Thursday, April 3, 2014

Casting the Runes

M. R. James
Montague Rhodes James, i.e., M. R. James, wrote this classic short story in 1911.

James was an English writer who is known for his ghost stories. His stories are classics because his writing style quickly draws the reader in.

But by far my favorite story by him is Casting the Runes. This story is not a ghost story but it has many supernatural elements--including witchcraft and the casting of magic spells.

Casting the Ruins is about an evil man, Mr. Karswell who has submitted a paper about witchcraft for consideration to a scientific society. This society then gives it to a member, Mr. Dunning to read. Mr. Dunning recommends the society reject this paper.

Dunning then discovers that several years before a critic by the name of John Harrington had laughed at a book Karswell had written entitled, The History of Witchcraft. Afterward, Harrington turned up dead under bizarre circumstances.

He learns that others who had rejected Karswell’s work also died mysteriously. Dunning becomes nervous realizing he has rejected Karswell’s work as well.

Karswell tracks Dunning down and hands him an odd strip of paper. After this, weird things start occurring. Dunning begins to see the name, "John Harrington" in places it should not be, and then his household staff is poisoned mysteriously.  

Late one night his house is broken into, but he finds no one. When he locks himself in his room he feels something strange under his pillow--he describes it as being a mouth with teeth.

His friends seeing how disturbed and pale Dunning has become connect him with Harrington’s brother, Henry. This man shares the details surrounding his sibling’s death.

“…he was found dead with the most dreadful face of fear that could be imagined.”

Harrington had been chased by something so terrible he had uncharacteristically climbed a tree. He had then fallen when a large limb snapped. He broke his neck and died.

Apparently, Karswell out for revenge had “cast the runes” * on Harrington who found himself defenseless against this spell.

It dawns on Dunning that he is experiencing similar things to what Harrington experienced.

Dunning discovers that Karswell also handed Harrington a mysterious strip of paper with odd writing on it.

So Henry and Dunning conclude that he must be under the same kind of magic spell that Karswell cast on Harrington.

The two men become determined to thwart Karswell. The key that helps save Dunning’s life lies with the strip of paper.

In the end, Karswell gets what he deserves.

M. R. James succeeds in making his main character Dunning sympatric and real to the reader--especially when he has him feel remorse about Karswell’s fate.

* Runes are a set of stones/cards with the Germanic alphabet itched or written on them. Like Tarot cards they are used for divination or enhancement of psychic awareness.


Here is a link to the text of Casting the Runes.

Here is an audio recording of the story on YouTube.

In 1957, a British Film called initially, Night of the Demon, retitled Curse of the Demon was released. This film is based upon James’ Casting the Runes.

The director, Jacques Tourneur, and the screenwriter, Charles Bennett plus the film's star Dana Andrews during the production clashed with the film’s producer, Hal E. Chester. Chester wanted to insert the real image of a demon or monster into the film. Unfortunately, he won out.

The result is two scenes with an outdated chintzy effect but despite this, the movie is classic film noir and entertaining.

Bennett's screenplay changed several elements of James’ original story, but it is still a great horror film. It is available to watch on Amazon’s Instant Video.

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