‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ was published in the year 1919 in the collection titled ‘The Thin Ghost and Others’ by M.R. James. James is considered one of the greatest 19th-century ghost story writers of all time. He was an antiquarian as well as a scholar. He led a very active academic life and also had a fascination for the macabre. ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ is typical of James’ style, where he uses his knowledge of antiquarianism and history to give a bookish but chilly atmosphere to his ghost story. It is in a lighter vein compared to his other titles, where very little harm comes to the unfortunate protagonists in the tale. It has minimal suspenseful appeal and focuses more on intrigue and character development which is characteristic of his style in the early 20th century. This title is not as chilling and horrific as his otherwise darker stories in his famous collection ‘Ghost Stories of an Antiquary’ published in 1904.
A well-educated and rich bookworm called James Denton is furnishing his new home in Warwick. He will be living there in grand style with his only relative, his unmarried aunt, Miss Denton. She is a fashionable woman who likes to keep appearances. She charges James Denton to purchase chintzes or a shiny cotton cloth with a printed design, usually of flowers, for making curtains for the new home. He forgets to do so since he goes to a book auction sales room to go through the titles placed there. He meets with a very strange eccentric who directs his attention to the diaries of Mr Poynter, a four-volume set from 1710 onwards. James purchases the books, where he later finds a strange design pattern pinned to one of the pages. Miss Denton also examines the designs and appreciates them very much. They decided to use the medieval design for their new curtains because they seemed so extraordinarily unique and beautiful. However, not only the artist making the design on the block but also the manager of the firm making the curtains, Mr. Cattel, felt there was something peculiar about the design. The artist went even to the extent of abhorring the design and stating that it was evil. The curtains are made after a wait of six months, falling in the month of October. The mansion is finally furnished, the curtains are put up in certain rooms, and a new life commences. However, while sleeping at night in his room where the curtains are hung, James Denton feels cold because of a constant unusual wind or draft and all the time gets the premonition that some eye is peeping from the vertical bands in the curtain and staring at him. His horror is fully manifest when on the following night while dozing in his armchair in the same bedroom, he strokes a sort of hairy ball-like creature who he at first thinks to be his spaniel. When he opens his eyes to his horror and shock, he sees before him a long form of a human being with no facial features and covered completely with long thick strands of hair, which was the pattern of the new curtains. He flees from his room and vacates the mansion for good. He reads over the four volumes of Mr Poynter’s diaries at a seaside resort. He comes across two stuck pages where the mystery of the hair-like slithering creature is revealed to be a certain young nobleman called Everard Charlett, who led a life of debauchery and was an unremorseful alcoholic. It is said that he committed unnameable evil acts and that when he was found dead in a ditch, he was hairless, as if the hair was plucked out off his head. But when buried and then exhumed later, the coffin was found to have no body of the handsome young man but only his long, beautiful hair, which he adored and was proud of.
As mentioned before, this short story is narrated in a very lighter vein. Instead of absolute horror, one gets a sort of creepy feeling of unease at the most but nothing else. Instead, the story comes off as highly ‘hair-larious’, which would give a reader something to laugh about sadistically and cynically to think of the young and handsome Everard Charlett selling his soul to evil just to preserve his monstrously long but beautiful luxurious hair in the afterlife. There are not many gothic elements to the story, but it does have certain major points of analysis to be taken note of:
M.R. James Classic Style Evident
The usual style of M.R. James is evident in the story, which I have summarized as the Artifact, Mystery, Evil, and Attack style. First, an ‘artifact’ of antiquarian importance and curiosity is found by a treasure seeker or a book of antiquarian value. This is usually found by a scholar or avid bookworm of the time. The artifact or book seems appealing to the discoverer but still holds a sense of ‘mystery’ or ‘mysterious allure’ to it, which attracts the treasure hunter or the inquisitive more than its actual value. As the artifact or book remains with the antiquarian, its ‘evil’ nature starts appearing in ascending order of intensity until the final climax where the artifact or the spectre, ghost, phantom, demon et al., which was contained in that artifact or book either ‘attacks’ with an intention to kill or with the intent of pure malice and revenge. After this, the truth is revealed by analysing previously unread data or undiscovered material and witnesses. ‘The Diary of Mr Poynter’ too falls into this same category of Artifact, Mystery, Evil, and Attack category. In this case, James Denton was saved from the clutches of the ‘hair-raising’ slithering creature who could have been either Everard come back to life or a possessed thick and knotted band of his spectral hair. Note that since the curtains were only placed in a few rooms, which included James Denton’s and not his aunt, she did not witness the horror of the cursed hair of Everard. Notice also that M.R. James considers moral depravity, maliciousness, pride, and vanity equal in the line of Satanism. According to the diarist who chronicles the life of Everard Charlett, he states that the young man was often called Absalom, who was one of the most beautiful and power-hungry sons of King David from the Holy Bible. Absalom’s story is mentioned in the Second Book of Samuel from chapters 13 to 19 (2 Samuel 13-19). Absalom was a favourite son of King David, and yet, despite his father’s unfailing blind love, Absalom wanted to overthrow him and become King of Israel. He was killed by getting caught in a tree branch, and his doings shortened the life of King David. The father of Absalom was never the same again and remained inconsolable because of the loss of his son. Like the Biblical Absalom, Everard, by his wicked actions, was said to have shortened the life of his own father, Sir Job Charlett. Since, like Absalom, he dared to dethrone the anointed of God, he was meant for damnation.
