“The Ash-tree” is a ghost story by the English medievalist and author M. R. James, included in his Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904). The beginning of the story – “the first act of the Castringham tragedy” – is at first narrated in the first person by Mr Crome, the vicar of Castringham, but is seamlessly continued by an unidentified third-person narrator, as Mr Crome is dead by the time of the story’s climactic ending.
In 1690 Castringham Hall in Suffolk was the scene of an unknown number of witch trials. One of the suspected women, Mrs Mothersole, stood out from the others by being more prosperous and influential; indeed, her good character was attested to by several reputable local farmers. The only evidence given against her came from Sir Matthew Fell, the owner of Castringham Hall, who claimed that on three separate occasions he had seen Mrs Mothersole cutting small twigs from the ash tree near his hall by the light of the full moon, using a “peculiarly curved knife”.
Sir Matthew had tried to apprehend Mrs Mothersole on each occasion, but by the time he reached the garden all he could see was a hare running towards the village.[a] On the basis of Sir Matthew’s evidence, Mrs Mothersole was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged a week later at Bury St Edmunds. All she is reported to have said on the gallows is “There will be guests at the Hall”, which she repeated several times in an undertone.
A few weeks later Sir Matthew and the local vicar, Mr Crome, are walking by the ash tree at dusk when they spy a creature in the branches, but it disappears before they can get a good look. They surmise it must have been a squirrel, although Sir Matthew is left with the impression that whatever it was had more than four legs. As was his custom at that time of year, the squire leaves his bedroom window open that night. The next day Sir Matthew is found by his servants lying dead in his bedroom, swollen, black and twisted, suggesting that his death was a painful one, but there are no signs of violence. An examination of the body reveals a couple of small puncture marks, which it is concluded is how Sir Matthew was poisoned, although no trace of any poison can be found.
Sir Matthew’s son, Sir Matthew II, inherits Castringham, but refuses to stay in his father’s old bedroom. More than forty years later, after his own death in 1735, Castringham Hall passes to his son, Sir Richard, who decides to extend the local church by adding a great family pew to its north side. Construction work necessitates that several graves on that side of the church be disturbed, among them that of Mrs Mothersole. When her coffin is dug up, it is found to be completely empty.
Sir Richard also initially refuses to stay in his grandfather’s bedroom, but after a while grows tired of his alternate chamber, as it is cold and smokey. He orders his housekeeper to move his bed into the room where his grandfather had died; that first night he keeps his window closed, but hears something scratching at it. The next day he is visited by the grandson of the vicar from all those years ago, now a vicar himself. They chat about Sir Matthew’s death, and the vicar produces some of his own grandfather’s old documents, among them the result of a superstitious experiment he had carried out after Sir Matthew’s death, using the squire’s own Bible.[b] On the paper are written three randomly chosen Biblical quotations: “Cut it down” (Luke 13:7), “It shall never be inhabited” (Isiah 13:20), and “Her young ones also suck up blood” (Job 39:30). Sir Richard agrees with the old vicar’s words, and decides to have the ash tree felled. He goes on to remark on the strange scratching noises at the window the previous night, blaming it on branches scraping the glass. The vicar says this is impossible, as the branches do not reach the window; they conclude it must have been a rat that climbed the ivy.
That evening, several guests arrive for a weekend stay; the evening passes successfully, and everyone retires to their rooms. In the middle of the night, something climbs through Sir Richard’s open window and bites him. In the morning, he is found dead and black in his bed, just like his grandfather before him. A party of guests gather in the garden on hearing news of their host’s death, and see a white cat in the branches of the ash tree, looking down into a hollow in its trunk. Something gives way and the cat falls into the hollow, letting out cries so terrible that one of the guests faints and the housekeeper flees in terror. A gardener climbs a ladder with a lantern, which he lets down into the hollow, and at the sight of what he sees cries out and falls backwards from the ladder, dropping the lantern inside the tree, setting it ablaze.
The guests watch in horror as countless large spiders crawl out of the hollow, dying on the grass. Once the fire has burned itself out, the guests cautiously approach what remains of the tree, where they discover the remains of a woman in a chamber beneath it, dead for at least fifty years.
The ash tree has long been thought to have medicinal and mystical properties, and its wood was burned to ward off evil spirits. Writing in 1870, the Reverend M. D. Conway claimed that when Christianity was introduced into Northern Europe, the ancient Scandinavian gods were transformed into witches, and the ash became one of their favourite trees.
- Witches were commonly believed to be able to transform themselves into other animals. Isobel Gowdie, who was convicted of witchcraft in 1662, even provided inquisitors with the spells by which she performed the feat of turning herself into a hare and back again.
- Sortes BiblicaeA method of divination used by some Christians to foretell the future by interpreting randomly chosen texts from the Bible., in which divinations are made by selecting random texts from the Bible.