The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Six

To Green Park last night, where my Agent and his chums had their annual agency drinks. Much fun with (authors) Alan Campbell (who brought his Dad along, it seems to be my year for meeting authors’ Dads), Pat Cadigan, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, China Mieville and N.M. Browne, (Sir) Antony Sher, (theatre director) Greg Doran and (editor) Peter Lavery. And it turns out that Mic, whose agency this is, may have known Mad Lord Berners, of the Manor in my little town here, who encouraged Salvador Dali to make his way across the market place in a diving suit. We’re still trying to work out if her memories of the man are chronologically possible.

I was asleep on the train in, knackered, having only just today completed new drafts to all my TV project notes, and only finally as I type this being able to say I’m finished work for this year. But the evening reinvigorated me. My Agent knows how to have fun. Indeed, in a lot of ways, that seems rather to be his job. I came home convinced that a vital part of the whole ritual of Christmas is to be too busy, to take on getting all those card addresses and getting all the presents in, and watering the tree, and rushing about for work, so that you know that when you’ve finished, you’ve really finished. It’s the depth of experience across a holiday season that makes it, hopefully of a pleasing nature, and of a sort that connects one to others, and I hope that by doing these blogs I’m contributing to that.

Lovely to get a DVD and mug from those lovely folk at Doctor Who Confidential. That show has a real family atmosphere amongst the team. Cheers, dears.

In the shops today is the new edition of SFX Magazine, issue 165, which includes their regular Book Club feature, this time by yours truly on the subject of The Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James. And it’s in the spirit of that author that I’d like to present:

An Occurrence at Slocombe Priory

It was in the year 19—that Prof. Regulus decided upon himself to visit certain relatives he had in the country, mostly for the purpose of impressing upon them his new credentials as occupant of the Sebun Chair at Keble. They had taken to sending him chatty postcards, and on the arrival of each one, he would turn to his companions at high table and remark that said relatives seemed entirely unaware of the sort of man they were addressing.

So it was with a certain energy that, upon the going down of his students (and if there was anything Regulus liked it was his students going down), Regulus journeyed that summer to the county of S-. He spent time in the bookshops of W- before he caught his connection, and selected several volumes, bought mostly for their bindings, the value of which was clearly unknown to the bookshop owners in question. Unfortunately, when he arrived at the station in C – S - , he found no transport to meet him.

'Why, that is typical,’ he thought. ‘Still, it is only two miles. And it is a splendid summer day (for it was, at that point). I shall walk.’

Regulus set off. But after a certain while, he became convinced that he had already walked more than the two miles he had anticipated. The fields went on, empty. He was looked down upon by distant hills. The road went on. And there had been no traffic. Which started to strike him as odd.

So it was with some relief, and a jolt of annoyance at his own silliness for starting to worry when there had been only an open road and a lovely day, that Regulus found a colourful conveyance coming up behind him. Why, it was some sort of van! Now, what was done in these circumstances? He realised, and stuck out his thumb, for just a moment, before he realised how vulgar and pleading he looked, and turned the movement into an odd sort of wave.

Thankfully, the van came to a halt anyway. It really was most oddly decorated, with swirls of colour as might be painted by someone in an opiate vision. There was an insignia on the side, perhaps that of a company

'Mystery Machine,’ read Regulus. Well! Ad augusta per angusta! And absit omen for that matter!

A youth looked out from the van, a solid sort of the kind who won Blues, but for a cravat that gave him an altogether more worrying air. But his greeting was pleasant enough, and Regulus consented to his offer of transport.

Inside the van as it pulled away, Regulus was confronted with a young lady who was attired entirely inappropriately for anything of which a confirmed bachelor might conceive. He looked the other way, only to find himself seated between another such. But this one at least was not so troubling, dressed as she was, oddly, for far colder weather than this bright day.

Regulus looked at her long socks and enormous pullover and asked if she was up for a hike. The young lady said she wasn’t sure she’d heard him correctly, and expressed considerable relief when he repeated himself. She introduced herself as Miss V- D -, which also came as something of shock, and her companions as Miss D – B – and Mr. F – J -.