It is Mr. Cattell who is fond of William Shakespeare’s works and quotes some meaningful lines in the text. At the end of the story, it is he who, in all practicality, has the last word and states that the case of the ‘hair-spectre’ being resurrected from the new curtains is something equal to Hamlet’s classic speech:
There are more things (in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy)Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5
This is stated by Hamlet when Horatio does not believe in the appearance of the ghost of his father as told to them by the night watch. It indicates that even Mr. Cattell found it difficult to believe but that practicality and logic cannot solve things like this. Another reference is made when Mr. Cattell first shows a great interest in taking on the job of making the design and the curtains. He mentions that he was fond of old medieval designs like the pattern from Mr. Poynter’s diary, unlike the modern generation who considered such things as ‘unconsidered trifles’. Here, he quotes William Shakespeare from ‘The Winter’s Tale’ regarding Autolycus, who is regarded as a worthless peddler who even steals from a clown but helps the lovers Perdita and Florizel to escape. He considers such acts of his thus to be trifles or not worth anything much or not important:
A snapper-up of unconsidered trifles.The Winter’s Tale Act 4, Scene 3
He also mentions a reference to an educated Shakespeare scholar who came to the shop to whom he quoted about Hercules’s painted cloth. The customer had a row with Mr. Cattell on this matter, which bothered the manager. The painted cloth of Hercules, which some consider feminine at times or womanly, is in reference to the play ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’ but Shakespeare used this historical theme of Hercules in most of his works. This womanly cloth is a somewhat subtle allusion to the effeminate behaviour of Everard Charlett, who kept his hair long like a woman the way Hercules had to wear a woman’s robe while as Omphale’s slave. These three quotations mentioned in the text have a very clear and sometimes half-hidden reference to the mystery of this short story.
Fashionable Public Life of the 19th Century
At the beginning of the text, Miss Denton is livid that James Denton forgot to buy the chintzes. She rambles about her worries and keeping up appearances as James Denton’s organizer, which comes off as a bit of nagging but with a humorous tone highlighting her compulsive nature. She is portrayed as a talker of all futile topics. She is a fashionable woman of taste and wants the best for their lavish new home. Thus, it indicates that she is highly suggestible, and it is she who is attracted to the design of the hair when it falls out of the diary. Before the design, Miss Denton opened the book randomly to a page where she found an earwig, to her disgust. An earwig is a small brown insect with a long body and two curved pointed parts or pincers that stick out at the back end of its body. It is considered to enter a person’s ear when they are asleep. In the English language, it is even supposed to be an indirect reference to a gossiper or a plain busybody, which points to Miss Denton herself, which is amusing to read. The life of scholars and academicians in the 19th century was lavish, and so was the life of James Denton and his aunt. They regularly have to attend to guests and have get-togethers which the aunt actually enjoys inwardly but still makes a big show of complaining about it to her disinterested nephew. She is vain and proud of the design, which she wishes no one to replicate. She is rich but complains about the ten pounds James Denton spends on the four volumes of the diary like a thrifty woman. The design she admired was nothing but knotted hair that probably caught her fancy because of its demonic effects.
The hair creature emerged from the design pattern. It was sort of activated the moment the top vertical bands were tied together like the strand of hair on a person’s head. This creature turns out to be one of the most bizarre and almost ridiculous of M.R. James’ ghosts. He does manage to indicate it’s evil through its cold body, snake-like movement on the ground, and missing facial features. At the end of the text, it is mentioned that the young man wore his own hair. This is obvious because, in the late 1600s and early 1700s, men wore wigs which remarkably is also called a ‘Periwig’, which rhymes with ‘earwig’. Thus, we have three similar themes and words to consider and ponder over –
- Earwig: That gets into the ear like malicious gossip.
- Periwig: That one wore in the 1600’s and 1700’s as an act of normalcy and conformity.
- Wig: That Everard Charlett did not wear because he broke the rules by wearing his own hair.
We can see M.R. James is playing a game of words with his reader. Only when James Denton leaves home and goes to the seaside does he regain clarity about what he witnessed at the new home in Warwickshire. We notice that Mr Poynter got the story from another source which, in his stead, got the information of the design from yet another source. These multiple source ideas is something very common in M.R. James’ stories and lends a sense of authenticity to the tale. Sans Gothic elements, this story comes off as suspenseful but not frightening. To imagine this hairy thing standing up and trying to make a grab at the protagonist does not capture the imagination or haunt the mind. Note that the hair creature returned in his possessed form to the mansion in October, which is the month of witching and dark forces, as well as the fact that Charlett died in October.
Thus, ends the story of ‘The Diary of Mr. Poynter’ a story with a lot of motifs and lightweight data. M.R. James’ notoriety as a splendid ghost story narrator must have made the tale scarier than it actually is.
I enjoyed reading and analyzing the short story titled ‘The Diary of Mr. Poynter’ by classic gentleman horror story writer M.R. James. I hope to re-read and analyze more of his short stories in the coming days. If you are interested in reading more of M.R. James’ short stories I have analyzed, you can check them out here. If you are interested in reading some abridged classic ghost story books, then you can check out my own Rare Classics Series titles, namely ‘Carmilla’ by Sheridan Le Fanu, ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’ by Washington Irving, and ‘The Canterville Ghost’ by Oscar Wilde here. I hope to read and review more ghost stories shortly.
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