Episode 31 – A Warning to the Curious – Part 2 of 2

Aldeburgh War MemorialThis episode concludes our coverage of M.R. James’s masterwork ‘A Warning to the Curious‘, and we also speak to James expert Patrick J. Murphy, whose essay ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ impressed us greatly when researching this story.

Lewis Davies returns again to lend his voice to the readings for this episode, and an excellent job he does too. Thanks Lewis!

Notes on Remembrance Day:

When we started our two-parter on Warning to the Curious, we didn’t realise that we’d be releasing the second part on Remembrance Day.

For all that M.R. James did to honour the memory of the war dead, it seems likely that his portrayal of the First World War in this story was intended to be  ambiguous, and likely coloured by  his role as mentor to students from Cambridge who were amongst the fallen.

Will and I are conscious that some might feel this as an insensitive topic for Armistice Day, and I am sure that M.R. James would have felt the same way.  But the podcast is ready, and I hope you agree that there is some merit in discussing how heavily the war weighed on James – as we remember those affected by war, in all conflicts.

Show notes:

  • ‘Lay of a Last Survivor – Beowulf, the Great War, and M.R. James’s “A Warning to the Curious”’ by Patrick J Murphy and Fred Porcheddu (under review)
    Our intereviewee in this episode is co-author of this excellent essay. Patrick assures us he will let us know when it is published!
  • ‘”No Thoroughfare” – The problem of Paxton’ by Mike Pincombe (Ghosts & Scholars 32)
    This fascinating article (sadly not available online) explores the implications of a wartime setting for ‘A Warning to the Curious’. For an entirely different take on the character of Paxton, see Pincombe’s very entertaining essay ‘Homosexual Panic and the English Ghost Story‘ (G&S Newsletter 2)!
  • The Martello Tower, Aldeburgh (Landmark Trust)
    Fancy a holiday in a real-life M.R. James location? The Martello Tower at Aldeburgh where Paxton meets his death is now a holiday cottage! If you are not familiar with martello towers, you can learn more about this particular type of coastal defence on wikipedia.
  • Beowulf (wikipedia)
    Patrick and Fred’s essay (see above) points out the glaring similatiries between this story and the most famous anglo-saxon story, Beowulf. Both stories feature theft from a burial mound with a guardian.
  • A Warning to the Curious directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark (BBC TV 1972)
    Further details about the 1972 TV version of this story can be found on wikipedia, including differences between the TV version and the original story.
  • A Playmobil Warning to the Curious (youtube)
    For a different take on the story, watch this playmobil animation of the story created by author and James-scholar Helen Grant and her son. It is both scary and cute in equal measures!
  • A Warning to the Furious (BBC Radio Drama)
    Another highly entertaining riff on this story can be found in this BBC radio drama from Christmas 2007. A feminist film crew visit Aldeburgh to try and psychoanalyse M.R. James, but find they have bitten off more than they can chew! This drama is not currently available form the BBC but can be tracked down on the dark dingy corners of the internet with a bit of searching.
  • Our visit to Aldeburgh (Flickr)
    You can see some photos of the visit we made this August to Aldeburgh, Suffolk on our Flickr account. Also see below for a video of out visit. Don’t forget you can view these locations on Monty’s World, our online mapping app.



  1. Richard Leigh says:

    Hi. Great to hear part 2, and I agree with you when you observe that two parts are NOT ENOUGH. It obviously can bear a great deal of analysis, which is more than can be said of most ghost stories. I still have a couple of problems. Why, at the inquest, does no-one know of a William Ager? Paxton seemed to come across plenty of traces – unless of course it was all his imagination, in which case, what/who killed him? My other question is this. If Ager was defending the crown, why did he not make sure of its safety by disposing of the narrator and Long, who both knew where it was buried? The narrator, after all, tells MRJ everything – presumably because the war is safely over by then; though what about subsequent wars?
    Minor observation: that the railway porter’s action in holding open the door just a little too long echoes what happens to Carswell.

