The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance is one of the few M R James stories actually set at Christmas. He was well-known for reading out his stories at Christmas, but few of them are actually set over the festive period. It was first published the June 4, 1913 issue of the Cambridge Review. It then appeared in his anthology A Thin Ghost and Others in 1919.

First of all some explanations of words which may be strange to some listeners. Bands are a kind of white tie worn by Anglican clergymen. A bagman is a commercial traveller, a salesman or pedlar. Clearly he’ll be late home if he’s still on the road on Christmas Eve.

So what happened?

It appears that Uncle Henry got murdered, his head bashed in and his corpse buried in the sandpit. My reading was that the two Punch & Judy men killed him. These two who were masquerading as Italians but who were English rogues really. The bagman told W R that he had not seen any suspicious characters on the road: no gipsies, tramps or wandering sailors. This all happened not long after the Napoleonic wars and out of work sailors and soldiers had to wander the countryside looking for a living. No Help for Heroes for them. The bagman did see a most wonderful Punch and Judy show. These travelling showmen or ‘carnies’ as such folk would later be called in the USA are inherently dubious, so it’s no wonder that they would murder an innocent clergyman.

It is heresy to say anything against the great M R James, but I would only observe that he throws a few ‘portents’ and ‘omens’ into the story that seem to have no real bearing on the narrative. They aren’t clues or anything, unless I’m missing some subtlety. I mean the owl that wakes our man W R from sleep, the Toby Dog running off and howling, the organ wolving during the funeral and the odd ringing of the bell. These are all signs that something unnatural and eerie is afoot. There is also mention of the bier being put out by mistake and the moth-eaten pall taken out and having to be folded on Christmas Day. Most inappropriate, but they seem more what we would have called ‘dungeon dressing’ in my D&D days—something to create atmosphere that is not essential to the plot. But again, I may be missing something.

The mention of the Toby Dog reminds me of Cole Hawkins and the Toby Dog in John Masefield’s Box of Delights that I will be re-reading, or at least watching the 1980s BBC version this Christmas.

Punch and Judy is a ghastly tale of murder played out for children and so it has its own horror lurking not far below the surface. It seems that the dead Uncle Henry came as visitation to the two murderous Punch & Judy chaps, like a proper vengeful ghost and cause the first to die of fright inside the Punch and Judy set-up, while the other runs to the sandpit, breaks his neck and reveals the resting place of Uncle Henry, up until now hidden.

Mr Bowman the inn keeper seems only there for comic effects, and to show that Uncle Henry was rather serious and straight-laced.

I think that M R James has put in the comic inn-keeper and the portents and omens to entertain the audience rather than to drive the narrative. W R also at one point alludes to a vague reason why he’s writing everything out in longhand, but this is well before anything supernatural or even out of the ordinary occurs. Again, I can’t help but suspect that this is just to gee-up the reader because it comes to not much.

James has a way or inserting the jarringly weird into his stories, and it is this weirdness that really unsettles the reader. We have it in the flapping shirt and advancing figure in Whistle And I’ll Come To You, and the crawling figure in The Mezzotint. E F Benson does it a bit too. Up until these late Victorian/Edwardian writers, the ghost story is naturalistic. Supernatural elements intrude cleanly into an otherwise normal (if at times Gothic) world. But the figure with the bag over its head would remind James’s readers of an execution. The dream itself is almost Grand Guignol in its luridness and the oddness is disturbing. This is James’s gift and the reason his stories are genuinely scary.


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