“Rats” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James (1862–1936), first published in 1929 in At Random, an Eton College magazine.[a]M. R. James was provost of Eton. It was included in the anthology The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. JamesCollection of all but four of the ghost stories written by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, first published in 1931. (1931).
Despite the title, the story has nothing to do with rats. Written as a third-person narrative, it is an account of a tale told to the unidentified narrator by an old man, Mr Thomson, visiting the narrator’s family home many years ago, when the narrator himself was a boy.
The story begins as Mr Thomson, then a young man from the University of Cambridge, is settling into his room in an 18th-century inn near the Suffolk coast; he is the only guest. Quite content with his large first-floor room, he is looking forward to the peace and quiet that will allow him to catch up with his reading.
Thomson soon settles into a routine of work in the morning, a stroll around the countryside in the afternoon, a little socialising in the inn in the evening, then back up to his room for more reading and writing before bed. On one of his afternoon perambulations across the heath he discovers a square block of white stone, fashioned somewhat like the base of a pillar, with a square hole in its top. Back at the inn, all he is told is that whatever it had originally been had long ago fallen to bits, and a good thing too, as the local fishermen had considered it to be unlucky.
One afternoon Thomson decides to investigate the other rooms on his floor, but one is locked. He finds that a key to one of the other rooms fits the lock, and on entering sees that the room contains only a bed. But he is shaken when under the counterpane someone appears to be stirring, and he very quickly leaves, locking the door behind him. Outside he hears a “stumbling padding tread” approaching the door, and “fled like a rabbit to his room”, locking himself in.
Thomson’s first thought is to leave the inn immediately, but as he has booked for another week he is concerned that he would have to explain why he is cutting his visit short, so he stays at the inn. But Thomson’s curiosity eventually gets the better of him, and so after checking out at the end of his stay he pretends to go back up to his room to check if he had left anything behind. Once again opening the door of the locked room he sees what at first appears to be a scarecrow propped on the edge of the bed. Then, as he notices that it has bare bony feet, it rises from the bed and begins to walk stiffly across the floor. Slamming the door shut, Thomson falls into a faint, and is found by the innkeeper Mr Betts and his wife, who are evidently displeased that Thomson has opened that bedroom door, and the effect his story will have on their business.
After Thomson promises to say nothing that might damage the inn’s reputation, Betts tells him that “scarecrow” is actually a previous landlord who after being found to be in cahoots with the local highwaymen had been hung up in chains at the site of the white stone block Thomson had asked about. But the fishermen made away with the body because it was visible from the sea and, they said, kept the fish away. Betts goes on to say that the previous owner of the inn had told him the story, and warned him to always keep the room shut and never move the bed out.
The only reference to rats in the story is in the opening quotation from Charles Dickens’ Christmas story “Tom Tiddler’s Ground”, published in All the Year Round in 1861:
”And if you was to walk through the bedrooms now, you’d see the ragged, mouldy bedclothes a-heaving and a-heaving like seas.” “And a-heaving and a-heaving with what?” he says. “Why, with the rats under ’em.”
“Rats” has been adapted for radio as an episode of the BBC Radio 4 Ghosts series, read by Benjamin Whitrow and first broadcast in January 1998.
- M. R. James bibliographyList of the works written by M. R. James.
|M. R. James was provost of Eton.
- Full text of “Rats” at Project Gutenberg