Photo: Nina Zumel
Winter solstice arrives here in San Francisco tonight at 9:30 pm, local time (you can find what time it will be/was for you, here). In honor of the event, I’ve tried to find a folktale about the solstice from my collection that I could share with you. I couldn’t come up with an actual folkale — I’m sure I’m just not looking hard enough — but I did find M. R. James’s “An Evening’s Entertainment,” originally collected in A Warning to the Curious (1925).
‘When the sun’s gathering his strength,’ he said, ‘and when he’s in the height of it, and when he’s beginning to lose his hold, and when he’s in his weakness, them that haunts about that lane had best to sake heed to themselves.’
The quote refers, of course, to the equinoxes and the solstices. The story tells of two men who spend mysterious nights out near an “old figure cut out in the hill-side” — and come to a very bad end.
The old figure on the hill-side may have been inspired by the Cerne Abbas Giant, in Dorset, England. Dr. James had been working on a book about abbeys about the time he wrote “Evening’s Entertaiment”, and Cerne Abbey was one of the places that he discussed. The horror symbology in the story refers mostly to Beelzebub (“Lord of the Flies”); but the descriptions of Mr. Davis and his companion suggest that they were involved in some derivation (or maybe perversion is a better word) of Celtic sun-god worship.
It’s really more of a sketch than a full-on story, but it does illustrate nicely how Dr. James could weave his scholarly background and folkloric interests into his ghost stories. Also, he seems to have a nice appreciation for traditional oral storytelling.
Here is the full text of “An Evening’s Entertainment.” The text got a bit scrambled in places, but the story is readable.
Here are some notes and annotations for the story, courtesy of Rosemary Pardoe at Ghosts & Scholars.
And finally, more commentary on the story, also courtesy of Ghosts & Scholars. Search the page for “The Old Man on the Hill”, and “Just How Wicked was that Wicked Young Man?”. Half the fun of reading M. R. James is to find all the writers who analyze his stories for their folkloric and historical context. It’s better than detective fiction.