Story Notes:
"Two Doctors"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 15.)
In 1987, Oxford World's Classics published Casting the Runes and Other Ghost Stories, a collection of twenty-one tales by M.R. James with excellent notes by Michael Cox. Twelve stories were excluded from the volume, so twelve stories remained unannotated until I began this series of notes in G&S 10. The tales were dealt with in the order in which they appear in the Collected Ghost Stories, and the page/line references were to the Penguin Complete Ghost Stories of M.R. James (1984) although they should be comprehensible even with a different edition. The notes for "Two Doctors" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands and John Alfred Taylor. I intend to add all the Story Notes to the G&S Archive in due course.

"Two Doctors" first appeared in the third collection of M.R. James's ghost tales, A Thin Ghost (Arnold 1919), and was probably written to fill up that volume. Nothing is known of the whereabouts of the manuscript.

p.259, l.4-7: "It was a practice of mine...notes and writings": MRJ is describing his own habits at this point (see Michael Cox's Introduction to The Ghost Stories of M.R. James, OUP 1986, pp.30-31; and Montague Rhodes James by Richard William Pfaff, Scolar 1980, footnote on p.410).

p.259, l.15-17: "The dossier is not complete... You must see what you can make of it": "Two Doctors" is MRJ's weakest and most difficult story. These sentences would appear to be a kind of apology for the fact that the tale is so confused. For an attempt to make sense of the events described, see "An Elucidation (?) of The Plot of M.R. James's 'Two Doctors'" by Lance Arney, in Studies in Weird Fiction 8 (Necronomicon Press, Fall 1990), pp.26-35.

p.259, l.19: "Islington in 1718": Like many districts now part of London, Islington was once a quiet country town.

p.260, l.8: "bedstaff": A staff used for making a bed. See also the note on p.262, l.14-21.

p.260, l.25-26: "Dr Abell and Dr Quinn": The similarity between Quinn and Abell, and Cain and Abel, is probably not coincidence, although in "Two Doctors" it is Abell/Abel who is the murderer.

p.260, l.32: "distinguo": I distinguish.

p.260, l.36-39: "those beings...their transgression": Dante placed the creatures in the anteroom of hell, endlessly pursuing a shifting banner and stung by wasps and hornets (Divine Comedy, Canto III, lines 34-69). But according to Celtic tradition these not-quite-fallen angels became fairy folk (The Vanishing People: Fairy Lore and Legends by Katherine Briggs [Pantheon 1978], see pp.30,32,81,162,167-168,180,187).

p.261, l.5: "the satyr which Jerome tells us conversed with Antony": In Jerome's "Life of St Paul the Hermit", he recounts how St Antony encountered a satyr while journeying to visit St Paul. This "dwarfish figure...its nostrils joined together, and its forehead bristling with horns: the lower part of its body (ending) in goat's feet" wants nothing more than for Antony to intercede for him and his tribe with God. Jerome adds "And this, lest any hesitation should stir in the incredulous, is maintained by universal witness during the reign of Constantius". For an English translation, see The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell (Constable 1936), p.33.

p.261, l.9: "country lanes by night": The two Fellows of King's in MRJ's draft story, mentioned in "Stories I Have Tried to Write" and published as "The Fenstanton Witch" in Ghosts & Scholars 12 (1990), also encountered supernatural beings on a country road. This is our first inkling that, like those two gentlemen, Abell had been involved in magic practices which had opened his eyes to things unseen by most people.

p.261, l.11-12: "Millions of spiritual creatures...when we sleep": Milton's Paradise Lost, Book IV, line 677.

p.261, l.18-19: "the Royal Society would be glad to know of it": The premier scientific society, founded in the 1660s, was by the early 1700s much concerned with classification of species; hence the Reverend's quip about the Society's interest in satyrs.

p.261, l.29-33: "You were never there?...witches' Sabbath": Abell was clearly not a lone dabbler, but a member of some sort of coven. This distinguishes him from MRJ's other black magicians.

p.261, l.39: "bolus": A pill.

p.262, l.2: "tongue...nailed to the pillory": The pillory was a wooden device in public places where offenders would be restrained at the neck and arms. It was common for blasphemers to have their tongues nailed to the crosspiece.

p.262, l.14-21: "...the power of communicating motion and energy to inanimate objects... great clatter": A power which Abell himself would appear to have, judging from his movement of the poker. This may also go some way to explaining the mystery of the bedstaff in the dispensing-room (p.260).

p.262, l.23-24: "a heavier payment than any Christian would care to make": The loss of one's soul.

p.264, l.3-9: "Dr Abell came into my master's house...bed-chamber": Lance Arney (see above) assumes that Abell put some sort of magic spell on Quinn's bedclothes. This may be the case, but the fact that Abell visited the dispensing-room before the bed-chamber suggests that he could have reinforced the spell in a chemical manner, so that Quinn would experience sufficient discomfort to necessitate the purchase of new bedding.

p.264, l.27: "tickleminded": mercurial.

p.265, l.27: "The verdict was 'Death by the visitation of God'.": The reader is perhaps intended to recall that the same verdict was given on the death of Mr Wraxall in "Count Magnus".

p.265, l.31-36: "the rifling of a mausoleum... receiver of stolen goods...": How Abell engineered matters so that Quinn would buy the bedding from this particular dealer is one of the unexplained mysteries and frustrations of the story.

Copyright (c) 1993 Rosemary Pardoe.

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