The Construction of Lost Hearts by M.R. James

M.R. James’ Lost Hearts is a tautly-constructed short story with an impressive economy of narrative. It’s a macabre tale of an elderly occultist luring children to his home and murdering them in an attempt to magical powers and immortality. An unnamed narrator (James?) relates the tale.

It seems to me that there are three movements in the story: events up to 24th March 1812, the evening of 24th March and “certain papers” from Abney’s desk explaining his motivations. There’s also a coda to the story is the delayed revelation that Abney has been killed with his heart exposed (this action of withholding a climactic detail to the very end of the story is something James and other supernatural writers appear to do frequently).

The story is constructed like this:

  1. In September 1811, Stephen Elliot arrives at Aswarby Hall. James describes the architecture, evening and a little about the occult interests of Mr Abney, Elliot’s elderly cousin.
  2. Dialogue between Stephen and Abney in which the old man confirms Stephen’s age.
  3. Description of Mrs Bunch, the housekeeper.
  4. Mentions of aspects of the Hall through questioning by Stephen.
  5. One November evening when Stephen asks Mrs Bunch whether Abney is a good man. Mrs Bunch recounts the arrivals and disapearances of the two children.
  6. Stephen has a “curious dream”. There’s also a paragraph in which James digresses to a description of the vaults of St Michan’s Church.
  7. Two incidents in the approach of the spring equinox. The first is the torn nightdress and the scratches on a bedroom door. The second, the following evening, in which Parkes, the butler, who claims to hear voices (of talking rats) in the cellar.
  8. The events of 24th March: Abney’s invitation, a description of the night, the sight of the ghostly boy and girl and the scene where Stephen stands outside the library door, hearing Abney’s attempt to cry out.
  9. Extract from Abney’s papers in which he explains his attempts to bring about ” a very remarkable enlightenment of the spiritual faculties” discovered in the writings of Hermes Trismegistus.
  10. The final paragraph is a description of Abney’s body.

What’s great about Lost Hearts is the manner in which there’s thoroughly nasty occult practices going on masked by the ordinary, everyday.