Tuesday, May 25, 2021

A Bit About "The Ash-tree"

Tangled web, and all that.

Allusions to the work of British author M. R. James (1862-1936) figure into many of the books written by John Bellairs and Brad Strickland. I thought I would empty out the archive and mention some connections.

"The Ash-tree" is a short horror story included in James’s first collection, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). In the story, landowner Sir Matthew Fell testifies against a local woman found guilty of being a witch and soon is found dead in his manor house. Decades later, his grandson inherits the property and finds an ash tree on the property may be the cause of the problems plaguing the house.

The story shares some minor similarities with The Specter of the Magician's Museum (1998), especially when it comes to sinister subterranean spiders. And really, that is about it in terms of allusions.

In "The Ash-Tree", Sir Richard Fell retreats to a bedroom in Castringham Hall last used some forty years ago by his grandfather, who died there under mysterious conditions. That night, Sir Richard's bedroom is visited by several "round and brownish" creatures. One of them, "drops off the bed with a soft plump like a kitten and is out of the window with a flash'.

In Specter, as Lewis Barnavelt follows Rose Rita Pottinger along Mansion Street, he sees something dark creeping along beside her at the base of a hedge. Lewis thinks it looks like a "steel-gray kitten or puppy, except that it moved strangely, in jerky darts." Suddenly Lewis sees what it is:
"When the shape moved from the shade into the sunshine, it simply vanished, becoming as transparent as a soap bubble. [...] In the single instant before it had disappeared, the shape had looked as if it had long, busy legs and a round, shiny body. It looked like a spider the size of a kitten."
At the conclusion of the James story, a gardener sets the old tree ablaze and soon from within:
"...a round body covered with fire—the size of a man's head—appear[ed] very suddenly... [...] ...the remains of an enormous spider, veinous and seared! And, as the fire burned lower down, more terrible bodies like this began to break out from the trunk, and it was seen that these were covered with grayish hair."
Further, below the tree was found
"...a rounded hollow place in the earth, wherein were two or three bodies of these creatures that had plainly been smothered by the smoke; and, what is to me more curious, at the side of this den, against the wall, was crouching the anatomy or skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones, having some remains of black hair...."
In the final scenes of Specter, Rose Rita speaks the words allowing her to access the secrets hidden under the grave marker of Belle Frisson. At the end of a long passageway she finds a small temple where the Frisson awaits her victim:
The creature on the throne held her arm in her deadly grip. Rose Rita stared at the woman and felt as if she were going insane.

A skeleton was inside the white linen robe—a skeleton with hollow eye sockets and a fierce grin. The skeleton had a horrible kind of flesh on its bones—for over every inch of its face, swarming and spinning, crawled millions and millions of tiny spiders, their eyes shimmering, their busy legs thrashing.

The skeleton’s grinning mouth moved, and the whispery voice said, “They weave me new flesh to wear. It will do. It will do.”
For what it's worth, I did refer to the version of "The Ash-tree" found on the web.

I think I need a vacation.

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