There came a sound from the rear of the vehicle, and Regulus was startled once again at the sight of what he assumed to be a vagrant, dressed in a long smock of a light green colour. The man was introduced only as S -. With him sat the most enormous dog Regulus had ever seen. What could it be? Perhaps a Great Dane? No, for surely no such creature had ever had such extraordinary features! S – opined that Regulus looked as if he had seen a ghost, at which the dog went into frightful conniptions, grabbing hold of his master and making noises both terrified and terrifying, until the peasant calmed the beast with some sort of foodstuff taken from a small and dirty bag.

Regulus turned to face the front, and hoped they would reach the address he had given with all due dispatch.

However, it was not to be. The van’s engine made startling noises, and F -, at the wheel, announced that some sort of problem with the mechanism had manifested itself.

They came to a halt in front of a building that, while having some features of architectural interest, offered a forbidding aspect. Rooks flew unseasonably from high windows, which gazed down long and cold. And could it be that it was getting dark already? A sign named the place as Slocombe Priory. Which, the travelers in the van opined, was the strangest name for an old dark house that they had ever heard.

Regulus felt that perhaps the best course of action would be to make away with himself, but at that very moment, the door of the structure opened, and two figures could be made out within.

The dog very nearly repeated its earlier performance, but Miss D -, her hands imperiously on her hips, called to the figures, asking if perhaps they could offer shelter and succor until aid arrived in the morning.

The two men turned out to be very different in character. One of them, a Mr. Ambrose Angel, was surely the most agreeable, affable chap Regulus had ever encountered. His pleasant countenance and courtly manner immediately made the Professor and his new traveling companions, if they could be described as such, feel welcome. His assistant as caretaker of the Priory, however, Mr. Augustus Snarley, however, was as curt and rude as his superior was kind, and made no secret of his desire that no strangers should stay under this roof this evening. His wishes were thankfully ignored.

And yet, as Regulus took his bags into the house which loomed so massively over him, he wondered if perhaps he was yet thankful.

An hour or so later, Regulus locked the door of a bedroom that had several features of interest, but had fallen into dilapidation, and attempted to sleep.

And he might have. Had he not been disturbed by certain noises.

They were natural sounds, surely. Why, they must be coming from the direction of what could only be the kitchen.

Regulus could have stayed in his bed. But he was an historian, an academic, and he had been born in the country of Y – and felt himself the equal of whatever task might be before him. He was not one to be frightened by trifles. He went to the door and listened.

Yes, there it was again!

He took a breath, and unlocked his door. Then, a moment later he opened the door and left his room.

He followed the sounds to the kitchen. There was definitely something happening within. Lights and noise came from under the door, a thunderous noise, impossible, as if plates and cooking utensils were being thrown around by some tremendous storm!

Regulus shook his head. He could not walk away now. He could open this door. Yes, what was he, a child, a don of Cambridge?! He must see!

He flung open the door.

In later years, Regulus would only rarely speak of what he saw in the kitchen. But the details were always the same. The enormous dog and his emaciated master were the only inhabitants of the room. They both had their mouths open in the attitude of one who is eager to consume food. But the mouths! The sheer gaping vastness of those orifices! The impossible proportions of the spread they had set before them!

Regulus slammed the door and ran before his senses deserted him.

He ran and ran, until he was sure he can hear carnival music in his ears, and that he was running past the same small section of wall, over and over!

He fell against one part of the wall that was a slightly different colour –

And found himself spinning, once, twice, and then into a different corridor!

In his panic, he managed to stumble up the main flight of stairs, his feet slipping beneath him. He fell, and as he fell, he grabbed –

A man in some sort of strange costume. Why, surely, he was wearing a mask!

Or he had been, until Regulus’ desperately gripping fingers had pulled it from him.

And beneath it, oh blessed relief, thanks upon thanks, it was the beneficent Mr. Angel!

