Short Story #31: The Ash Tree by M.R. James

Title: The Ash Tree

Author: M.R. James

Short Story #31 out of 365

Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars)

Date Read: 1/24/2014
SourceAlfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night edited by Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Arthur.  The short story can also be found here for free on this site.  You can also listen to an old time radio production at this site.
Book cover:  Alfred Hitchcock Presents Stories for Late at Night edited by Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Arthur


The narrator introduces us to his predeliction for old buildings in England's countryside.  He focuses on one building in Castringham Hall in Suffolk, England.  He proceeds to tell us of its curious history that started in 1690 when the owner and mayor of the town accused a local woman of being a witch.  She was hung and burried.  Later on, the mayor, Sir Matthew Fell dies a horrid death where his servants find him in his room dead and blackened with the window open.  No one is quite sure what happens but many suspect poison.  His son takes over the estate and continues his life with no incident.  His son, Sir Richard inherits the house at that point and after some time, moves into the bedroom that Sir Matthew had died it (it had been essentially closed since his death).  He begins to hear things at night and decides to cut down the ash tree right outside his bedroom window--the same ash tree that his grandfather had reservations about.  However, the night before the tree-cutting is supposed to occur, he is murdered in a similar fashion to his grandfather.  Villagers come to the house and set to cutting down the tree.  When they begin to cut into it, they hear a pitched scream which raises their concern.  Eventually, one man climbs up the tree to look down a hollow in the tree and is so shocked, he falls off his ladder and drops his lantern setting the area afire.  The tree catches fire but not before people realize the little creatures inside (people had seen them from afar but were never quite sure what they were) were giant spiders.  They also discover these spiders had fed off the body of the woman who was accused of being a witch earlier in the story.  


Overall, it was a well written story.  M.R. James is good with horror and I've read 1-2 other stories by him.  I feel like the spiders--though well set up overall--felt a bit weak and insubstantial.  I also would have preferred the narrator to have some more central role to the story.  The actual characters the story focuses on don't really come to life in any real capacity.  
For a full listing of all the short stories in this series, check out the category 365 Short Stories a year.

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