Peta Stamper's companion piece to Graham Williamson's essay on the BBC's A Ghost Stories for Christmas episode explores M.R. James' as a story and place of visitations, retribution and doubt...
In Devonshire, 1684, George Martin stood trial for the murder of “poor country girl” Ann Clark. The prosecution’s case? Teasingly, the gentleman Martin asked her to dance with him at the local village dance. Smitten, Clark pursued her unrequited affection to the point Martin’s high-society fiancé calls off their engagement. Clark disappears. However, she is seen and heard by locals thrashing about in the pond, singing the song they had danced to, “Madam, will you walk, will you talk with me?” A mysterious dark shape is also seen by town innkeeper Sarah Arscott as Martin calls in. It rushes inside with a wind that extinguishes the candles, hiding in the closet before slinking back out into the night, causing Martin to cry out and run away. Clark’s body is then found in the pond along with Martin’s mislaid knife, her throat cut. Martin is subsequently tried by Judge George Jeffreys at the Old Bailey, found guilty of murder and hanged on 28th December 1685.
Martin’s Close by M. R. James is an early 20th-century ghost story told by an unnamed narrator who, whilst visiting Devon, investigates this remarkable case and explores the unresolved tensions between what we trust to be certain and what we do not.
The crime committed in Martin’s Close is particularly shocking because the victim was a young disabled woman. Ann Clark is described as an “innocent”, “of weak understanding”, who, according to her neighbours and family, cannot have been expected to fully understand Martin’s teasing. James underlines the gravity of taking innocent life by choosing the 28th December, Holy Innocents Day, for Martin’s execution. It’s a subtle yet haunting poetic justice.
However, Martin’s Close is a short story, so everything James writes intentionally contributes to building tension. This poetic detail can also suggest Martin’s innocence. Alone, this suggestion holds little sway, but James questions Martin’s guilt further in several ways. First, Martin makes no guilty confession, he even pleads ‘not guilty’ in court despite being haunted by Clark. Surely a man tormented by his conscience or the spirit of his victim would confess? Second, the prosecuting Attorney describes how Clark, in her distress, might have taken her life over the affair with Martin, her family expressing to him on more than one occasion “their fears… she might have committed some rash act against her own life”. While there is enough circumstantial and testimonial evidence to convict Martin of Clark’s murder, James plants just enough doubt in our minds to question Martin’s guilt. If there’s anywhere we want little room for doubt, it is a guilty conviction with a capital sentence.
The historical figure of Lord Chief Justice, Judge George Jeffreys, generates further unease over Martin’s guilt. By providing just enough of what is certain with a real historical person, James creates tension by contrasting him with the supernatural. Beyond a damning characterisation as “bloody judge: terrible red and bloody”, Jeffreys’ historical reputation was for unprofessional behaviour in court, and as ‘Hanging Judge’ for his role in the ‘Bloody Assizes’ of 1685. The ‘Bloody Assizes’ were trials for West Country rebels involved in the Monmouth Rebellion against Catholic King James II. Jeffreys, therefore, represents the establishment and its power to enact harsh punishments. While Jeffreys’ reputation is based on violent contemporary laws such as the death penalty for treason, there is something troubling about someone willing to repeatedly sit on capital cases.
Therefore, as a judge with a reputation for bloodshed, it follows Jeffreys might be more willing to convict and offer a violent sentence in Martin’s Close. Even if following the rule of law, Jeffreys forces us to hesitate when assuming justice is done. We glimpse his coldness when after sentencing Martin, he says “with all my heart … Ann Clark may come to you as well, for what I care”, hoping Martin gets no rest from whatever haunts him. Whether Jeffreys believes the spirit to be real or a manifestation of Martin’s guilty conscience, issuing Martin a double punishment of hanging and haunting and thus acknowledging the spirit, gives an odd legal validation to the spirit of Clark, blurring Jeffreys’ role and our understanding of law and natural order.
