Feb 20

The eerie sounds in Lost Hearts by M.R. James

1 comment

Edited: Feb 20


The discussion of the tale Lost Hearts by M.R. James raised the question what the nightly sounds and chants in the woods and around the house actually were. Were they gypsies, ghosts (the children or general), sect members or maybe birds? When I focused on the sounds as of birds, I thought of this fragment from the essay by Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie:

‘The notion of an “eerie cry” is an example of the first mode of the eerie (the failure of absence) [the other being the failure of presence, like mysterious ruins of unknown civilizations]. A bird’s cry is eerie if there is a feeling that there is something more in (or behind) the cry than a mere animal reflex or biological mechanism – that there is some kind of intent at work, a form of intent that we do not usually associate with a bird.’ (The Weird an the Eerie, Mark Fisher, p. 61/62)


It raises the idea that the (bird?)sounds are intently and belong to an agency. With this in mind, look at the following fragment from Lovecraft:

‘Then too, the natives are mortally afraid of the numerous whippoorwills which grow vocal on warm nights. It is vowed that the birds are psychopomps lying in wait for the souls of the dying, and that they time their eerie cries in unison with the sufferer’s struggling breath. If they can catch the fleeing soul when it leaves the body, they instantly flutter away chittering in daemonic laughter; but if they fail, they subside gradually into a disappointed silence.’ (The Dunwich Horror, H.P. Lovecraft, at the second half of chapter 1.)


It's important to note that Lovecraft took this notion from existing New England folklore (see e.g. The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Leslie S. Klinger (ed.)). So, although the fragment is less old than James’s tale, James maybe knew the same or comparable folk tales.

Here’s the first fragment in Lost Hearts about the sounds:

‘Still as the night was, the mysterious population of the distant moonlit woods was not yet lulled to rest. From time to time strange cries as of lost and despairing wanderers sounded from across the mere. They might be the notes of owls or water-birds, yet they did not quite resemble either sound. (…) Then they ceased; but (…) he caught sight of two figures standing on the graveled terrace…’


The sounds seem to belong to, not merely birds, but ‘lost and despairing wanderers’. And, like Lovecraft’s whippoorwills, they suddenly cease to cry (apparently after fulfilling some task). They also are or are related to the ghost children. The housekeeper tells about the ‘chanting’ of the – what she thinks of as – gypsies:

‘but it’s my belief she was had away by them gipsies, for there was singing round the house for as much as an hour the night she went, and Parkes, he declare as he heard them a-calling in the woods all that afternoon.’


But do the sounds belong to chanting gypsies? Parkes talks about ‘a-calling in the woods’. Could it be that they are the same sounds as the ghostlike bird sounds? (Note also the ghostly sounds of the pacific loon, frequently used in atmospheric horror movies.)


With all this in mind, I think the sounds in Lost Hearts:

· are ‘eerie’: the reader (and the characters) doesn’t really know to who or what it belongs, but there seem to be some intent or agency, which creates this typical ghost story atmosphere;

· belong to birds/nature and ghosts/the supernatural: nature here functions as a ‘psychopomp’ of the ghost children; nature harbors the supernatural powers which agents, like ghosts (or more correctly ‘phantoms’) use to come into contact with the ‘human world’.

· are experienced by the characters of the tale as ‘chanting’ as well as ‘birdlike’ because of this mingling of two worlds.

This is wonderful. The whippoorwills from The Dunwich Horror are one of my favorite background elements in the whole genre. I think you are right that "eerie" is the effect James is going for and that they do act like psychopomps, very much like the whippoorwills.

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