  2. David Ronayne says:

    Great episode! And it made me realise something that I’d never noticed about the story before. Now it may be nothing and I may be reading more into this than James intended, but there is something strange about Paxton’s injuries. They seem horribly indicative of Paxton falling onto his face (with the shock of impact accounting for the mouth full of stones and sand), but when the Narrator and Long see the damage done to him (and looking only once) they are standing well above him, on top of the wall looking down.

    Has someone or something turned over the body? And if not, how did they get there?

  3. lemuel gonzalez says:

    This is really the best work I have heard on the topic. I always regarded this story as important example of James’ work, but I had no idea how bleak and profound the story was! What deep sadness boils there!
    I don’t think that there is a suggestion that God is powerless to help Paxton; rather I think what is suggested is that Paxton has transgressed and God won’t help him. There is a suggestion of Paxton’s sinful pride, his attempting to steal a royal/divine crown, and, like Lucifer, suffering the terrible consequences. This is an alternative reading, but the strength of this story is that so many such readings are possible.

  4. Simon Woolley says:

    As for the BBC drama “A Warning to the Furious” – I might possibly have a copy which I might share (for purposes of academic comment and fair use only)…if asked nicely.

  5. A Rat In The Wall says:

    This story is so wonderfully oppressive and absolutely downright sinister. I could honestly gush about it all day and leave an essay of a comment here, it’s my favourite story. ‘That wasn’t my coat’ was one of those perfect moments of creepiness that genuinely bothered me.

    On the whole ‘it’s the body that has to suffer’, I think Paxton means, yes, he might go to Heaven a good man, but this thing is still going to get him, there’s nothing for God to help with.

  6. mark says:

    I wonder what happened when the earlier crown was discovered and melted down. Did it not matter as there was another still hidden to protect the country? Or was there no earlier Agar to protect its honour.
    I stil don’t accept the idea that Agar is the thing which kills Paxton. This turns Agar into some kind of Tales from the Crypt zombie, which would be too coarse for James. Maybe the Agars were supposed to be the first line of defence with the creature only to be used in extremis.
    Can anyone think of another ghost story where the victim runs or even walks towards his killer?
    Have you guys read the Jamesian inspired Ramsay Campbell story?

    • A Rat In The Wall says:

      Well, a ton of other James horror have been physical, just like William Ager. Oh Whistle had a sheet ghost, Canon Alberic had a straight-up demon, Martin’s Close the drowned corpse/ghost of Anne Clark – just because it has an effect on the world around it doesn’t mean it can’t be a ghost. James wrote very physical, sense based things, the physical manifestation of the will or anger of William Ager killing Paxton seems just fine if a sheet can attack Parkins in Oh Whistle.

  7. Matt says:

    Firstly I would just like say that this is another excellent podcast episode, and secondly to out myself as the main writer of the AWttC wikipedia page which I expanded from a stub, I proudly can confirm that it is over long and excessively detailed!

    To Richard Leigh:
    I think it is clearly indicated in the conversation between Paxton and the rector that the locals guard the knowledge of the Crown, and the collective failure to identify Ager at the inquest is just another example of this. The BBC adaptation makes this much more explicit when the rector says that despite having lived in the place for many years he is still considered an outsider and not trusted with the location of the crown.

    To Mark: You asked about if “Can anyone think of another ghost story where the victim runs or even walks towards his killer?” Daphne du Maurier wrote a short story called “Don’t look now” (published in 1971, not sure when it was written though), in which the main protagonist chases after a figure he thinks is child/possibly his dead daughter, and of course it is not and he meets a similarly grisly fate. The very good movie adaptation from the 1970s has this ending in and is I think very close to AWttC in that respect.

  8. Fantastic works, guys: for my money his greatest story and you definitely did it justice. I agree that the War and James’s ambivalent feelings about it are important here: a similar point I tried to get at from a different angle in the Jamesian part of my novel Prospero’s Mirror.