‘Ah,’ said Angel. And then ‘why, Regulus, you look as if you have seen a –‘

‘Do not say it,’ said Regulus. He inquired urgently of the man as to whether, despite all that had earlier been said, he might be away that night, before he had further sight of the two monstrosities. To his surprise, Angel readily agreed, and drove the Professor to his final address, where his country friends were surprised to see him, and not at all offended to be woken in the middle of the night. They had missed him at the station, and were sorry.

Regulus had not thought to ask his saviour about his strange attire, and did not think of it until the man was gone. At the step, Angel offered him a strange thanks, that because of him he might have a chance of ‘getting away’ with designs of which Regulus had no knowledge. He expressed opinions concerning the young people and the monsters they brought with them that Regulus could only agree with. He asked Regulus to never return to Slocombe Priory. And Regulus heartily agreed.

He took to his bed in the home of his country friends, in a small room neatly arrayed with a simple eiderdown, and decided to pass the whole experience of as having been in the middle of something which would probably continue without him.

But in his later years, Regulus never would walk a road alone. He was never the first to set foot within a kitchen. And he was never seen to consume a sandwich.

The End.

Until we see each other tomorrow, I shall retire to my rooms, and wish you a fond Cheerio.

10 Response to "The Twelve Blogs of Christmas: Six"

  • Rob Says:

    Hurrah for this, Paul! I'm betting you will get away with it, regardless of any number of meddling kids.

    Sourpuss comment coming, for which I apologise in advance: The "family feel" of DW:C is no doubt wonderful to be part of, but it's the single biggest contributing factor to my no longer watching the show. The whole thing is so cliquey and self-congratulatory that it often seems as if an in-house lark has been broadcast by mistake.'Ave a word, there's a love...

  • heatherfeather Says:

    If his contest ideas and Facebook posts are an indication, making merry comes natural to your agent:0

    As a latecomer to the work of M.R. James, I was delighted w/the story. That may be the first James crossover fic ever. However, to be a true James story, there needed to be a disgraced 15th- century bishop or pre-Christian pagan ritual attached to the house. Just to point out that he is from Cambridge-dash it!

    But darn those pesky kids! Always wondered what Fred and the girls were doing when Scooby and Shaggy alway ran into the ghosts....?

  • RachelC Says:

    I'm going to have to avoid drinking whilst reading the blog. The going down crack nearly had wine all over the keyboard.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Rob, how many Making Ofs do you know that are scathing attacks on their subject matter? They like what they do! And they transmit that to the viewers, and the whole makes a jolly celebration. Heather: it so does. And you're right about the relics. And I know James was a Tab. His work only ever attacks himself and his peers, and I thought if he ever put such a swipe in, it'd be in his own direction (though I don't think he ever did). And wine down the keyboard, that's what we're after!

  • SK Says:

    Some 'making ofs' are actually watchable, interesting pieces which show how various effects (special or otherwise) were achieved, and what the people behind the scenes were aiming at (which is especially interesting if it didn't quite come off, and they realise that it didn't quite come off).

    Not all of them are as cloying and indulgent.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Excuse me, SK, I rather harumph at your tone, especially at this time of the year, and especially because the people concerned were mentioned here only because they were kind enough to send me a gift. They don't deserve to come here and see that. Which is not to say I don't think you should be free to say it, just not in my gracious abode. Now, have some mulled wine.

  • LynnS Says:

    You know, I was feeling a bit sheepish about having recently written a 38k+ word Doctor Who novel/fic, but not now. ;) I don't know M.R. James, though the style is familiar. I shall have to dig some up.

  • Piers Says:

    Thank you.

    Having only two days ago seen my first MR James (on BBC4, no less), I now feel it my duty to find out more about him.

    Now if I could only find me some Captain Caveman / Jules Verne mashup...

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    It would be ironic if that had introduced you to James! He is well worth seeking out. And Lynns, that's my function, to stop others feeling sheepish by doing it first.

  • LynnS Says:

    Bless you, my child.