So who enacts justice? When first recounting the story of Clark’s death to our narrator, local man John Hill says Martin was disturbed but “his crule action come to light by the young woman’s sperit”. Martin is tormented in front of witnesses. For example, the wet brown material seen coming from the closet where the dark shape hid, is likened to Clark’s dress by Sarah Arscott in court. Without witnesses to attest to it being Ann Clark’s spirit, Martin’s distress might not have drawn enough suspicion to suggest his guilt. Martin is sentenced by both Jeffreys and John Hill to be “fairly tormented” by her. Whilst researching contemporary events, I read that famed suffragette Emily Dickinson locked herself in a closet in Westminster Abbey during the 1911 census in protest. Although this event was too late to inspire James’s writing, it demonstrates the tension within British society over gender rights in 1911, the time of publication. Ann Clark gains agency after her violent death if we agree with John Hill that her spirit brought Martin to justice. Yet her agency is only in supernatural form, which suggests James found it ‘unnatural’. Therefore, a poor disabled woman becoming the vehicle of her own justice against a man of higher social class was likely the most unsettling part of Martin’s Close to much of James’ readership.
M. R. James was the ‘antiquarian ghost story’ writer. By rooting Martin’s Close in English history through historical figure Judge Jeffreys, James legitimises his story. By focusing on empirical facts, not theory, James creates tension in the story between different types of story-telling and evidence and initially places a high value on written evidence. The unnamed narrator, without clear background, motivation and thus free of bias, “naturally” follows up on John Hill’s story by researching newspapers. He highlights how we often trust what is tangible or on paper over what we are told. Eventually, he finds an unpublished short-hand court transcript, “a true copy in regard … to what was said”. As a court transcript, the source suggests dependability and fact, however, James undermines the validity of the transcript in several ways. First, the narrator notes the transcript was not an exact trial copy because it included “‘remarkable passages’ that took place during the trial”, alluding to Martin’s “staring like a player that sees a ghost!” and witness testimonies about Clark’s spirit. Even this “true” source acknowledges the ‘remarkable’ ghost sightings, confusing what we assume to be trusted evidence.
Second, Martin’s Close ends as the narrator tells us how in this village, suspicion stops people singing, “Madam, will you walk”, the song referencing Clark and Martin’s meeting. It is interesting the story ends with a testament to enduring oral histories, bringing it full circle to the narrator hearing the rector and John Hill’s story in the beginning, and giving us the resounding feeling that local oral histories tell the truest stories.
James also uses location to battle between reason and the supernatural. The story unfolds between the Devonshire countryside and London’s Old Bailey. James juxtaposes the two: Devon is a place of superstition as the place of the two violent deaths and the hauntings by Clark, while Martin insisted only London would give him a fair, objective trial. However, once again James blurs the distinction between reason and superstition. Considering Jeffreys and his murky role as establishment logic, as well as Martin’s distress and distraction in court, London fails to stand up as somewhere safe from the supernatural. James, therefore, tells us a story that makes us question both ‘established’ forms and locations of knowledge.
Finally, the title Martin’s Close refers to the place John Hill takes our narrator in the beginning. It is here Martin was hanged, “one of the smallest enclosures … hedged in with quickset on all sides, and without any gate or gap leading into it”, essentially inaccessible. You can see Martin’s Close at “no great distance from the road”, but not go into it or touch it. Places where people die or where human remains are buried such as cemeteries keep alive memories of the dead, particularly where there is conflict or trauma. For example, the locations of grisly murders or paranormal events are often maintained and capitalised on by visitor centres and spooky tours. Martin’s Close is both a story and place of unexplained visitations, violent reputations and doubt. As a result, the locals tried to separate it, locking away their uncertainty “on all sides”. Yet in doing so they unwittingly kept George Martin and Ann Clark’s spirit alive – there is no finality to the story. Martin’s Close, therefore, ultimately represents the unresolved and uneasy meeting of what can and cannot be touched, and what can and cannot be explained.