    One idea I had about the story: why would James have inserted the otherwise-unnecessary character of Long, and then mention that he’s dead? Is it possible that the implication is that he might perhaps have also been a victim of Ager, and that the main narrator (despite making sure he’s in a place ‘very remote from Seaburgh’ and ‘never going there’ again) is also in possible danger? After all, they both now know the whereabouts of the crown, and indeed the main narrator is apparently happy to tell others about it. We only have Paxton’s suggestion that the fatal error is actually touching it – indeed, Ager was already physically manifesting himself and trying to thwart Paxton before he ever laid hands on it himself.

    This might also explain why James-as-overall-narrator is himself careful to disguise the setting as ‘Seaburgh’ rather than Aldeburgh, and perhaps why he doesn’t close off the framing device – because by not resolving or commenting on the main narrator’s likely subsequent fate, the uneasy possibility remains that the horror might not yet be over…

    • A Rat In The Wall says:

      Ooh, that’s actually really good. I suppose we really do only have Paxton’s inferrence that touching the crown really does you harm.

      Or maybe it was because Paxton touched it and took it out that he got Ager’s wrath, but perhaps Long and the narrator’s knowledge of its burying place is enough to warrant a slap on the wrist or dire warning from Ager.

      It is, in fairness, a very vague ending, which after your comment I quite like, so in the end, you can really make up your own conclusion as to whether anyone else is in danger. It’s like The Call of Cthulhu, every reader is now taking part in that exploration and discovery of a dangerous secret and by proxy of closeness to it, is a target for doom.

  9. RobP says:

    There’s not been a bad episode of the podcast, but these last two have stood head and shoulders above the least, absolutely first class!

    Very poignant as well given the timing- I never thought before about the many seeming WW1 images in the story, particularly Paxton running into the fog. For some reason the thought of Paxton’s body kept bringing this image into mind of a dead WW1 soldier, such a tragic photo (warning, not pleasant)

    I don’t think I’ve ever listened to a podcast (including the excellent HPL one) which has made me think so much about a story. I don’t have anything to add to the thoughts, other than perhaps Ager represents the spirit of war or patriotism that leads the young man to his death or perhaps he is the suffering and regret that haunted so many who returned from the battlefields and maybe destroyed them later in life.

    Anyway, bleak perhaps, but a very very interesting two episodes – thank you!

  10. Matt says:

    I’ve always thought of this story being set in the year leading up to The Great War, and that Long was killed perhaps in the closing period of the conflict when men of older age were being drafted in due to the man power shortage.

    I do think Paxton represents that generation of young men who fell during the war, he is dragged along to finding the crown (and subsequent death) by circumstances that seem to be beyond his control or full understanding, he has that same initial sense of excitement at the challenge, and then the horror sets in.

    The image of the young Paxton weeping at the terror he has suffered at the hands of Ager is a powerful one, and perhaps mirrors some experiences of Monty witnessing such scenes in the aftermath of the war with friends that had experienced the front?

  11. mark says:

    The quality of this podcast just made me realise how much I’m going to miss you chaps when the stories run out.
    It’s intersting to compare Paxton with the meddler in Count Magnus. Both have all their possessions in storage with no strong family ties. Both get out of their depth and both suffer. The dofference is that one is returning from Sweden whilst the other is going there.maybe James simply reused an earlier plot device rather than trying to say that Paxton is fleeing abroad to avoid serving in the army.

  12. Kit says:

    Fascinating idea that Paxton’s injuries resemble a war wound! And you’re right, thinking of it as set in the war puts it in a whole new light.

    To me, it had another echo as well: the story Marcus Licinius Crassus, supposedly killed by the Parthians by having his mouth filled with molten gold as a punishment for his greed. It seems very probable that James would have known the legend, and there’s something of that in Paxton’s death: you like digging up earth? Have more earth. Choke on it.

    You mentioned in the first part that it seems like a selfish desire for gain to dig up the crown. I’d say that it’s not exactly a desire for glory in the ordinary sense; it’s more a desire for knowledge. My mother’s an antiquarian, and while they’re law-abiding people on the whole, it’s also a vocation: you dedicate your entire life to studying fragments of the past because you feel in your soul that you’re adding to human nature’s understanding of itself. An Anglo-Saxon crown is a truly fabulous treasure, not for its financial value but because of its extraordinary historical significance; finding one would be like a doctor finding a cure for a serious disease. For an antiquarian, to leave the crown buried would be almost barbarous, letting it rot in the earth when it could be found, preserved, protected and learned from. (Historical artefacts getting damaged or degrading is something that horrifies antiquarians; to spoil one is almost like killing someone.)

