Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moon-lit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. Were not they coming nearer?
It’s Christmas Eve once again so cast your thoughts back 37 years to when Lost Hearts was the BBC’s 1973 Ghost Story for Christmas. This television adaptation of the M.R. James ghost story often features in lists of favourite tv and film terrifying moments. Lost Hearts isn’t repeated that often, and I think it is down to the power of Lawrence Gordon Clark’s film in leaving a lasting impression on viewers. Whilst similar to the other BBC James films in striking the right balance of atmosphere, this one stands out on its own with some particularly vivid ghosts and, perhaps most disturbing of all, the appearance of Joseph O’Connor as the very disturbing Mr Abney. If your memory is failing you, this is the one featuring a pair of particularly spooky children backed by some chilling hurdy gurdy music.
In the original short story, Stephen Elliott is a young orphan who goes to stay with his eccentric cousin Mr Abney. Apparently some kind of reclusive scholar, the elderly gentleman is welcoming to the boy although, as with the best of M.R James stories, it only takes a page or two before the reader realises that something isn’t quite right. Why does he keep asking Stephen’s age? What exactly is he up to in his study?
M.R.James creates a brilliantly effective ghost story without appearing to do very much at all. As usual, he sets a believable scene, telling the reader just enough to move them off into the chills of the tale. Stephen learns from Abney’s servants that he had previously befriended two children who subsequently disappeared. The reader eventually deduces that the old man was up to no good and that Stephen is next in the succession of victims who may be contributing to his cousin’s enduring longevity. Something to do with lost hearts, ancient scripture and a generous glass of port.
The James story is one of his briefest and the BBC flesh it out by broadening the character of Abney, using O’Connor to depict an almost camply comical figure. Clark brings out the underlying menace very skilfully in the film. Stephen is quietly haunted by visions of two other children, a boy and a girl watching from a distance. Faces in windows, mysterious scratches on furniture, and snatches of laughter. This is the most enduring aspect of the film, the silent figures with claw like fingers who stand with arms crossed, over-protective of their hearts…
The BBC make one or two embellishments to the story, for example making Stephen’s birthday fall on hallowe’en. The endings also differ. Stephen overhears his cousin’s demise at the hands of the spirits in the original, whilst in the film we see him poisoning Stephen and the ghosts entering his study to finish him off. Both work effectively.
I’ve always found Lost Hearts to be the runt in the litter to the other celebrated M.R. James television adaptations that include Whistle and I’ll Come to You, The Stalls of Barchester and A Warning to the Curious. All deal with solitary gentlemen and their curiosity getting the better of them, although the pursuit is usually that of monetary or intellectual value. With Lost Hearts James makes the theme a little less obvious but gives a far darker undercurrent to the pursuit of knowledge. And its consequences.
This year the BBC return to James with John Hurt in a new adaptation of Whistle and I’ll Come to You. I wonder how they’ll do?