“A Warning to the Curious” is a horror story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in his A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost StoriesCollection of six short stories by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1925. (1925).
The story is set in Seaburgh, on the east coast of England, a “thinly disguised version of the coastal town of Aldeburgh in Suffolk”, and concerns the events following the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon crown. It is told as a first-person narrative, by two different narrators.
The story begins with a description of Seaburgh, a pleasant seaside town of which the first narrator has pleasant childhood memories, and as a result he collects tales about the area. The remainder of the story is taken up by one of those tales, told by a second narrator.
The second narrator is on holiday at Seaburgh with his friend, Henry Long. They are approached by Paxton, another guest at the inn where they are staying. Paxton appears rather nervous and fidgety, and in an effort to calm him, the narrator engages him in conversation.
Paxton explains that he has some interest in the architecture of medieval churches, and while visiting one in nearby Froxton he had come across a coat of arms containing three crowns, which he believed to be the old arms of the kingdom of East Anglia. The rector tells Paxton of a local legend about the three holy crowns, buried in different places near the coast to prevent invasion by the Danes or the French or the Germans. One had long since been dug up and melted down, and a second disappeared under the encroaching sea, leaving only one to repel invaders. The rector also tells Paxton that a now deceased family, the Agers, were the guardians of that last crown.
William Ager was the last of his line, and Paxton discovers that he was found dead on a hillock close to the cottage where he lived. Paxton obtains the permission of the present landowner to excavate the hillock, and finds the crown, but has been stalked ever since by its supernatural guardian, a mysterious stranger dressed in black. He feels that his only escape can be to return the crown to where he found it, and the narrator and his companion offer to go with him to assist in that task that very night.
The following day Paxton seems much more relaxed. The three men agree to go for a walk that afternoon, but when the narrator and his companion call for him they find him gone. A servant says that she saw Paxton running towards the beach, having heard his friends call for him. The narrator and his companion set off after Paxton onto the beach, but a thick sea mist descends, making visibility poor. The two men come across Paxton’s dead body, “his mouth … full of sand and stones, and his teeth and jaws … broken to bits”.
The caretaker at the martello tower close to where Paxton had fallen from an old battery could not be certain about any attacker. But his evidence at the subsequent inquest, that he had seen the narrator and his companion run up just a moment or two after Paxton fell, exonerated them of any involvement in his murder.
The narrator ends by saying that he and his companion keep the location of the crown secret, and that he has never been back to, or even near, Seaburgh since.
“A Warning to the Curious” was adapted for television by the BBC, first broadcast as an episode of their A Ghost Story for Christmas series on 24 December 1972.
- M. R. James bibliographyList of the works written by M. R. James.