    So by academic values, Paxton digging up the crown really isn’t being selfish. He’s just doing what any antiquarian worth his salt would feel he *had* to do. Local people having silly superstitions is no reason not to find and preserve this incredible piece of our past; they just don’t understand its importance.

    …Which is why, as well as a war story, I think this is a town versus gown story. Tensions between academics and locals are a well-established thing, and in this case, what Paxton runs into is a man with a vocation even more deadly serious than his own. He also, in a sense, fails as an antiquarian: he doesn’t see what’s right in front of him, which is that the tradition of guarding the crown is, itself, a piece of history, in need of preservation, and that digging up the crown is inherently damaging the tradition.

    That’s one reason why that Bible verse is so powerful. It’s threatening in its very conventionality. The Agers don’t look outside tradition to express themselves: they grimly do what’s always been done. England is my nation, Seaborough is my dwelling place, Christ is my salvation: to know who I am, ask only what I serve. The Agers live and die for their pre-ordained role … so of course they won’t forgive anyone who violates it.

  13. Kim says:

    Very enjoyable two-parter, for what (contra general opinion, I now realize!) I always have felt was distinctly one of MRJ’s lesser stories. I’m still far from convinced, but these two episodes did get me to think about it again, and more, and find some more interest in it.

    Am I alone in having felt the TV adaptation was really good, perhaps even better than the story? In particular I thought the recasting of Paxton as older, laid off, and facing the Depression — as well as the more explicit drawing of class lines — more satisfying than the original text.

    Will let it settle and read it again in a few weeks. Perhaps I’ll still come around on this one ;)

  14. M.M.F. says:

    I believe Henry long died because he told of the crown’s resting place, and that the nameless narrator died soon after he told James.

  15. Edward G Pettit says:

    Augustus Jessopp was a friend of M.R. James and together they worked on a translation of a medieval text in the 1890s. Among Jessopp’s many books was one called Frivola, a collection of supernatural occurrences (they’re not really narratives). One of Jessopp’s pieces is even entitled “An Antiquary’s Ghost Story.” But also there is a piece that may be a source or analogue for James’ “Warning to the Curious.” Hill Digging and Magic” which is included as an appendix in this pdf edition of Frivola:

    Most of the text recounts episodes of people digging up old coins (sorry, no Anglo-Saxon crowns), but it also links hill-digging with sorcery, especially this passage, which serves as a kind of warning to digging for treasure:

    ” ‘There may be heaven, there must be hell,’
    was not a dogma first formulated in our days. Heaven for the gods, there might be; but earth,
    and all that was below the earth, that was the evil demon’s own domain. The demons were
    essentially earth spirits. The deeper you went below the outer crust of this world of ours, the
    nearer you got to the homes of the dark and grisly beings who spoil and poison and blight and
    blast—the angry ones who only curse and hate, and work us pain and woe. All that is of the
    earth earthy belongs to them. Wilt thou hide thy treasure in the earth? Then it becomes the
    property of the foul fiend. Didst thou trust it to him to keep? Then he will keep it.
    ‘Never may I meddle with such treasure as one hath hidden away in the earth,” says Plato
    in the eleventh book of the Laws, “nor ever pray to find it. . . .’ ”

    To cap it all off, Jessopp followed up his “Hill-Digging” piece with another in the journal “The Nineteenth Century”, entitled “A Warning to the SPR”, which can be found here on page 612

    An interesting inspiration for James’ story.

  16. Richard Leigh says:

    Interesting that the narrator refers to Paxton’s “kitbag”. Is the narrator an old soldier? (Boer War veteran, perhaps). It would be odd, if so, for him to feel any sympathy with Paxton, if the latter really was a draft-dodger, or a pacifist.

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