“A View from a Hill”

No, I haven’t given up blogging. I ran afoul of one of the dangers of the north lands – ice – and put my wrist out of commission for awhile.

But I’m back, and here’s the Deep Ones’ subject of discussion over at LibraryThing a few weeks back.

Review: “A View from a Hill”, M. R. James, 1925. 

Of course, James was a ghost story writer, but his stories rarely feature anything as simple as a mere apparition haunting a home. This story is no exception.

As usual for James, the hero is an academic, Fanshawe. He is visiting his friend Squire Richards in the country at the end of his academic term, and he’s brought his bicycle. 

Since it’s a nice summer night, about six o’clock, Richards suggests they go for a stroll after tea.  Fanshawe asks if Richards has a pair of binoculars since he loaned his pair out to someone and hasn’t gotten them back. Richards say he does have a pair, but he doesn’t use them himself. They are old and about twice as heavy as a regular pair would be. 

Richards gets the strange wooden case the binoculars are in. There is no obvious way to open it, and the corners are so sharp that Fanshawe gets cut a little on his thumb which draws blood. Since the story is told mostly through dialogue, we don’t learn exactly how Fanshawe gets the box open. 

The men go to the top of a large hill, the site of an old Roman villa. Richards refers to it as “Baxter’s villa” and explains about Baxter. He was the man he got the binoculars from. Baxter was a watch-maker and a great antiquarian. Richards’ father gave Baxter the right to “grub about” his land wherever he wanted and even gave Baxter some men to help him dig. 

Baxter found a surprising number of things. After Baxter died ten or 15 years ago, Richards bought his estate and gave some of its items to the local museum. He got the binoculars then, and, if you look at them, you can see they’re “amateur work”, and Baxter didn’t make the lenses.

Did he really find a Roman villa, asks Fanshawe? He did, replies Richards, and some nice artifacts. Baxter had quite a good instinct for finding things. He’d close his shop and wander for four days, marking his finds on a map and making notes. After he died, archaeologists went to the marked locations and found things. 

“What a good man!”, says Fanshawe. Richards is rather cold to that statement. Was he a villain, asks Fanshawe?

“I don’t know about that either . . . but all I can say is, if he was good, he wasn’t lucky. And he wasn’t liked. I didn’t like him.’” 

And that is all he wants to say about Baxter.

The men admire the “lovely countryside” for a few minutes before Fanshawe looks at it through the binoculars. Richards suggests he look at the lovely Fulnaker Abbey. Fanshawe says it is a nice looking church. Richards tells him he’s looking in the wrong direction and towards Oldbourne. It’s been awhile since he’s been to Oldbourne, but he doesn’t remember anything special about the place. Without the binoculars, Fanshawe can’t make out the church there either.

Richards directs Fanshawe’s view towards a wooded hill in the distance. Fanshawe does and says he can guess it’s name without much trouble: Gallow’s Hill. Richards is surprised and wants to know how Fanshawe guessed that. Because it’s got a “dummy gibbet” and a man hanging on it, replies Fanshawe. Nonsense, says Richards. He can’t see that, and he was on the hill less than a year ago and saw nothing like that.

Looking through the glasses, Richards also doesn’t see the gibbet. It’s odd, says Fanshawe, he can see people and carts on the hill with the glasses but not with his naked eyes. He also doesn’t see a wooded hill through his binoculars. Fanshawe says he’ll go there tomorrow to have a look. Brooding, Richards says that’s probably the best way to reconcile the discrepancy. 

When they return to the Squire’s house, his butler Patten is upset that someone has been up to mischief. A wooden box was moved in Richards’ study. Richards explains the binoculars were in it. 

That night, Fanshawe has a dream. He is walking in a half-familiar garden and comes on a rockery with a “window tracery from a church, and even bits of figures.” One of these is a “sculpted capital with scenes carved on it”. Wanting a closer look, he pulls it out surprisingly easily. A “tin label” falls out of the pile and reads “On no account move this stone. Yours sincerely, J. Patten.” Fanshawe starts to feel anxious, and he can’t see the stone anymore. He does see the mouth of a burrow. 

Bending over for a closer look, he sees “a clean right hand in a neat cuff and coatsleeve” emerge. It almost seems like a hand offered in a handshake, and Farnshawe wonders if it would be rude not to. Then the hand turns “hairy and dirty and thin” and grabs at his pant’s cuff. “At that he drops all thoughts of politeness, decided to run, screamed and woke himself up.” 

