Film: Night of the Demon, 1957
Short Story: Casting the Runes by MR James, 1911
There’s a great Friday Fright Night meme going about this month – masterminded by Curt Evans at The Passing Tramp, and with great work by Kate Jackson at Cross-Examining Crime, and thanks to Bev for the logo.
I’ve done a couple of posts (Lord Dunsany and Ghostylocks and the Three John Dickson Carrs) and when I was doing some blog visiting came across Christine Poulson talking about scary stories, and particularly MR James, and that decided me as to what my next one would be...
MR James’s ghost stories are superb, really beautifully crafted and very unnerving. There’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad (made into a marvellous BBC TV production a while back). There’s The Mezzotint – a picture changing itself is, ridiculously, a highly unsettling notion for me. And then there’s this one, Casting the Runes. This story and I have history together.
When I was around 15 I went out babysitting to a new (and lovely) family. The parents had been very vague about when they would be back - this was before the days they could have texted me: back then people went out with no intention of contacting the babysitter, and most of the time no way of the babysitter contacting them. I settled in late in the evening to watch a film on TV, in my last innocent moments hoping they wouldn’t spoil it by coming home before it finished. The film was Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, from 1957, and it pinned me to my seat. It was the most deliciously terrifying thing I had ever seen, and it left me gasping. When it finished, the unfamiliar house was dark and creaking, and the heating had gone off, and I couldn’t move, even to switch on more lights. It felt like I was the only person left alive in the world. There was no sign of my employers and it got later and later... The couple finally arrived back well after 2am, having had a great time, apologizing and happy and cheery, lighting up the house, horrified it was so cold for me, pressing loads of money into my hand. The night is fixed in my mind forever.
It set me off on a yearslong quest to watch as many Jacques Tourneur films as I could. (What I didn’t have then was the Wikipedia entry on Night of the Demon which is very interesting, and explains the well-known disagreements over whether the titular demon should have been shown in the film.) I also investigated the story on which it was based, and on to all MR James’s other stories – and with thanks to EW who gave me a collection of them.
Casting the Runes is short, and intricate, absolutely stuffed with plot and odd incidents, including an unexpectedly fear-inducing tramride. I imagine it breaks every rule of creative writing classes, and is strangely structured. Two characters have the same name – they are brothers, but still. There is a long hilarious description of a desperate children’s party: ‘several of the smaller children had to be taken out’. Then: ‘a sort of dry rustling noise which sent the children nearly mad’ – a most authentic MR James moment.
Then the creepy tale really gets going, moving from one person to another – which is fitting really, as the key to it is a piece of parchment with some runes (ie ancient writing) on it.
VERY SLIGHT SPOILER
Amid all the brilliant atmospherics, the sinister settings, the creepy people, the disappearing words – the central point is that whoever is in possession of the runes will die at a certain time. So there is the most perfect plotline of people trying to pass it to one another, and trying to avoid it, as time runs out. ‘You’re It.’
I introduced film and story to my now-husband, and so we had a splendid time every so often passing the runes to each other (just a faked up piece of paper at first), we amused ourselves hugely with thinking of inventive ways to do that. ‘Oh gosh can you just take a look at this for me?’ ‘Hey, I’ve got something here I think you’ll be so interested in...’ At a summer school I met an academic who could read and write runes, so I told her this story, and she offered to write out some runes for me to use in our cheery games. That’s them above, I still have the piece of paper more than 30 years later. When she’d finished I asked her what the message said, and she looked solemnly at me and said ‘I’m not going to tell you. Much better if you don’t know.’ MR James would highly approve I think. If anyone can read them, and would be able to tell me what it says – keep it to yourself.**
And now I have passed them on to YOU.
** OK, strictly speaking, it is not that hard to work out what it says. If you dare.
Wonderful film, very scary. There's a desperate children's party in Hitchcock's Young and Innocent that I've just rewatched. (And some clothes advice in the original book by Josephine Tey, the rather odd A Shilling for Candles.)ReplyDelete
Yes - I hunted that out the last time I reread Shilling - I agree it's odd but I have a soft spot for it. The film is interesting on all kinds of levels, including the children's party. I like the fact that one of the children keeps saying OK - useful to remember when people claim it only recently came into use. Post here if you are interested https://clothesinbooks.blogspot.com/2015/04/a-shilling-for-candles-by-josephine-tey.htmlDelete
Oooh, what a story, Moira! I babysat, too, in the days before texting, and yes, it could be a bit unsettling. At any rate, this sounds deliciously creepy, and I've always thought runes are fascinating. There's just something...otherworldly about them if that makes sense. What is it about people that we like that little bit of creepiness to get the adrenaline going?ReplyDelete
Babysitters and horror go together - remember all those stories that we would now call internet myths?? And compared with now, those young people really were on their own...Delete
And there most certainly is a joy in creepiness, however inexplicable it is.
Oh, babysitting. Like you, I was babysitting one night (waaaayyy back) and for some reason had nothing with me to read, so I poked around on the shelves and found a Readers Digest Condensed book collection. I settled in to read (why??) The Haunting of Hill House. Brrr... that story stayed with me a long time. In fact, it still does. About a year later, same gig, and I decided to see what was on TV. It was... The Haunting (of Hill House)! Of course I watched it. Because we do these things to ourselves.ReplyDelete
We do! It is hard to work out what the the mixture of fear, horror and enjoyment is, but it most certainly is there. And reading/watching anything scarey in a different place from home always makes it much worse.Delete
Great post! I'm not sure I'm going to get another Friday Fright Night post done in time.ReplyDelete
I read a collection of M. R. James stories (The Haunted Dolls' House) back in 2013 and really enjoyed it. "Casting the Runes" was included--but after reading your post and looking back at my review, I'm wondering if I read the same story: "There is also 'Casting of the Runes' which, if nothing else, gives academics the perfect revenge against those publishers and journal editors who refuse to print their work. A nice runic curse is just the thing to prove that your life's work is nothing to trifle with. Just be sure it doesn't come back to haunt you."
