A Warning to the Curious
“Let us then be introduced to the actors in a placid way: let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings, and into this calm environment, let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.” M.R. James
By 1920, at the tail-end of M.R. James career, his structure, on first glances, seems roughly the same: introduction
to the characters and setting, introduction to the MacGuffin, then the ghastly thing rears up its head and we have a suitable nasty conclusion that draws from elements in the tale. So reads Lost Hearts and the same is true for A Warning to the Curious. And yet, look at that very title. A Warning to the Curious. There we have a window into the reality of the era. Whilst Lost Hearts is proper Victorian Gothic mixed with Dickensian ghostly joy, this is all together 20th Century existential mourning.
“It is not very different now from what I remember it to have been when I was a child. Marshes intersected by dykes to the south, recalling the early chapters of Great Expectations.”
From the first lines of Warning, it becomes clear that this is a changed outlook. The narrator looks back, to fonder remembered days. Whereas Lost Hearts is set in the reader's past, but looks forward, Warning is set in the near present and yet looks back to the past. Now a case could be made for the post-war period being a boom
time in nostalgia, and certainly for James, who had lost many dear friends in the twenty years of the century to this point, but it still marks a pointed break from his earlier style.
“How well I remember their sound. They rang with a flat clacking sort of sound on those hot days, but when the air was softer they were mellower too... but why do I encumber you with these commonplace details? I should like to be sure that I had allowed the right ones to get on to the paper. But I forgot. I have not quite done with the word-painting business yet.”