Fanshawe thinks there was something important about the dream and tries to fix it in his mind.  That morning, he looks at some books from the County Archaeological Society. He comes across  some articles by Baxter himself. 

“If the man had more early schooling, thought Fanshawe, he would have been a very distinguished antiquary; or he might have been (he thus qualified his opinion a little later), but for a certain love of opposition and controversy, and, yes, a patronizing tone as of one possessing superior knowledge, which left an unpleasant taste.” 

Baxter’s restoration drawings are quite good and detailed. Fanshawe does see a drawing of Oldbourne Church among them. Fanshawe decides to take his bike and visit Oldbourne and Gallows Hill. Richards suggests he also might want to stop by Lambsfield and Wanstone.  There’s a “little glass” at Lambsfield and a stone at Wanstone. 

Fanshawe is going to take the binoculars again. Richards apologizes for not having a better pay and says Patten doesn’t like the binoculars and has “some tale” about Baxter which he hasn’t heard, but, since last night, Patten has been very concerned about the glasses. 

“Did he have a nightmare like me?” asks Fanshawe. Something’s up with him, says Richards. He looked like an “old man” this morning. They’ll hear Patten’s story when Fanshawe gets back. 

Richards doesn’t have faith in bicycles even though Fanshawe says he has stuff with him to fix flat tires and says he’ll have a cold supper waiting. 

And, indeed, Fanshawe does return late, about nine o’clock and gives his report. 

He made it to Lambsfield without trouble. He tried to read the lettering in the church, but the binoculars were of no help in the church or in any other building though the only places he went into were churches. 

Then it was on to Wanstone, and Fanshawe asks if anyone has dug into the mound the stone sits on. Baxter wanted to, says Richards, but the farmer who owned the land wouldn’t let him. 

Then it was on to Fulnaker and Oldbourne. Weirdly, there was nothing over 30 feet tall in Oldbourne though the ruins of an old tower can be seen. Baxter’s drawings of the old church, though, did match what Fanshawe saw through the binoculars. 

Richards interrupts Fanshawe and asks him about Gallows Hill and tells Patten to take note.  He’s told Patten what Fanshawe saw through the binoculars. “Yes, Master Henry, you did; and I can’t say I was much surprised, considering.” 

Fanshawe resumes his account. 

He returned by Ackford and Thorfield where he looked at both town’s churches then it was on to Gallows Hill. And, indeed, Fanshawe didn’t encounter the cleared hilltop he saw in the binoculars but a belt of planted trees. He dragged his bike through the woods, hoping to find the clearing he saw. Thorns punctured both his tires. 

The further Fanshawe went into the woods the less he liked them. 

“I know I had all the fancies one least likes: steps crackling over twigs behind me, indistinct people stepping behind trees in front of me, yes, and even a hand laid on my shoulder. I pulled up very sharp at that and looked round, but there really was no branch or bush that could have done it. Then, when I was just about at the middle of the plot, I was convinced that there was someone looking down on me from above—and not with any pleasant intent. I stopped again, or at least slackened my pace, to look up. And as I did, down I came, and barked my shins abominably on, what do you think? a block of stone with a big square hole in the top of it. And within a few paces there were two others just like it. The three were set in a triangle. Now, do you make out what they were put there for?” 

Richards thinks he does but asks Fanshawe to continue. Patten, listening intently, asks if Fanshawe went between the stones. No, he did not. He shouldered the bicycle and started to run out of the woods since he sensed he was at “an unholy evil sort of graveyard”.  At the hedge surrounding the wood, Fanshawe threw his bike over and jumped over it. Something caught at his ankle as he did so. 

Fanshawe tried to fix the punctures in his tires but failed, so he ended up walking the six miles back to Richards’ place. 

Fanshawe then asks to hear Richards’ and Patten’s stories. 

Richards doesn’t have much to say except, cryptically in regard to those stones, “here must be a good few of them up there, Patten, don’t you think? They left ’em there when they fell to bits, I fancy.”

(Spoilers ahead) 

Richards and Fanshawe then ask for Patten’s story. Patten says Fanshawe’s experience was very much due to Baxter. Patten knew Baxter, a solitary man, for many years. He was also on the coroner’s jury held when Baxter died. Baxter never went to church and said unkind things to the rector when he made his one and only visit to Baxter. Many men would meet Baxter on the road on summer nights, and he seemed to always be returning from the place with the stones. 

