I found this antiquarian ghost story at the Ghosts & Scholars website; it just barely qualifies as a winter tale by virtue of a passing line: Here he paused and took off his hat; the day was warm for December. That’s good enough for me. This is a fun one.
The story concerns bachelor schoolmaster Mr. Jones, who takes a Saturday excursion to visit a newly discovered twelfth-century fresco at the Godstanely village church (which you reach via a path over Terrible Down. How perfect). The church is near the ancient, possibly Stone Age road known as Pilgrims’ Way, and appears to have been built over an old burial mound. Oh, and the fresco….
“Ah!” said Mr Jones, “I understand that the fresco represents a crude but vigorous conception of Hell.”
“Well, it aren’t what I calls right, sir – that picter.”
“Not right? In the old times when the fresco was painted the clergy used to think such representations very good for you. People couldn’t read or write, you know. No education in those days as there is now! They tried to frighten people into goodness by showing them what would happen to sinners hereafter.”
“May be, but it aren’t to my way of thinkin’, sir, beggin’ pardon for the liberty of contradictin’, and it weren’t to the way of thinkin’ of them as put plaster over the thing. Best have left the devils under the whitewash.”
What could possibly go wrong?
“Face in the Fresco” was first published in the June 1928 issue of London Mercury, which between the world wars was apparently a treasure trove of classic ghost stories and classic ghost story authors, including M.R. James himself. I couldn’t find anything on the web about the story’s author, Arnold Smith; with a name as common as that, it gets difficult. The author does seem to be familiar with Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, so perhaps he was a mathematician, though I know that doesn’t narrow things down much.
Rosemary Pardoe calls “The Face in the Fresco” one of “the most Jamesian, but least known” of the Mercury‘s stories. Since then, as far as I know, it’s been collected twice: in The Second Mercury Story Book (1931, reprinted 1972), and in Ghosts & Scholars: The Book (1987, paperback 1989).
I’d be happy to see either of those go back into print. Just sayin’.
At any rate, you can read “Face in the Fresco” at the Ghosts & Scholars website.
If you like M.R. James, you should enjoy this tale. Do check it out.
A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.
Image: Detail from Consert (1904), Mikalojus Ciurlionis. Source: WikiArt