Stories that inspired M.R. James

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Episode 8 – The Treasure of Abbot Thomas

February 16, 2012 | Episodes | Comments (23)

Treasure of Abbot Thomas ImageIn this episode Will & Mike follow M.R. James on a terrifying treasure hunt to Germany in ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’.

Show notes:


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  1. Genus Unknown says:

    Damn, I meant to check if this episode was up before I left for work this morning.

    I actually find this story terribly boring, much like Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” (which you probably mention on the podcast), but the “Jamesian wallop” at the end almost makes up for everything.

    • Henrik Johnny Sunnerfors says:

      There’s a cozy radio play adaptation on “Gold Bug”, though.

      • Genus Unknown says:

        Really? I’ve never heard it. Is it as boring as the original story?

        Oh, and a note to Will and Mike: I don’t think Abbot Thomas was particularly evil or malevolent the way, say, Count Magnus was. He seems to have been more of a prankster than anything. The guardian of the treasure seems to be there more to scare the stuffing out of people than to do them any real harm.

        Also, I took the motto “they have eyes, and shall not see” to be a bit of mockery of the canons’ inability to find the treasure. As in “here I’ve left all the clues anybody would need to find the treasure, but these idiots will never get it.”

        • Henrik Johnny Sunnerfors says:

          I’ve never read the original “The Gold-bug” – but in the radio play the freed slave is quite stereotypical (which is fun, here), and it IS nice falling asleep to. Btw, “5 ghost stories of Walter de la Mare” is superb, and fun listening is also the big collection “The horror stories of Robert E. Howard”. —-Thanks for this ep, Mike and Will!
          I’ve not read one complete James story (but I listen to Hordern/Collings unabridged audio readings all the time..).must’ve heard every MRJ story 100 times by now. Always love the “This cask of beer” and “Yes Eliza my girl, I’m coming!!” guy (Mr Bowman?) in Collings reading of “The story of a disapp. and an app.” However, loved this episode and look forward to “A school story”. Si tu non veneris ad mei…

  2. A Rat In The Wall says:

    The BBC adaptation is one of my favourite, actually. I am ashamed to say I have never read the story.

    I never knew the guardian’s name was in French. I always thought it was Gar Akeelatoosh or somesuch, and it sounded vaguely Lovecraftian (James was obviously pre-HPL, though) or like the name of a demon. I’ve only ever heard it spoken.

    Each podcast is better than the last, it’s a real joy having such a public service available!

    • Genus Unknown says:

      I don’t think the guardian is ever named. The French snippet just seems to be an additional bit of warning to anyone seeking the treasure.

  3. Taha Yunus says:

    Kudos guys on another good episode. I’ve listened to everything two or three times now. It’s the only way with a good podcast! This was the first James story I read, a few years ago.

  4. GB Steve says:

    “Dieu me la donne, gare a qui la touche” was said by Napoléon but he was also quoting from the crowning ceremony of the Lombard kings so it is a much older quote( James isn’t usually wrong on this kind of thing.

  5. Sophia says:

    Fantastic podcast, gentlemen! It’s great to find one about James, who is one of my favourite writers, and you’ve been doing a first class job, I’ve subscribed and am going to keep listening.

    A couple of things about this story. First, the dissolution of the monasteries that James is referring to isn’t the 16th century one, it’s the one during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, which marked the end of all the abbeys in France and most of those in the Low Countries and Germany (some subsequently got better). Secondly, one really shouldn’t make too much of Thomas’ wealth. A late mediaeval abbot was a powerful feudal lord, lived as well (or, frequently, much better) than a contemporary secular noble and enjoyed a large private income from the abbey estates. Building a palatial residence for himself, or engaging in major artistic patronage as Thomas does with his house, his windows and his well, were expected activities for such a man and in no way unusual.

    Personally, I follow the ‘horrible practical joke’ interpretation of the story, it seems to fit with the other evidence we see of Thomas’ rather sardonic sense of humour. He’s set a trap that only a scholar can be caught in, his cannons, whom he clearly has no intellectual respect for, will be safe. Only someone of intelligence who geeks on puzzles with be caught, someone in fact like Thomas’ himself. Thomas would have no problem dealing with the monster, as he put it there, so only someone who is Thomas’ equal in mind and scholarship (and magic) will get the gold. Perhaps that funding might even allow that worthy person to attain Thomas’ old job of abbot at Steinfeld.

    The BBC version is much darker with its implication that the abbot turns up up one final time to murder Sommerton. That’s very Jamesian, but it’s more Count Magnus or Warning to the Curious behaviour than seems likely for Thomas.

    Speaking of jokes, the story contains another one. Thomas and his cannons are Premonstratensian (aka the White Cannons, an order of priests rather than monks). In the middle ages the Premonstratensians wore long white hooded robes so they looked like classic ghosts. I am sure this is deliberate.

    Best wishes,


  6. Chris Hutson says:

    Hey, I recently discovered your podcast and I love it. I’ve been listening to a number of these in succession, and hearing the details again of James’stories one after another has brought up in my mind the work of another author whose work may borrow some motifs from James, if only obliquely: I wonder if Haruki Murakami is a fan as well. Certainly both serve up terrifying, dreamlike imagery that sticks with me, and the focus on hotels/inns/rented accommodations as the scene of weird supernatural occurrences is common to both writers’ work.

