy’s heart? Was it the intention of the ghosts to just get any heart at hand or were they keen on only Mr. Abney’s heart? That is a question that we are left with to conjecture upon. Otherwise, this is a ghost story worthy of making your heart miss a few beats.
I am a lover of horror literature, and ghost stories are always a pleasure to read, ponder upon and then review. M. R. James is my second best ghost story writer after Bram Stoker. If you are interested in more book reviews, short story analysis and author interviews, visit my blog insaneowl.com. If you want to buy my books, then visit my website fizapathanpublishing.us or fizapathan.com. Happy reading to you always this coming week!
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