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Christmas Ghosts: The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

Friday December 21, 2007 in m.r. james | ghost stories

It is a thing of darkness.

This short story by M.R.James was immortalised in 1974 by the BBC’s Ghost Story for Christmas adaptation directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark. This year the BBC are proudly showing a selection of their James adaptations, although this one is repeated with alarming regularity. But I’m grateful – The Treasure of Abbot Thomas is one of the most satisfying ghost stories I’ve ever seen.

Or read. After watching it again the other evening I was tempted to reread the original short story so I could sit down and conduct a compare and contrast exercise. Interestingly, the two are quite different, and John Bowen – who wrote the television screenplay – has reworked the story quite dramatically. Where the original ends quite comfortably, perhaps something welcome for a 1904 Christmas, the film has a particularly chilling ending to it. More suited for the 1970s, still apt for today’s audience. Very apt for my tastes – I must confess that I prefer the film more.

Michael Bryant in The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

The Treasure of Abbot Thomas (1974). Are you sure you really want to go ahead with this?

The story follows Mr Somerton, an antiquary who attempts to unpick a code that is scattered in various places by the late Abbot Thomas. Somerton unravels the mystery that leads him to the Abbot’s gold, with supernatural consequences that lead him to return it to its hiding place as soon as he possibly can. It’s a classic James warning to the curious, but with mostly harmless results.

Bowen and Clark’s film casts the excellent Michael Bryant as Somerton. One of their embellishments to the tale is to show him as a firm disbeliever of anything supernatural. All the more to prove him wrong as the story unfolds. Somerton is seen exposing a charlatan at a fake séance. He pursues Thomas’ scattered clues purely as a keen researcher (it’s an interesting puzzle to him, something of a Victorian sudoku), and seems oblivous to the sinister monks who creep around the church where he carries out his studies. But although possibly an intellectual giant, Somerton is weak of the flesh. Climbing to the church roof to pursue his leads he is overcome by vertigo and almost topples to his death. Discovering that the treasure is entombed in an underground crypt, he can only just control his trembling frame as he wades through the flooded tunnels to claim his prize.

And – and this is the heart of all James’ stories – this is where it will always go catastrophically wrong. After he has retrieved the treasure of Abbot Thomas, Somerton is reduced to a jabbering wreck, ranting about the thing of darkness that tries to break into his rooms. A spell has been cast. No choice but to put it back…

Where I think this film succeeds is in its dark ending, one that has continued to haunt me over the years – with or without repeated viewings. As the now recovering Somerton, convalescing in a country garden, is left in his bath chair to greet his doctor as he strolls towards him we notice from Bryant’s horrified face that something is very, very wrong. The figure that approaches is hooded and swift. It’s approaching to claim its victim. The curious has been warned, but there’s still no getting away with their audacity. Somerton is unforgiven. There’s one last terrifying shot of the petrified antiquary meeting his cloaked nemesis before the closing credits. We see one final glimpse of him before he is taken.

In my youth, I remember climbing the stairs to bed but leaving the lights on after I’d watched The Treasure of Abbot Thomas. The other night I did the same.

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