"The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance"
from A Thin Ghost and Others
by M. R. James
This short collection of ghost stories was published in 1919. I'm blogging about them "as I go".
A man is forced to abandon his plans for a cozy family Christmas when an uncle he hardly knows vanishes without a trace. Following the obligatory creepiness, the uncle's disappearance is finally explained. Well, sort of.
A weak title and a rather weak story to match-- particularly by M.R. James' usual standards. It's certainly one of the odder ones, with loose ends left flapping in the breeze-- or are they red herrings left flopping on the shore? I'm not completely sure what to make of it, to be honest. I've "looked it up" online, hoping someone might have picked up on something I missed and offered some insight. The most likely-looking thing I've found is this podcast, but based on the comments (because I've yet to give it a listen), it seems that everyone's a little puzzled by this one. I guess it's left open to interpretation-- and unfortunately, when I read, I prefer connecting dots to doodling at random.
A "Punch and Judy" show plays a key role in this story, which may have something to do with why I didn't love it. I am completely mystified by the appeal of Punch and Judy (though I'm sure the fact that I'm American and had no exposure to it as a child doesn't help). It's baffling! It seems like a more primitive, less graphic version of "The Itchy & Scratchy Show". I suppose a lot of "old-fashioned" (and to some degree even more modern) cartoons work on a similar level-- especially the old Warner Brothers cartoons... Wiley Coyote vs. the Roadrunner... Sylvester vs. Tweety Bird... Bugs Bunny vs. Everyone Else... Tom and Jerry... Of course, those were never my favorite characters, either. I was definitely more of a Disney girl, back in the day. (g) I think I usually felt bad for Donald Duck when he was assailed by bees, ostriches, chipmunks, etc... Oh, and I definitely didn't like it when the incredibly irritating Chip 'n' Dale tormented poor Pluto... Ok, even old Disney cartoons followed the formula. It's everywhere!
Though I didn't love the story as a whole, the dream sequence was, I'll admit, quite effective. Or in other words, creepy-crawly as all get-out. I read this while walking on the treadmill, all alone in the house, and it definitely gave me one of those "well, isn't that creepy-- now I think I'll just casually glance over my shoulder to make sure all's as it should be" moments.
I've now listened to the podcast (up to the point when the interview with the film-maker begins), and I found it very entertaining. I'll certainly look into their other episodes-- at least the ones about the M.R.J. stories I've read.
I agree with them that the basic gist of the story seems fairly straightforward-- that the uncle was murdered (somehow) by the Punch and Judy "players"-- that the uncle sent the creeptastic dream to his nephew as a clue/warning/call for justice-- and that the uncle finally came back for revenge against the men who'd murdered him, crushing one and chasing the other to his own death. I suppose we'll just have to make our best guesses as to why they murdered the uncle, how (exactly) he was murdered (hanging, mauled by the dog, etc.), why they returned to the town in such short order, why the dog was important, what was up with the cheese (g), and so on.
At least this strange story led me to an interesting podcast!