"The Ash-Tree" by M.R. James
I read this story in the anthology "The Dark Descent" edited by David G. Hartwell. A full text can be read of this story for free here: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ghost_Stories_of_an_Antiquary/The_Ash-tree
This is classic horror. I haven't read a lot of the classic stuff, but am working my way through some it slowly. This anthology is actually a great primer for someone like me.
The story is written in the classic style where certain words are spelled differently and sometime have different meaning than they do today. It took me a page or so to fully get into this story because the writing was just so different in contrast to today's style of writing.
Once I got into the story though it was great to see some of the classic horror at work.
A man, Matthew Fell, was a constable for the small town he living in. He lived on a homestead called Castringham. This was during the time of the witch trials. Many people were being tried, and hanged, for being a witch. Most didn't deserve the label of witch, but none of them deserved to be hanged.
Sir Matthew Fell one night saw a woman, Mrs. Mothersole, in an ash tree right next to his home, cutting limbs away from branches while muttering to herself during a full moon. He then witnessed this a couple more nights consecutively. He tried to follow her home one night, but she wouldn't answer the door for several minutes of pounding the door. He assumed she was a witch.
Sir Matthew Fell decided to try her as a witch in front of the town. The town very much liked Mrs. Mothersole and tried to testify on her behalf. In the end though, the constable had his way and Mrs. Mothersole, the now witch, was hanged.
Just before Mrs. Mothersole was hanged she started to repeat the words "There will be guests at the Hall." No one know what that meant, but that's all she said before she died.
That night Mr. Chrome, the Vicar, went for a visit to see Sir Matthew Fell. After a brief conversation they took a walk outside. That is when Sir Matthew Fell made mention of something crawling up the ash tree next to his bedroom window. What could that be at this time of night? Shouldn't the squirrels already be asleep by this time of night?
That was the last night that the Vicar talked to Sir Matthew Fell. For the next morning he was found dead in his bed. The window in his bedroom was open, but no signs of violence showed. His body was black and dead. Some thought maybe poison.
Sir Matthew Fell's son, SIr Richard, took over the home and the duties that his father had performed. Of special note, he never slept in his father's bedroom the entire time he had lived there. Until one night. He couldn't fall asleep in his current room, and couldn't get a good nights sleep. He decided to look for another room in the house that would suit his fancy. His father's bedroom fit the bill.
A couple of days later, wouldn't you know, Sir Richard was found dead in his bed. Same black body, with no signs of struggle or violence. This greatly disturbed the town.
They came to the conclusion that the answer must lie in the ash tree. So they decided to get a group of men together and inspect the ash tree for whatever they could find. When one of the men discovered what was inside the tree he fainted and fell right off the ladder dropping his latern inside the tree.
What could have been so terrible to make a grown man scare so bad that he fainted? What else did they find, anything?
I really like the classic horror. This story does a great job of foreshadowing what is to come. If you pay attention throughout the story you will have a good idea of what is to come. The author didn't foreshadow so much that you could tell what was going to happen in the end though. Even with his foretelling of future events through hints dropped you are still taken by surprise.
I like the form of a narrator telling the story as well. I mean why not, the two individuals from the story turned out to be dead. How else would we get to hear the story. But the narrator added just enough of the conversational style to make the story read fast, and yet added just enough subtlety to the story that it made a creepiness come to life.