Story Notes:
"The Residence at Whitminster"

(from Ghosts & Scholars 13.)
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 "The Residence at Whitminster" were compiled with the help of David Rowlands, John Alfred Taylor, and Ron Weighell. I intend to add all the Story Notes to the G&S Archive in due course.

"The Residence at Whitminster" first appeared in the third collection of M.R. James's ghost tales, A Thin Ghost (Arnold 1919), and was written for that volume. Nothing is known of the manuscript.

Title: The permanent staff of a cathedral or collegiate church who live in houses in the cathedral close (or "quadrangle" at Whitminster) are officially 'in residence'. MRJ may also have intended a sinister pun.

p.208, l.14: "raths": the Irish word for prehistoric hill forts, often associated there with magic and Celtic legend.

p.209, l.17: "Aesculapius", the Greek god of medicine and son of Apollo, would customarily have a cock sacrificed to him as thanks for recovery from illness. Lord Saul's sacrifice was clearly to a more sinister being (see below, p.218).

p.209, l.22-35: Crystal-gazing or 'scrying' to see the future is common to most cultures and civilisations. The specific techniques used by Lord Saul, however, seem to belong to a Hebrew tradition, in which a male child holds the crystal and is the medium through which a magician can question certain dwellers in the spiritual realm. The similar practice in the Leyden Papyrus, which shows slight influences of Alexandrian Judaism, but much stronger elements of older Egyptian magic, suggests the technique was developed by Hebrew magicians after contact with an Egyptian tradition.

p.209, l.33: "tragedy of Radamistus": Handel's opera of 1720, Rhadamistus, King of Armenia, which adapted Lalli's L'Amor Tyrannico. The English version of this by N.F. Haym and the Italian libretto were published in London in 1720, with a dedicatory epistle by Handel.

p.213, l.9: "Dr Henry Oldys" probably gets his surname from William Oldys who, with Samuel Johnson, edited The Harleian Miscellany, published in 1744-46.

p.213, l.34: "The Talisman", by Sir Walter Scott, was published in 1825, so it would have been a new book at the time of these events.

p.214, l.18: "Anna Seward" (1747-1809), the "Swan of Lichfield", was a poet and letter-writer, whose works included Louisa (1782).

p.216, l.6: "more like dogs than anything else": It may seem odd that an invocation of Beelzebub (see below, p.218) should result in Saul being pursued by dog-like beings, but in the hierarchy of Hell such personages as Beelzebub commanded hosts of lesser demons in various forms. Traditionally demons whose function was to chasten or avenge were actually referred to as "dogs". Thus the Eumenides were called "Dogs" and Harpies "The Dogs of Great Zeus". In British legend the Gabriel Hounds, Dandy Dogs or Yeth Hounds, part of the Wild Hunt, were supposed to pursue lost souls.

MRJ may also have had in mind that classic source work for occultists, The Chaldean Oracles, wherein is found reference to "Dog-faced demons" (there seems to be a link here with Thoth, the dog-faced ape who assisted the judging of souls in Egypt).

p.216, l.19-20: "black draught": a purgative composed of an infusion of senna with the addition of Epsom salts, liquorice, cardamom and ammonia!

p.218, 1.37 to p.219, l.5: Beelzebub, prince of devils and prominent in the hierarchy of Hell, was Lord of the Flies. When summoned he would appear as a huge fly. An early influence on MRJ was Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal, which he first saw in 1879 and called "an appalling book" (Michael Cox, M.R. James: An Informal Portrait, 1983, p.38). This contains an illustration depicting the demon as a gigantic fly.

p.219, l.31-32: "press": a cupboard or shelved closet.

p.220, l.6: "Miss Bates" is a garrulous old character in Jane Austen's Emma (1816).

p.223, l.17-18: "ugly thin ghost": the quote which provides the overall title for the book in which "The Residence at Whitminster" appeared.

p.223, l.24-25: 1 Samuel, Chapter 28, verses 7-20, tell of King Saul's consultation with the ghost of Samuel, through the medium of the Witch of Endor.

Copyright (c) 1991 Rosemary Pardoe.

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