Yes it is! Honestly that story is so full of aspects... all academics love reading it because it is about people getting cross that their paper was rejected. Along with everything else. No wonder you caught on to that aspect Bev.Delete
A friend had recommended MR James to me, and so I went to bed one night between Christmas and the New Year several years ago with a collection of his short stories. Started reading and did not find the first one very scary, nor the second or the third, and went on reading. And then... I cannot say that it was one particular story that did it, but somehow there was an accumulated effect which at some point got to me with full force, and I found myself so terrified that I could not read on, could not turn off the light, in fact was completely petrified and dared not move in my bed. I don't know whether I would have laid there all night with the bedside lamp on, not daring to move, if my husband had not woken up and rather grumpily asked me whether I intended to keep the lights on all night. (Yes, his being there at my side peacefully asleep had done nothing to comfort me.) That made me snap out of my panic-stricken state and I turned off the light and crawled under the covers and managed to go to sleep. But goodness, how those stories frightened me!ReplyDelete
Yes, he has a great talent for that, and it is hard to see quite how he does it. There are just moments... which may be different ones for different people. I believe he used to read them out in darkened panelled rooms in front of the fire to a select band - that must have been quite the event.Delete
What about the clothes?ReplyDelete
Tweed three-piece suits for country wear, no doubt, in the story.
The trope of the object which will kill its possessor at a certain time is fairly common - "The Bottle Imp" is a classic example - but James takes it to its logical conclusion.
I've mentioned Robert Aickman before, but he has a - rather different - story with a haunted dolls' house.
Yes, I abandoned the clothes this time, even though I have a couple of nice pics of a children's party 😉. But yes, surely country tweeds. I love the idea of a haunted doll's house - they are lovely toys, but quite creepy in their own way anyway.Delete
It's such a simple idea, yet so clever, too. It's one of my favourite M R James stories. The film is rather different, but also good in its way. I've recently written a horror story myself and the question of how much to show and how soon is an important one. I think what you don't see is often scarier than what you do.ReplyDelete
Yes indeed, the scariest moments can be unexpected. I think story and film will always be among my favourites. But looking forward to reading yours.Delete
I left a comment yesterday but I used my iPhone and I'm sure it's in your Spam folder or that other one "waiting to be approved". Here's a repeat:ReplyDelete
Just wanted to say that I love this movie and the story. No surprise, eh? I was obsessed with movie monsters and horror movies when I was teenager. This was also listed in that book where I learned about London After Midnight, BTW. Night of the Demon was on my "I have to see this" list and longed for it to show up on TV in the decades before VCRs and DVD. Much later when it was released on DVD I watched it again in its "uncut" version. Coincidentally, I've also chosen to write about a short story this week. My post was late getting published, but its finally up now. I wrote about a little known ghost story by early 20th century American writer DuBose Heyward.
It seems unfair that your comment was lost John - as we both use Blogger it should be a touch easier. Can't see it anywhere - thanks so much for repeating it.Delete
Yes, I would expect you to love this!
Look forward to reading your post.
There’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You My Lad (made into a marvellous BBC TV production a while back).ReplyDelete
The 1968 BBC adaptation was truly excellent.
As for Jacques Tourneur's Night of the Demon - it's quite wonderful. Any Jacques Tourneur movie is worth a look.
Yes, a great favourite in our house. Jonathan Miller and Michael Hordern made a great combination. I haven't seen the more recent version.Delete
Yes Jacques Tourneur - such a distinctive and wonderful style.
****For anyone reading through the comments - there is a massive blank space below the next comment - for no reason that I can see or get rid of! Keep scrolling to see more...Delete
I really haven't read enough of MR James over the years, but that something I'd like to remedy in the future. Night of the Demon is a terrific film. I probably rewatch it every year or so, and I never seem to tire of it. The reference to it in Kate Bush's 'Hounds of Love' always sends a shiver down my spine...ReplyDelete
For some reason, a massive white space after your comment!Delete
Yes, I can always watch Night of the Demon. I meant to mention the Kate Bush in fact. 'It's in the trees!' - that whole LP her finest moment for me.
I think I have read every M. R. James story out there and 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad' and 'Casting the Runes' are two of my favorites. James' stories have a way of creating chilling terror from the most mundane of things.ReplyDelete
Well, loving your name!Delete
Yes, he wrote perfect stories, and those are of course two of my favourites too.
Moira, your anecdote at the age of 15 has got me interested in Jacques Tourneur’s "Night of the Demon". It reminded me of the time when I was 16 and had to return home through a poorly lit lane, late one night, after watching "The Exorcist" at an uncle's place. I was so scared that night. It's one reason I don't watch a lot of horror and paranormal films.ReplyDelete
Oh Prashant I think we can all sympathize! It's amazing what atmosphere can do to a person - whether young or old...Delete
I was the youngest so never got to look after siblings. I only ever babysat once with a girlfriend, 12th floor of a high rise block of flats on a Saturday night. Ever the romantic, I think I insisted on watching Match of the Day!ReplyDelete
Hilarious! I hope she gave you a hard time about it...Delete