New Year’s Eve is here, a night that features in an excellent ghost story by R. H. Malden, ‘Between Sunset and Moonrise’. I’ve written a short piece about it below, but to avoid spoilers you might want to read the original story first. It can be found on Project Gutenberg, here at: https://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks06/0605461h.html
Richard Henry Malden trod the same educational path as his mentor and friend, M. R. James, swapping Eton for King’s College in 1895. After graduating from Cambridge he became a deacon in Manchester, eventually rising to the rank of the Dean of Wells in 1933, a role he served until just before his death in 1951. R. H. Malden published only one collection of supernatural tales, Nine Ghosts, which was brought out during WWII by James’s publisher Edward Arnold, who made grand claims on the dustjacket: “Dr James has found his successor in the Dean of Wells.”
Malden’s own introduction was more modest:
“It was my good fortune to know Dr James for more than thirty years… Sufficient time has now elapsed since Dr James’s death to make some attempt to continue the tradition admissible or even welcome to his friends and readers. It is as such that these stories have been collected and revised now. They are in some sort a tribute to his memory, if not comparable to his work.”
Perhaps because of it being set in the Fens landscape of my boyhood, one of the stories in Nine Ghosts stands out to me: the atmospherically named ‘Between Sunset and Moonrise’. It utilises a typical M. R. Jamesian device of having a scholar uncover some papers that shed light on a previous mystery – in this case an unpublished posthumous testimony by the scholar’s late friend on the reasons behind his nervous breakdown and subsequent flight from his tenure as vicar of a remote Fenland parish, not far, we are told, from Cambridge.
The unnamed vicar, who thereafter “was never the man he had been”, goes on to deliver his account of the events that led to his unnatural fear of these flush fields. We learn of the aquiline-nosed Mrs Vries, an old local woman who a couple of centuries before “might have had some difficulty in proving that she was not a witch”. Her residence, a decaying cottage at the end of a muddy drove, a quarter of a mile from her nearest neighbour and three miles from the nearest paved road or shop, is not easy to reach, and our vicar undertakes his occasional parish duty to visit her with a certain trepidation. On the afternoon in question, New Year’s Eve, he decides to get the dreaded task out of the way. After three knocks Mrs Vries finally answers her bolted door, and begrudgingly invites the priest inside.
On the table in front of him is the Bible, opened to the Book of Tobit – a slice of biblical apocrypha that MRJ translated in 1929 – and the story of Sarah and the fiend Asmodeus, the “worst of demons”. Asmodeus is a demon of lust, and tortures Sarah in the Book of Tobit by killing seven successive husbands on her wedding night, before the couple have had a chance to consummate the marriage. He is a fiend of whom James would have approved, a figure literally hell-bent on keeping sex out of the story.
Leaving the nervous-seeming Mrs Vries, our vicar heads into the darkness of the late afternoon and his lonely walk home. A dense fog has enveloped his route and part-way back he hears a snort somewhere beside him, thinking it must be a cow in his way. However, he can see no sign of the animal and assumes it must be on the other side of the hedge. I can sympathise, as a few years ago while winter birdwatching on the marshes of the River Yare east of Norwich my car broke down at dusk on a track not dissimilar to that in the story. I had to wait for two hours in gathering gloom – my car battery had given up the ghost – for the RAC van to arrive; the night was coal-black when it did, and the mechanic nearly fell into the trackside ditch when a loud coughing emerged from the adjacent darkness. A herd of cattle had snuck up for a closer look at what we were up to, invisible to us until he illuminated them in his torchlight. I’d earlier been startled by their sounds, so could display cool indifference. In the story, however, the noise the narrator tells himself is the squelch of a hoof is only the opening of the horror to come:
“When I started again I saw that the fog seemed to be beginning to clear, though I could not feel a breath of air. But instead of thinning in the ordinary way it merely rolled back a little on either hand, producing an effect which I had never seen before. Along the sides of the drove lay two solid banks of white, with a narrow passage clear between them. This passage seemed to stretch for an interminable distance, and at the far end I ‘perceived’ a number of figures.”
These figures coalesce as they approach, merging into one awful vision of “intense malignity”. The narrator understandably collapses, feeling suffocated as the creature passes through and over him, with Malden painting a terrifying image of his character’s whole being becoming enveloped by the entity. Somehow, though, he manages to struggle home, the mist now clearing and the moon emerged. He overhears his housekeeper commenting to one of the maids about the folly of being “about the droves after dark” before he retires to bed, spending the next day there too as a result of a newly caught marshland chill.
When, finally, he arises on the following morning he learns that Mrs Vries has been found dead. The local constable had forced the back door to discover the lady sitting, stone cold, in a large wooden armchair, her fingers prised around her arm. A breath away another empty chair was facing her, its cushions “flattened down as it had been occupied recently by a solid personage”. The post-mortem showed that the woman’s heart was in poor shape, but the doctor informs the narrator that “if anyone ever died of fright, she did”. As the last person to see her alive, the vicar gives his evidence at the inquest: “I did not mention that the second armchair had stood in a corner of the room during my visit, and that I had not occupied it.” More odd facts and occurrences emerge, and we are left in little doubt as to the fate that has befallen the doomed lady, the youth who found her body commenting (in a turn of phrase that surely is a direct nod to a similar one utilised by a terrified boy in M. R. James’s ‘Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come To You, My Lad’) that:
“there was right houses and there was wrong houses – not to say persons – and that, they, had been after her for a long time.”