Feature by Matthew G. Rees




The Ash Tree by M.R. James and the revelation of its hideous secret

are admired by Horla editor Matthew G. Rees

THAT M.R. James chose – specifically – an ash tree as the arboreal centrepiece of one of his most famous short stories is one of the pleasures of this tale.

A fact lost to most of us, I suspect, in our own centrally-heated age (though perhaps still understood by those with wood-burning stoves)  is this: ash wood burns well.

Poet Celia Congreve celebrated it in her work The Firewood Poem:

Softwoods flare up quick and fine,
Birch, fir, hazel, larch and pine.
Elm and willow you’ll regret,
Chestnut green and sycamore wet
Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year.
Chestnut’s only good, they say,
If for long ’tis laid away.
But Ash new or Ash old
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold.

Congreve’s cautionary verse concludes: 


… Ash logs smooth and grey
Buy them green or old, sir
And buy up all that come your way
They’re worth their weight in gold sir
Logs to Burn, Logs to burn, Logs to burn,
Logs to save the coal a turn,
Here’s a word to make you wise,
When you hear the woodman’s cries.
Never heed his usual tale,
That he has good logs for sale,
But read these lines and really learn,
The proper kind of logs to burn.
It’s interesting to speculate whether James (1862-1936)  and Congreve (1867-1952), a noted nurse in the First World War, ever met or knew each other.
Of the two works, James’s story was written earlier (1904)  – Congreve’s poem coming, I believe (though I stand to be corrected), in 1930.
James’s selection of ash as the genus of tree for his story’s climax is of a piece with his scholarly approach to his writing. He was, of course, provost of King’s College, Cambridge.
Given his enthusiasms as an antiquary, it seems probable that he was aware of the significant place of ash in European mythology.
Norse tradition holds the ash tree sacred.  
More pertinent in our context, perhaps, is the place of the ash in Germanic paganism, particularly the story that the first man was formed from such a tree.
In James’s tale, a family of the squirearchy of Eastern England becomes cursed after the putting to death of a local woman, Mrs Mothersole, on grounds of (what I shall loosely call) her witchcraft.
Here we should note an important distinction, I suggest, between Mothersole and similar figures in other stories such as, say, Alison in John Buchan’s very effective tale ‘The Outgoing of the Tide’.
The difference is this: James’s landowner, one Sir Matthew Fell, of Castringham Hall. whose testimony sends Mothersole to the gallows, knows that her infringements, shall we call them, are harmless or minor at best. In Buchan’s tale, however, Alison is active in a compact with the Devil (that plays on the desires of a young and raffish laird).
Early in James’s story we find Mothersole, according to the testimony of Sir Matthew, gathering sprigs ‘from the ash tree near my house’, at night, dressed only in her ‘shift’.
When disturbed by him, she flees in the form of a hare that runs across his park.
So it is that, on only the second page, the important connection is made between the tree and something pagan (witchcraft, if you prefer).
One senses that these early scenes involving Sir Matthew and Mrs Mothersole – they result in her execution, of course – will also end badly for him. Indeed, for all of his anger towards her, he also seems to possess a certain foreboding.
From that time forward his estate is blighted, many beasts among his livestock dying in the fields.
When Sir Matthew’s grandson – a young squire whose head is full of fashionable ideas (‘a pestilent innovator’) – seeks, years later, to alter the layout of the local church, his extensions involve the disturbance of certain old graves.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that the fellow is messing in matters best left alone.
(Cont. next column)
His decision to make Sir Matthew’s old room his own bedchamber, the ash tree at the window, seems a fatal mistake. 
And indeed, some short while later, he is found, (as was his grandfather) ‘dead and black’ in his bed. (The suggestion being, with both men, a resemblance to charred wood.)

A quality ascribed by many commentators to James and his stories is understatement

Stories such as ‘A View From a Hill’ have a lack of heavy conclusion that is, in part, the source of their satisfaction.  Others such as ‘There was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard’ have a fragment-like quality that perhaps places them with certain terse scraps from the likes of Walter Map, a story-teller of the twelfth century.

In ‘The Ash Tree’ though, James shuns brevity and ambiguity, and instead pulls out the stops, as if at the seat of some great cathedral organ.

Conceivably, he might have ended his tale with the death of Sir Richard and the discovery of his blackened corpse and no obvious clues to his awful demise – leaving readers to wonder… and forge our own connections with the hanged Mrs Mothersole and that early passage about her taking sprigs from the ash tree.

Such an ending might have sufficed (albeit in some respects a repetition of what has gone before and not much in the way of ‘development’).

James, however – and I feel he was right in this instance to do so – ‘gives it’ to the reader ‘full blast’.

The ash tree that stands so close to Sir Richard’s window is investigated by his household and guests.

‘We must get at the bottom of this,’ one character vows, ‘… the secret of these terrible deaths is there.’

Cue M.R. James’s Magnificent Horror Moment.

Scaling the tree with a ladder, a gardener (armed with a lantern) peers into the bole of the ancient ash.

The man falls back – speechless.

His lost lantern, meanwhile, sets the ash alight. (Remember its connections with legends and paganism and its tendency to burn long and well.) 

James’s story goes on: ‘… in a few minutes a dense smoke began to come up, and then flame; and, to be short, the tree was in a blaze.’

It continues: ‘The bystanders made a ring at some yards’ distance… whatever might be using the tree as lair would be forced out by the fire.’

We next read of ‘terrible bodies’ leaping from the flaming tree, these ‘brutes’ being dashed to death by onlookers, as the creatures  dart from the recesses of the ash.

‘All that day the ash burned,’ James writes (the long-lasting quality of the wood lending itself nicely to his climactic closing passages).

And, then, in the base of the tree, comes the ultimate discovery:

‘… the anatomy of a skeleton of a human being, with the skin dried upon the bones, having some remains of black hair, which was pronounced by those that examined it to be undoubtedly the body of a woman, and clearly dead for a period of fifty years.’

On Christmas Eve an adaptation, made in the early 1970s, was broadcast on BBC television. The film works reasonably well.

It is, of course, rather different from the story as told on the page; one difference that I feel I detected being that, further to the clear sense of Mrs Mothersole being ‘wronged’ as conveyed in the story, the film also – unless I am mistaken – suggests chemistry of a kind between her and the first Sir Matthew and, in his case, the sense of something repressed.

The film’s closing moments show a shocking shot of the human form inside the burnt-down ash, with an image of the black corpse of Sir Richard in the same sequence.

These images are effective thanks to their brief, glimpsed quality.

On the page, James’s story works well thanks to his skilful control of pace, creation of background – it is a short but ‘meaty’ tale with an effective portrait of time and place – Suffolk in the 17th and 18th centuries – and James’s use of detail (such as that (wild) hare running across Sir Matthew Fell’s park – in contrast with the later deaths of his (farmed) beasts).

I wonder if the story would have worked quite as well without James’s accurate selection of ash?

A tale best read at night in front of an open, log fire, I suggest.

And the wood with which to warm yourself (as James’s story casts its chill thrill)?

Why… ash, of course. 

Keyhole, a collection of short stories by Matthew G. Rees that leans to the supernatural, is now available from Three Impostors press. (‘Tales shot through with the shudder of the unexpected and magical transformations…’ Jon Gower)

He has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales. His early career was in journalism. Later he entered teaching, working for a time in Moscow. His fiction has been published by, among others, Belle Ombre, The Lonely Crowd, The Short Story and Oddville Press. He is the editor of Horla. Website: www.matthewgrees.com

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