One afternoon, Baxter was at home and ordered his housekeeper not to come in. There was a fearful noise inside and smoke poured out the windows, and then Baxter screamed in agony. A neighbor entered and smelt something horrible and found that Baxter had been boiling something and upset the pot, burning his leg. Other people entered too and said they’d get a doctor. One was about to pick up the pot when Baxter screamed at him to leave it alone. That was odd given that it just had “a few old brown bones” in it. Waiting for the doctor to come, Baxter tells the men to throw a cloth over the pot to hide it before the doctor came. Whatever Baxter spilled on himself must have been poisonous, says Patten, because it took him two months to recover.

Richards interrupts Patten at this point and says he remember a man named Lawrence tending to Baxter during this time. Lawrence told Richards a story about picking up a peculiar mask, covered in black velvet, in Baxter’s bedroom and trying to look at himself in the mirror. Before he could do that, Baxter screamed, “Put it down, you fool! Do you want to look through a dead man’s eyes?” Lawrence had the vague impression that, beneath the velvet, was part of a human skull. He also bought some distilling apparatus from Baxter’s estate, but it seemed to taint everything he tried to use it for. 

Patten continues his account. Many years after Baxter was scalded and shortly before he died, he made the binoculars. The last conversation Patten had with Baxter before he died was about them. Baxter had been working on them for years, completing the body and the lens, but they still needed work. Baxter says, triumphantly, that when he’s finished with them, Patten will hear about it. They just need to be “filled and sealed”. Patten says it sounds like he’s talking about wine bottles not binoculars when he says that. Baxter tries to brush off his words as just a figure of speech aimed at Patten. He obviously has made a slip up. When he finishes them, Baxter says, he’ll let Patten know – and he’ll have to pay to look through them. 

A week later, on June 17th, occurred an incident that led to a coroner’s verdict that Baxter was of unsound mind. Late that night, Williams, Baxter’s neighbor, heard a noise. Then he saw Baxter coming out of his house looking not at all well and walking like he was “bein’ pushed or pulled down and holdin’ on to everythin’ he could”. Baxter said “O mercy, gentlemen!” then stops as if someone put a hand over his mouth. Baxter’s head is thrown back and his hat fell off. It seemed as if Baxter was compelled against his will to go somewhere. Williams asked Baxter if he was well, and Baxter told him to mind his own business. Williams closed his window, but the last he saw of Baxter was him walking up the road and not even bothering to pick up his hat. 

In fact, that’s the last time anybody saw Baxter. His body was found about a week later. It was between those three stones, and Baxter’s neck was broken.  

Patten then asks if Fanshawe used the binoculars today. Just inside churches, Fanshawe says.  Patten suggests he tries to use them the next morning. 

Fanshawe does. He sees nothing but black inside them now. Richards is rather indignant that Fanshawe might have ruined his only pair of binoculars. He hasn’t done anything to them, says Fanshawe. Richards can try them himself. He does, but, lifting the heavy pair up, he drops them on a stone. An odorous, “inky black liquid” comes out of them. 

“So that’s what came of his boiling and distilling, is it? Old Ghoul!”, says Richards. Farnshawe doesn’t understand. 

“Remember what he said to the doctor about looking through dead men’s eyes? Well, this was another way of it. But they didn’t like having their bones boiled, I take it, and the end of it was they carried him off whither he would not.” 

Richards is going to bury the binoculars. After he does so, Richards remarks it’s a pity Baxter didn’t get to use the binoculars. He had them only a week before he died. Fanshawe isn’t so sure.  Baxter did produce that detailed drawing of Fulnaker Priory Church, a building that no longer exists.

This is an inventive story of unusual sorcery with some hints and unanswered questions. Baxter does seem to be a talented antiquarian since most of his finds predate his binoculars. But did he have other occult tools in his search? Was Baxter a full fledged sorcerer because of his antiquarianism or did he start out as a sorcerer? The latter seems suggested given his hostility towards churches but that’s not definitive. And who was buried in that graveyard? Presumably criminals, but why the strange gravestones? Or, pehaps, they were witches which accounts for the use their bodies could be put to and their ability to extract revenge. 

The hand grabbing at Fanshawe as he went over the hedge seems to be a vengeance directed at him for having part of their bodies. Richards doesn’t see anything through the binoculars, so it’s implied some token sacrifice – Fanshawe’s pricked finger – is necessary to activate them.

And, of course, the idea of a pair of binoculars that can view the past is pretty novel.

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