    There’s at least one magical well in “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” (that functions as a portal to a dark hotel room and combat with an evil entity) and there may be other specific allusions as well: I thought specifically of “Lost Hearts” in relation to Johnnie Walker and the cat hearts in “Kafka on the Shore.”

    It’s not especially apropos to this story, but this as as far as I’ve gotten in the podcast, and it’s only occurred to me as I’ve been listening to these.

    Keep up the good work,


    • Mike says:

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comment. I love Murakami’s books, especially WUBC – let us know if you see any other possible Monty influences.

  7. Tim Scurr says:

    Hey guys, I have just recently found your podcast and am loving it to bits (which is why I am leaving feedback on an episode now many months old). The talk about the Jamesian beasties wanting to embrace characters is a great deal more horrific to me than something coming up and clobbering you. Makes me think of probably the most disturbing bit in ‘Alien’ actually, with Dallas having a merry old time in the air ducts. The alien reaches out for him, and that’s all you see. Pretty damned cool way to treat a monster.

    Love the show, keep up the awesome work!

  8. Richard Leigh says:

    I think that this story WAS read out. I remember (but can’t think where I read it) that one of the listeners queried whether postage stamps would have existed at the time when the story was set.
    As for the TV version: I agree that it was very effective – particularly the very last minute. One touch which I liked a lot was that when Somerton has taken one of the bags of coins back to his room, he tells Lord Peter that the coins are ruined and worthless – but when Lord Peter opens the bag he sees bright glittering gold. It’s as if part of Somerton’s punishment is to believe that his hunt has been in vain. If he WAS motivated by greed rather than by scholarly curiosity, this detail is even more telling.

  9. Richard Leigh says:

    ps. I’ve just remembered that the query about stamps related to “The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance” (Surely the clumsiest title ever to grace a story?_)

  10. Richard Leigh says:

    Is it usual to have steps leading down into a well? I know nothing about wells -maybe someone out there can help with this.

    • Rich Johnson says:

      Somerton says of the stone steps set into the walls that “it really seemed as if the Abbot wished to lead searchers up to the door of his treasure house.” This fits with Abbot Thomas’ slightly malevolent sense of humour; he’s set a trap and left a trail of breadcrumbs, as it were, right up to it.

      Also it’s a handy device that solves the writer’s problem of how to get the protagonist down the well without just dangling on a rope.

    • Chris Jarocha-Ernst says:

      “Steps in well shaft sides? Cut steps into the side of the shaft to make it easier for people going up and down the well. This is only possible if the soil is strong enough to hold the weight of a person. When you doubt: do not
      make them! [When the well digging has been completed and it is being lined, a few well builders provide stepping stones (in a stone lined well) and handles, or steel rungs and handles to permit the well to be accessed by climbing if necessary. Usually people rely on a windlass and rope.]”

      I’d imagine one would have to clean out a well every so often, and steps leading down would be easier than a windlass for the job.

  11. Chris Jarocha-Ernst says:

    Is there any scholarship linking “Abbot Thomas” to the stories of Berenger Saunière’s “mysterious” wealth? I was reading the “Angles of Coincidence” essay on the G&S website and was struck at the similarity between Saunière’s story and James’s: clues in church architecture/documents lead to a treasure. Yet neither A PLEASING TERROR nor your commentators mention this. Saunière supposedly made his discoveries in 1901, and James wrote “Thomas” in 1904, enough time for him to have learned of Saunière, if his story spread outside of rural France…

  12. Mark Reed says:

    As someone commented a couple of years ago, “gare à qui la touché” did not originate with Napoleon. This wasn’t something he said when crowned Emperor of France, but when crowned “King of Italy” in Milan a year later. As pointed out, the phrase (in Latin) was used in the coronations of medieval Lombard/Italian Kings, using the supposed crown of Charlemagne.

    Napoleon’s innovation was to say it in French. So here James uses the Napoleonic French version, relative to an abbey dissolved as a result of Napoleonic annexation. Not sure if that’s what James had in mind, but if so, what would he have been trying to say, a hundred years after the event?

  13. Richard Leigh says:

    An odd detail in the TV version is that Somerton has somehow managed to get the money-bag back to his room. In the story, he has left it on the step in the well, which seems far more probable in view of the shock he’s suffered.
    Another point. There seems to be no reason why anyone should care whether he locks his door at night. I think that in fact he starts to refer to the two figures haunting him, then swiftly changes what he’s saying.

  14. Sean says:

    Know I’m a bit late to the party, but have enjoyed binging the podcast for the last weekend and well into this week. Pleased and impressed it’s still a going concern!

    Enjoyed this episode, and wondering if anyone has suggested that the “38 steps” was at all a nod to John Buchan’s work of similar name? Seems the periods might roughly line up.

  15. Mike J. says:

    Hey, guys,

    Apologies for being late to this conversation, but I stumbled across a partial adaptation of this story folded into the nineteen eighty-nine horror film “The Church,” produced by Dario Argento. Not a great flick, but it did point me to this story, so I’ve gotta give it some credit for that. You may (or may not) enjoy watching it and spotting all the borrowed elements.

    I’m new to the podcast, but I’m loving it so far – thank you so much for it. Your coverage of The Upper Berth, The Signalman, and The Monkey’s Paw I found very illuminating and compelling.

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